Sometimes You Just Have to Laugh

The Chicago Cubs are a professional baseball team. In the majors.

The best news for the Cubs on Friday was that Carlos Zambrano got hugged.

The best news for Cubs fans on Friday was that Jim Hendry knows they suck and has for quite some time.

The second best news for Cubs fans (and it was a hard-luck runner up) is that several teams (all of them in the NL West, for some reason) have interest in Ryan Theriot. Being on their team. I know, right?

The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since the year the Baseball Writers Association of America was founded (1908). Think I’m jaded against the beat writers? Now you know why.


The Artist’s Cafe on Michigan Ave. in Chicago has a Crispy Fried Chicken Platter that comes with french fries and onion rings.

The leading candidate in the 2011 managerial search is Gallagher.

This is the absolute worst time to trade Carlos Zambrano.

I like hearing all the trade rumors. It’s like playing “let’s pretend the Cubs have different players,” but without having to watch them actually play.

Before you complain about paying over $250 so your family can watch the Cubs lose in person, consider that the Ricketts family paid $845 million.

I’m no fan of raging alcoholic rowdiness at Wrigley, but isn’t curtailing alcohol sales to Cubs fans like taking away anesthesia during heart surgery?

Andrew Cashner needs to go back to the starting rotation. In Iowa. Right now. No offense.

The Cubs bullpen.

The Ted Lilly as Chuck Norris meme has this going for it: the Cubs are as unwatchable as any movie or television show starring Chuck Norris.

It’s not all that much more fun writing about the Cubs than it is watching them. But I can’t complain. I mean, I can complain about the Cubs, but I won’t complain about writing about them because . . . well, because I’m lying. Complaining about the Cubs is a lot more fun than watching them lose.

If the worst of your problems is being a Cubs fan, you live a charmed existence.

What the Past Year Has Told Us About the Ricketts(es)

Pete, Todd, Laura, and Tom Ricketts discuss plans to launch a Fat Albert cover band.

I’ve heard from a lot of Cubs fans who believe the Jim Hendry not-yet firing (and the fire sale that still lacks the spark The Boss told us was essential for such matters) tells you all you really need to know about the Ricketts family. There isn’t consensus on what that is, but people’s opinions on the matter have galvanized considerably. Here’s the gist of some of the varied views:

The Ricketts are typical fans who plan on catering to their own kind. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re fueled by emotions and dreams and rainbows and latent racism, and deep down they probably have no desire to win as long as everyone enjoys their time at the ballpark.

We knew the Ricketts were fans when their names emerged as candidates to buy the team, but I don’t know what they’ve done that reflects the mob mentality of fans in general. Some say the Ricketts were behind Milton Bradley’s suspension. Others point to the decision to stay in Mesa. In my mind, both of those were no-brainers although the former seemed more like a vitriolic response straight from Hendry while the latter resembled shrewd business and political manipulation, not blind adherence to tradition. And keeping Hendry hardly represents the typical fan sentiment.

I just don’t see how a fan mentality has reared its irrational head in any significant way just yet.

The Ricketts are slimy suits who care only about money. I try to make it clear whether by illustration or direct statement that I know nothing about business (the lack of ads on this site says that quite loudly), but my gut tells me that the net return on the Ricketts family’s investment in the Cubs is somewhere along the lines of -$800 million. People like to point to George Steinbrenner’s windfall from increasing the value of the Yankees franchise 100 fold, but The non-Springsteen Boss bought low on the Bronx Bombers. The Cubs are never going to be a $2 billion franchise, let alone a $100 billion franchise.

Yes, they have implemented a number of revenue gimmicks: the ticket pre-sale, the noodle, and the Who Wants to Be A Middle Reliever? game show. But keeping Hendry and endorsing his “we’re not rebuilding, we’re competing” mentality is not the move of someone who prizes revenue over winning. Hendry doesn’t exactly follow the Andy McPhail Guide to Winning on the Cheap. If the Ricketts just want revenue, their going about it all wrong, and I don’t think they got rich by being that stupid.

The Ricketts don’t know baseball and are too stubborn to listen to reason. The first part may be completely true, but they haven’t done anything to show that; they certainly haven’t done anything to indicate they aren’t open to change. Hiring Ari Kaplan as a stats guy was, I guarantee, not done to appease the lustful longings of Jim Hendry. Maybe Crane Kenney had something to do with it, but who cares? What does Crane Kenney do anyway? Granted, maybe the fact that there’s no impressive answer to that question is part of the problem, but I don’t think that’s the reason the Cubs’ record is what it is. It would be nice if the Cubs had a baseball genius as president of the organization, but Kenney isn’t standing in the way of progress. He’s probably more there for his business acumen than anything, and the Cubs franchise is a rather big business.

The bottom line, though, is that Tom Ricketts really hasn’t made a single baseball move to this point. Lou’s retiring on his own. Kenney and Hendry still have jobs. They play walk-up music now. The only thing Ricketts has really shown is some semblance of patience. I thought that was a virtue.

I don’t think we’ll get an accurate read on Tom Ricketts as owner until 2011. We’ll see, over a year removed from the ownership transition, how much Jim Hendry is allowed to spend and how many prospects he’s allowed to ship out. We’ll see what happens to ticket prices. We’ll see a new manager hired, but not by Tom Ricketts. He said he’ll let the baseball people make the baseball decisions, and I don’t think he would keep Jim Hendry as GM if he didn’t intend to do that. If the owner doesn’t agree with what Hendry wants to do, he has little incentive to continue to employ him.

And if Hendry fails to deliver with a gun* to his head, that’s when Tom Ricketts’ ownership style will truly come to light. When he begins the interview process for new GMs, he’ll run into a few people who tell him the Cubs can’t win until they clean house. He’ll hear from people who believe the GM should have more control over on-field decisions and policies than the manager. He’ll interview a person or two who think day baseball is killing the Cubs, that sabermetrics wed to scouting can end the curse, or that putting Cashner in the bullpen has retarded his career as a starter beyond repair. What he does when he has to make that choice, or if he allows someone as baseball-illiterate as Crane Kenney to make that choice for him, then we’ll know something significant about this family whose name defies pluralization.

But right now we know very little. At least I do, and I stand behind that.

Top Ten Things Tom Ricketts Still Needs to Change at Wrigley Field

By law, this scoreboard must go unaltered forever. That includes general cleaning.

Wrigley Field is a beautiful place, a holy cathedral of baseball’s highest order. But it’s also home to some of the foulest, sludgiest nooks and crannies this side of Jim Hendry’s colon. The Ricketts regime has already begun to make a few changes, replacing concrete slabs with monstrous photo banners and substituting a few troughs with IPPS’s*. But it’s not nearly enough. I’m sure Ozzie Guillen could think of many more, but here are 10 suggestions to get the Cubbies started:

10. Trough-style bidets.

9. Guess the Ambassador’s Age Contest. (Hint: the answer’s 85.)

Can we get a picture of Miles, just for old time’s sake?

8. Clearly marked “Entrance” and “Exit” signs for all restrooms. (Wait, they’re installed already? Then how do you explain the 5-idiot-per-second rate of people trying to get out the wrong way? They must just be friendly.)

7. Replace out-of-town scores with manually updated out-of-touch tweets from disgruntled White Sox fans.

6. Miss an inning in line for the restroom? No problem: piss-trough time machines.

5. Tickets that don’t cost 5 billion dollars.

4. Every 7th-inning stretch, every guest conductor: auto-tune.

3. Twenty-five percent discount on concessions for everyone who agrees to shower before coming to the game. With much thanks.

2. Keep “Go Cubs Go,” as the victory celebration song, but after losses everyone joins hands and sings “Kumbaya.”

1. A new World Series banner. (Seriously, it doesn’t even have to be real. Humor me.)

*individual pee-pee stations

Cubs’ Deal with Toyota Won’t Slow Down

Whoa!!! Cubs wanna advertise! Photo: Crain’s Chicago Business
Not satisfied with one extravagant multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract with brake problems perched in left field, the Cubs have filed an application with the city of Chicago for the rights to slap a Toyota sign in the bleachers of the landmark in which they play baseball. The good news is this deal will make the Cubs money. Probably not Soriano money, but maybe something in the Theriot neighborhood. The bad news is the Cubs need approval from the city of Chicago, which will also probably require half of Carlos Silva’s contract, food allowance, and a third round pick.
The sign, an illuminated, insignia-shaped billboard towering 75 feet above Waveland Avenue, isn’t the slightest bit objectionable to those who don’t own rooftops with Horseshoe Casino painted on them. But it’s also not a video replay board, and the Horseshoe/Budweiser/WGN Radio rooftop looked to be the most promising destination for something of that nature. Actually, the spot the Cubs management picked for the Toyota sign ain’t a bad place for such a thing. 
The question is, should we consider the ongoing lack of a giant replay board  (and the semi-permanent billboard in its most suitable future home) a matter of good news or bad?
I have heard both sides of the argument. The main pros are: 1) all fans really want to see replays when they’re at the game (admit it); 2) a JumboTron could bring in a lot of advertising revenue. How much? Does it matter? I’m sure it’s plenty. 
The cons are: 1) Wrigley is supposed to transcend time and provide an escape from the flashy, sensory overload, “Make Some NOISE!!!” brand of baseball featured at other parks; 2) a video replay board would distract from the existing, manually updated scoreboard; 3) a JumboTron could obscure the view from the rooftops as well as spoil the neighborhood skyline the fans currently enjoy.
The pros and cons have their problems, though. I agree, part of the charm of Wrigley is the time-warp feel of the place. Logic be damned, who knows how much of Wrigley’s timeless value (or, more accurately, the value of Wrigley’s timelessness) would be lost if modernization became pronounced in hi-def over drunken heads of the bleacher bums. Would enough Cub fans feel so jilted as to withhold their cash and offset the financial gain from selling Wrigley’s soul? I don’t know. That’s kind of dramatic, even if you think a JumboTron would murder the Wrigley brand.
Business matters aside, I wonder what it would do the experience at Wrigley. Despite my rage-fueled yearning to see video evidence of just how safe Kosuke Fukudome was on that force play at second, I know it’s good for me to be forced to enjoy the game as it is sans screen. I don’t care if they put a James Cameron 3D IMAX screen in left, there’s nothing like taking in the spectacle of the real thing on one take. Adding a giant video screen tends to draw the eyes of the crowd, any crowd, more than the event itself. Here’s an example.
I used to work at a college with it’s own coffee house. It was more of a coffee section really, but it carried the atmosphere of a coffee house. Indie music. Disaffected college students. Coffee. And you couldn’t help but get ensnared in great conversation while waiting for your non-express espresso. 
One year, the senior class of the college chose as its gift to the school a large-screen plasma TV for the coffee place. They turned the volume down and kept it tuned in to a news channel, but the lively conversation that once owned the place all but died. Worst gift ever.
I hate to tell you this, JT* haters, that ship has sailed. Not only have the Cubs announced plans to add WiFi to the stadium so fans can watch replays and get stats on enabled phones, but . . . well, people have their phones. Everybody’s got a phone. There’s no end to the texting, the looking down, the basking in the glow of the wireless mosaic tethers. The conversation hasn’t died, per se. It’s gone online and relies on the opposable thumbs of the users, but face it: our eyes aren’t on the game. 
There is no time travel. The friendly confines are body surfing on the sore-thumbed hands of the Wrigley faithful helplessly, for better or worse into the 21st century. Blocking the installation of a mega-sponsored video replay board won’t change that. Putting one up probably won’t even accelerate it all that much.
The modernization of Wrigley is like a runaway Toyota—you just can’t stop it.

The Cubs Best Outfielder Is Ivy

I love this commercial. It features a lot of the things I loved most about my first trip to Wrigley. The things I loved back in 1981 when my idea of advanced baseball wisdom was the fact that Ivan DeJesus wasn’t pronounced I-vuhn de-JEE-zus. The scoreboard changed by hand. The brilliant colors. The flags. The ivy. Harry Caray. He was real then, not a statue, and there were no light standards protruding from the Wrigley Field rooftop. But at that time, I had no idea who the players were. Honestly, at my first Cubs game, my familiarity with the game (and our seats) was so poor, I wasn’t even sure where the infield was. It didn’t matter. Just being there was enough to make the experience, the Wrigley Field experience, a religious conversion of sorts.

I hate this commercial. Like the other facets of the Chicago Cubs 2010 marketing campaign, not a single player makes an appearance. It’s all ivy and blue skies and icons. It tells me I should love this team because of something bigger than any one person. It reminds me that the Chicago Cubs are all about feeling good and loving life and having fun. 2009 was a freak storm, an erroneous blip, a flaw in the baseball diamond. 2010 will be good again. It will be pure and Milton Bradley free. Pepin le Bref will be a messenger of joy. And the quality of the baseball being played in these hallowed halls need not factor into the equation.

Don’t manipulate me, Chicago Cubs marketing staff. I’m a fan, and that’s not changing. But don’t try to tell me the baseball itself doesn’t matter. That’s the wrong message to send. Show me Cub homers. Show me Cardinal strikeouts. Show me prospects whose stars are still rising. More importantly, show me an owner willing to pay the price of winning a World Series. I’ve had your back this offseason, Tom Ricketts. I won’t be so kind if you play this whole season on the cheap.

UPDATE: A million bonus points to Jodi for pointing out that the commercial is probably for WGN, not the Cubs specifically. What’s more, the sale leveraged transfer of the team means those two entities are no longer under the same umbrella. My fault. Mea culpa. Mia Farrow. Let’s not forget, baseball makes me stupid.

Will the Cubs Do a Complete 160?

There’s a fine post over at Cubscast in which Lou (the podcast host, not the manager) delves into the Cubs’ payroll numbers. It’s not real encouraging, especially if the Ricketts are at all financially strapped in 2010.

What remains unknown are all of the arbitration-eligible players including Carlos Marmol, Soto, Theriot, Fontenot, Jeff Baker, Gorzelanny, Angel Guzman, Heilman, Koyie Hill, and Sean Marshall. That’s 1/4 of our 40-man roster.

Add in those potential numbers to the running total and if I were Bradley or Zambrano, I’d start packing.

I’m sure they knew it, but the Ricketts family did not inherit a 134 million dollar team payroll. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over $160 million next season, and of course this is without the addition of any outside players.

I’ve said before I think the Ricketts should be just fine since they bargained their way to a better purchase leveraged transfer price on the team. But still, they didn’t get rich by throwing money away. This offseason should be pretty interesting, though I don’t see Zambrano wearing anything but Cubbie blue in the years to come.

Milton, on the other hand, isn’t likely to stay. Most of the rumored trades would hurt the Cubs financially and on the field, although Ken Rosenthal believes many teams have interest and that the Ricketts won’t pay too large a portion of his contract. I just can’t see Hendry, Lou, or the Ricketts wanting to deal with the head-case headaches.

The winter meetings will tell us a lot. Or drive us all crazy, either way.

Shawon-O-Meter: The College Years

People tend to overuse the phrase “you can’t make this stuff up,” generally to describe stuff that sounds made-up but isn’t. There are a lot of creative minds in this world perfectly capable of making up some really strange shtick. This USA Today story about the latest snag in the sale of the Cubs to the Ricketts family . . . I don’t care how creative you think you are, you can’t make this stuff up.

A formal objection to the Tribune Company’s sale of the Cubs has been filed with Delaware’s bankruptcy court. That objection was filed by former Cub shortstop, Shawon Dunston.

The one-paragraph document was handwritten (I’m presuming by Dunston himself). The crux of his objection is that the Cubs owe him money. The money they owe him is for a college scholarship . . . a college scholarship he has yet to use.

Before I go on, you should know that, if I’m being honest (which sometimes I am, but, in all honesty, not habitually) I’ll tell you straight out that Shawon Dunston is my all-time favorite Cub. If I get to pick a uniform number for anything, I pick 12. Not because of Dusty. Not because of Fonzy. Not because of Ricky Gutierrez. I pick 12, because when I was growing up, I tried to emulate Shawon Dunston. I loved his hustle. I loved his flair. I loved the way he’d try to check his swing by just letting go of the bat. As much as it is possible to love a baseball player you’ve never come close to meeting or seeing or communicating with in any way, shape, or form, I love Shawon Dunston.

That said, this is the craziest thing I ever heard. But I support Shawon in this. I don’t care if the Trib owes him the gum from a 20-year-old pack of Topps baseball cards, he has a right to make sure he gets what is coming to him. But this . . . a retired shortstop who hit .750 for his high school team in Brooklyn standing in the way of the sale of a storied baseball franchise and the most revered structure in sports for a deal that’s a 15% off coupon away from a billion bucks, just so he can be assured of free tuition if he so desires . . . that’s some crazy crazy right there.

I’ve seen Shawon Dunston make some amazing plays in the hole at short. I’ve seen him rifle fastballs that might have killed anybody but Mark Grace. I’ve seen him catch knuckleballing windblown pop-ups in old Candlestick Park that no human being before or after him could have tracked down. I’ve heard that Matt Williams could field ground balls with ping-pong paddles on his hands. Legend has it that Ted Lilly can stop a speeding bullet with a stern look. But if Shawon Dunston stops or even delays the sale of the Cubs over potential college money, it will be the greatest defensive gem in the history of sports, law, and butt pain.

Yes, having the Neverending Cubs Sale delayed would be frustrating. But if Shawon can do it, I will love him even more for it. Because right now, laughter is all we have.

I Just Saved $150 Million on My Baseball Team

There’s no shortage of articles about how Sam Zell botched (yes, they all use the word botched) the sale of our beloved Cubs. Most of them focus on Zell and his foolish attempt to sell Wrigley separately like a spare part, the convoluted broadcasting contracts that further slowed the deal, and the $150 million price drop to $845 million from the astronomical billion-dollar milestone the baseball/business world had anticipated.

But who cares about Zell? When the sale finally goes through (and I’m sick and tired of people positing that it is final—it still has to clear the bankruptcy court on 8/31 and the MLB owners, possibly at meetings in November) Sam Zell will be a distant memory, no less forgettable than Chris Stynes.

What I care about is the Ricketts family and the $155 million they saved on this deal.

I know that right now I sound a lot like my wife when she returns from Kohl’s, although the most she’s ever saved on one trip, I believe, is $60 million. But the Ricketts just saved 15% on the Cubs. Just imagine if they had received the 20% or 30% coupon in the mail!

What could the Ricketts do with $155 million? Pay the players for one whole year. Woo hoo! Or they could forgo the savings and double the payroll (minus a couple bucks in luxury tax). Heck, he could send the entire outfield (Soriano, Fukudome, and Milton Bradley) to a deserted island with their 2010 salaries and still have $115 million. Okay, the fact that those three will make $40 million ($18 mill, $13 mill, and $9 mill respectively) is a little depressing.

Look, I know that in this economy, spending $845 million isn’t easy on anybody. But Zell owning this team may have just finally paid off, thanks to the same terrible business sense that led him to buy the Chicago Tribune Company in the first place.

Maybe, just maybe, we can afford to pay for (and move on from) some costly contractual mistakes.

The Cubs on WGN: How much is that worth?

It’s a bizarre little economic triangle the Cubs are in right now, no? You’ve got Sam Zell, the owner of the Cubs and the Tribune Company; the latter filed for bankruptcy protection in December while the former was excluded in hopes the billion-dollar sale would not be compromised. Apparently when you file for bankruptcy protection, it helps not to have too many easily liquidated assets sitting around.

Next you’ve got the Ricketts family, who are trying to buy the Cubs for $900 million—although they’d like to see that price go down.
And then you’ve got a somewhat silent third party looking on: the bankruptcy court, which has its eye on every move Zell and the Trib make. Don’t forget about them, especially as the closing of the Cubs sale gets complicated by one little issue that complicates not only the sale of the team but also the future worth of the Trib as it reorganizes under Chapter 11: the broadcasts.
Up until now, the Trib has owned the Cubs, so who cares how much the broadcasting TV and radio contracts with Trib-owned WGN are worth? The other 29 teams in MLB, that’s who. 
For those of you who have never sat next to a Steinbrenner at a party, there’s this little agreement the owners of MLB teams have called revenue sharing. The more money the big-market, big-revenue teams make, the more they have to share with the little guys (somewhere Joe the Plumber is blowing a gasket). So here’s where the money starts to get a little funny.
Obviously advertising is the biggest revenue stream for almost any media company. In the case of the Cubs, any advertising revenue credited to the team gets shared; any money credited to the Tribune Company proper is untouchable. So if you own the Trib, it would be in your best and greediest interests to put a cap on the amount of revenue that gets credited to the team.
So it should have come as no surprise in 2001 when, lo and behold, it was revealed that the White Sox ($30 million) actually make about $7 million more per year in local ad revenue than the Cubs ($23 mill). The Cubs contract (with themselves, essentially) is structured heavily in favor of the Tribune. The team and the company split actual ad dollars 50/50, but things like sales fees, commissions, and back-end client agreements divert a huge amount of revenue away from the team.
That approach was great when the Cubs wanted to avoid sharing their money with other teams. But when the Ricketts get involved, they’ll want to stop sharing money with the Trib. A deal that limits their ad revenue (and their ability to shop broadcasts to other, non-bankrupt entities later) severely decreases the value of those contracts and the team on the whole.
Meanwhile, the bankruptcy court will be very interested to see A) how much earning power the Trib will have after the sale goes through, and B) how much value the company’s current assets are really retain. It seems like the Trib wants to hold on to one of their surest money makers, hide its real value from the courts, and inflate the value those interests represent to the Cubs. 
So is anyone really surprised this is a sticking point? The other main interested party is the fans, and I think we’d all like to see the new owners keep as much cash as they can. Yeah?