As the baseball season began, Chicago buzzed about plans to upgrade wilting Wrigley Field. Then word spread that the patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs considered bankrolling a $10 million racially tinged campaign against President Barack Obama, at the same time the team sought his hometown’s help with its $300 million renovation.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s friend and former chief of staff, has since refused to negotiate financing or even take phone calls from the Cubs chairman. A best-selling author took to the Internet to vow never to step foot in Wrigley again.
Now fans are left wondering if the complicated financial deals and presidential politics mean the team’s owners will have to put more money into the stadium, and less into building a winning ballclub.
”He’s got $10 million to spend on that nonsense. He should spend $10 million on pitching,” longtime fan Pam Paxton said of Joe Ricketts, head of the Cubs-owning Ricketts family, as she waited for Wrigley’s bleachers so she could watch the last-place team.
Ricketts, a conservative benefactor and founder of TD Ameritrade, swiftly squelched the proposal for an ad campaign revisiting racially provocative sermons delivered by Obama’s former pastor. Ricketts’ children joined him in repudiating its message.
But now the family that three years ago bought the team with the famously loyal fans is learning something about Chicago-style hardball.
”The Ricketts have tried to contact the Mayor but he’s said that he does not want to talk with them today, tomorrow or anytime soon,” read a statement sent to The Associated Press from the Emanuel’s office, which described the mayor as ”livid.”
Unable to talk to Emanuel, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts — who three years ago won over fans with the story of meeting his wife in Wrigley’s bleachers — has been calling black city aldermen’s offices and appearing on a black-oriented radio programs.
He’s pleaded for understanding and argued the team should not be blamed for the controversy, saying the attack campaign is ”not something that was ever considered by anyone in the Ricketts family,” including his father.
One of the aldermen, Howard Brookins, said it would be folly not to expect ”blowback” from Obama’s Democratic hometown.
”Especially with someone with the reputation of Rahm Emanuel, who punishes people who are his political enemies, I don’t know how you think you can get away with that,” Brookins said.
The political drama has meant limbo for a baseball team suffering through one of its worst seasons in its bleak history. Any hope the team had of starting construction as soon as the season ends likely has vanished.
The Cubs had asked the City Council for permission to put $150 million in city amusement taxes into the renovation, while asking state lawmakers to also issue $150 million in bonds. The team also asked the city to relax Wrigley’s landmark status, which could bring in $150 million more from advertising, sponsorship and perhaps a Jumbotron.
It was a long shot that the Legislature would approve public funds with the state embroiled in one of the nation’s worst budget crises. But with Emanuel’s support it was at least possible. If talks resume now, the team must wait until the fall session — after the November election — to even broach the subject. And the Ricketts’ negotiating stance is severely weakened.
The team says that means at least another year of spending $10 million to $15 million to keep up with repairs on the creaky 98-year-old ballpark.
”The rising maintenance costs associated with keeping a 100-year-old ballpark functioning diverts millions of dollars in resources that could be invested in player personnel,” said Ricketts’ spokesman Dennis Culloton.
Fans like Paxton know that means more misery.
”You watch, Anthony Rizzo (the Cubs latest young star) is going to be long gone if they don’t win,” she warned.
Indeed, Cubs loyalists initially enamored with family ownership have started openly referring to the team as a ”toy” Joe Ricketts bought his family. Mystery writer Sara Paretsky, a well-established Cubs fan, summed up some of the sentiment in a scathing article on the ChicagoSide sports website.
”You don’t get one more thin dime from me, Joe Ricketts,” she wrote.
Even before the Ricketts flap, some had their doubts about renovating Wrigley — just the latest reminder of the sometimes uneasy relationship between the baseball team and the city to which it’s brought millions of entertainment dollars.
Residents grumbled when Wrigley installed lights in 1988, the last team in the majors to do so, arguing night games turned a quiet neighborhood into a drunken street party and front yards into restrooms. Those who own the rooftop bleachers that surround the field bellowed when the team moved to cut off their views.
Now they’re concerned the Cubs’ quest for a more profitable ballpark ultimately will hurt the neighborhood, viewing renovations such as the Jumbotron as another attempt to block of outside views of the field. So they’re pleased with the latest delay.
”It bought us some time,” said Beth Murphy, owner both of rooftop bleachers and Murphy’s Bleachers, a popular tavern just beyond Wrigley’s centerfield wall. ”One of my neighbors … put it this way: There’s a tipping point where the neighborhood changes and it’s not the same neighborhood as it is now.”