Controversial Cubs exec Crane Kenney isn’t going anywhere soon
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter May 31, 2014 11:30PM
Crane Kenney has been a central figure in Wrigley Field renovation plans that have encountered delays, thus affecting how much the Cubs can spend on players. | Al Podgorski /Sun-Times
Updated: July 2, 2014 3:06PM
MILWAUKEE — That Cubs business president Crane Kenney got a contract extension through 2019 isn’t so much news as it is another reminder of the upside-down priorities of an organization that has made baseball look like an afterthought since hiring Theo Epstein to run that side of the operation in the fall of 2011.
Kenney is the most polarizing figure in the organization whose fingerprints are on every delay, gaffe, back-step and public-relations flub in the Wrigley renovation process — down to the irony that the leader in the fight against the rooftop owners’ contractual rights happens to be the one who negotiated the 20-year rooftop contract for the Cubs in the first place.
Kenney boasted about his five-year extension Saturday as a defense against critics during a radio interview that was part of a three-day media blitz over Chicago airwaves in response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s pushback against some of the latest ballpark proposals.
Sources said the five-year deal was done close to six months ago, as the Cubs faced another offseason without construction on long-planned ballpark renovations because of continued delays on Kenney’s watch.
According to one source, Epstein’s baseball department learned of the contract extension from the media over the winter, offering another example of the disconnect between business and baseball that has grown with every delay to a business plan that hasn’t kept up with the baseball side the last two years.
Epstein has stopped short of calling out the business side but has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the business plan “syncing up” with the baseball plan for the Cubs to achieve the promised turnaround of the team. During a conversation with the Sun-Times this spring, Epstein said the “sustained success” the Cubs talk about can’t be achieved through player development alone — specifically, that productive, veteran players must be in place before the prospects start getting to the majors.
That means being able to spend more than the $75 million on its big-league roster that the Cubs are spending in 2014. Some of that figure is a reflection of the $15 million or so that Epstein has taken from his 2014 budget to apply to future seasons as he compensates for budget cuts and delays in new revenues.
Even players in the clubhouse talk about the broken promises of new facilities and the waiting game for this business/baseball plan as they struggle with the worst record in the majors on the way to what looks like a fifth consecutive losing season.
As recently as Friday, cornerstone first baseman Anthony Rizzo — one of two players signed past 2016 — said players are getting “sick of hearing [ballpark work] is going to be done” only to have it followed by another delay.
“It’s been about everything but baseball around here for a while,” another player said.
The length of Kenney’s extension roughly coincides with the expiration of both the CSN portion of Cubs’ local TV rights and the financing restrictions placed on Ricketts ownership by Tribune Co. in the 2009 leveraged-partnership sale of the team.
It’s a clear commitment by chairman Tom Ricketts and his family to sink or swim with a business president who at least has been an industry and public lightning rod, and at worst a divisive influence in some of the club’s Chicago and Arizona business dealings.
It also appears to be a tacit admission of how long the Cubs expect their business plan to take before fully realizing the added revenues promised to a baseball department that has seen four years of cuts.
Even if the ballpark renovations get done when said this time around, Ricketts estimates annual revenue increases of $30 million to $40 million — which is roughly what the Cubs pay for service on their purchase-related debt.
Whether Kenney is fit to lead the Cubs to revenue nirvana seems at least debatable. What’s not is how long he’ll get to keep trying.
By the way, the Cubs snapped a three-game losing streak Saturday and beat the Brewers 8-0.