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Cubs a Triple-A team? Carlos Zambrano isn’t far off

Chicago Cubs player Ryan Dempster  left general manager Jim Hendry center chairman Crane Kenney listen new team owner Tom

Chicago Cubs player Ryan Dempster, left, general manager Jim Hendry, center, and chairman Crane Kenney listen to new team owner Tom Ricketts during a news conference at Wrigley Field on Friday, Oct. 30, 2009, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching)

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:27AM

Carlos Zambrano couldn’t have been more wrong. The Cubs aren’t playing like a Triple-A team.

They are a Triple-A team.

“We stinks,’’ as Zambrano so perfectly and imperfectly put it Sunday.

He’s getting ripped for being selfish and disruptive, but most of what he said after his team lost for the second consecutive game on an Albert Pujols walk-off home run was accurate.

Critics are jumping on an easy target — Big Z is still Cra-Z! — but the bigger problem is systemic. It’s not that Zambrano tends to erupt whenever something bad happens during one of his starts. It’s that this remains a minor-league operation more interested in finding additional revenue streams than in building a winner.

The ultimate proof of that is the presence and influence of team president Crane Kenney, a corporate lawyer, when what this organization needs most is a baseball czar to help build a winner. Winning is supposed to be the whole idea, isn’t it?

Which comes first?

What the Cubs can’t seem to grasp is that the baseball has to come first and that everything else flows from it, not the other way around. Good baseball equals more people in the seats equals more money in the Rickettses’ pockets.

You almost can’t blame the ­franchise for having the opposite opinion. For most of the last 25 years, the reverse has worked: Give the suckers anything but good baseball — beer, sunshine, a few threadbare memories — and the profits will roll in. If the team does happen to win, it’s a bonus.

Give them the Cubs Convention. Find a celebrity or a close approximation of one to sing the seventh-inning stretch. Pluck those heartstrings. Billy. Ryno. Ronnie and Pat. 1969 — such sweet sorrow!

But in the last several years, Cubs fans have become actual discerning customers. They’re not so quick to give their hearts and dollars to an organization that won’t commit to them with a quality product. The proof is in the thousands of empty seats at Wrigley Field most games.

The problem is not just the Rickettses’ naiveté. The problem predates their purchase of the Cubs.

There was nobody to tell general manager Jim Hendry that Alfonso Soriano was a bad idea. There was no one to tell then-president John McDonough, a marketing man, that overspending on Soriano was a very bad idea.

There was nobody to offer a roll of the eyes at the idea of Milton Bradley polluting a Cubs uniform.

And now? There’s still nobody to stop Hendry whenever he gets in the kind of mood that made him sign Kosuke Fukudome for $48 million.

When chairman Tom Ricketts arrived in 2009, he wanted to take things slowly while he learned how a baseball team is run. It sounded prudent in theory. He wouldn’t make any snap decisions on the front office. But what he mistook for rashness was, in fact, common sense. The longer he went without a baseball guru and the longer he allowed Kenney to hang around, the further the Cubs were from concentrating on baseball.

What Ricketts should’ve done was bring in someone like Sandy Alderson, a veteran front-office executive who became the Mets’ general manager after last season.

Hendry needed a guiding hand the way a horse needs a rein. There are Cubs fans who will substitute “glue factory” for “rein.’’

If the Cubs’ debt problems are going to preclude them from spending on free agents in the next few years, as Sun-Times writer Gordon Wittenmyer pointed out the other day, then a baseball man becomes even more important.

Instead, Ricketts has relied on Kenney. Kenney, you’ll recall, was the guy who brought in the Greek Orthodox priest to sprinkle holy water in the Cubs’ dugout before a playoff game in 2008. You know, to drive out the evil spirits that have haunted the franchise since their last championship in 1908.

Enough said about Crane Kenney.

The goal is a World Series, not stadium renovations or a parking garage or more retail stores. The Cubs have taken their eye off the ball. It’s about winning. They can put all the signage they want inside Wrigley, can make it look as kitschy as Branson, Mo., as long as it brings in a winner. But the winning part has to be the focus.

They got it right in Boston

The Red Sox had enough baseball acumen to build a championship team while working out plans to renovate Fenway Park. The Cubs can’t seem to multitask.

Injuries are not the Cubs’ problem, as Ricketts said last week. A minor-league call-up did not blow the save Sunday. That was closer Carlos Marmol.

Tony Campana, DJ LeMahieu and the other unknown soldiers populating the Cubs’ roster are not the reason the team has been awful defensively this season.

They are not the reason the Cubs’ starting pitching has been a disappointment.

The Triple-A Chicago Cubs have lost their way. When his family bought the team, Tom Ricketts thought he had a cash cow on his hands, win or lose. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

It turns out the cow has standards.

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