Players union keeping watchful eye on Cubs’ spending
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter May 24, 2014 7:46PM
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has cut baseball president Theo Epstein’s budget because of debt-service costs and stadium issues. | Rick Scuteri/AP
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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:52AM
SAN DIEGO — As the Cubs continue their business battles against rooftops and debt while watching their pennies on payroll spending, the players union is watching the Cubs.
Sources said the union is concerned about how the Cubs’ business practices are affecting player markets. At least one agent met with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts this year, according to sources, to make the case for investing in the major-league team even as the club overhauls the scouting and player development system.
Whether the most powerful players union in American sports can do anything about the high-revenue team’s years-long trend of spending cuts and roster purges is tricky. It might depend in part on how much longer it lasts and if the union can find grounds for action in Major League Baseball’s debt-ratio rules for clubs.
The only precedent for such action involved forcing Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria into a three-year spending agreement on the grounds he violated the intent of revenue sharing by pocketing the money he received from big-revenue clubs instead of spending it on players.
Ironically, that might be how the Cubs sidestep potential union action: They’re one of the big-revenue teams paying into the system to help small-market teams such as the Kansas City Royals and first-place Milwaukee Brewers spend more on players to compete.
The issue is sensitive enough that Cubs officials declined comment and the MLB Players Association chose to provide a statement rather than be interviewed by the Sun-Times on the subject.
“Speaking generally, as one would expect, we monitor the spending of all Clubs on a regular basis,” MLBPA spokesman Greg Bouris said in an email, “and if we have concerns we raise them with the Commissioner’s Office.
“We also understand the cyclical nature of the industry, but despite the ups and downs franchises face, we strongly believe that the best way to improve one’s bottom line is to invest in Major League talent.”
Team sources said the Cubs haven’t been told of any attempted action from the union.
Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva, the team’s union representative and a member of the union’s executive committee, said he doesn’t know what the union can do or what it might plan, but these are the issues officials constantly discuss.
“It was the same thing when I was in Toronto and the same thing when I was in Milwaukee,” Villanueva said. “Everybody wants to have money, more players, and wants the team to spend and spend. I don’t know where the dollars come from. I don’t know how it’s broken down. But it’s a valid question.
“When we have our meetings, we do discuss those things. That doesn’t necessarily mean we can do anything about it, but we try.”
Under Ricketts family ownership, which took on more than $670 million in debt when it accepted Tribune Company’s terms in a leveraged-partnership purchase in 2009, the club has cut the baseball department’s budget the last four years as it deals with debt-service costs and stadium issues.
It has resulted in the worst four-year record in franchise history, with little indication of change anytime soon.
Commissioner Bud Selig has been a fierce defender of the Cubs and their business practices while making their case in the media against rooftop owners’ objections to outfield signage and video boards.
Last month, Selig went so far as to say he had just looked over the Cubs’ finances and determined they aren’t in violation of MLB’s debt-ratio rules — although they appear to be, according to those rules as outlined in attachments to the Basic Agreement.
And even if they are in violation, MLB and the union dispute whether those rules are subject to collective bargaining, and by extension whether the union has any grounds to use those rules in a potential grievance.
For now, it puts the union in the same position as Cubs fans: waiting to see when this big-market club will start to act like one again.