Column: Wrigley proves fans can't beat fun at ballpark, so long as they don't care about score

Published May 15, 2013

| Associated Press

If the Cubs were half as good at baseball as they are at artist's renderings, the team would have left Wrigley Field behind long before now.

But it's the aging ballpark that's propped up the franchise for nearly a century now, not the other way around. Owner Tom Ricketts knows that like he knows his own name, and this, too: Winning the World Series is hard; making money off Wrigley Field is easy.

Keep that in mind over the coming months, as Ricketts negotiates final approval for a $500 million (at the moment) renovation project. The team's charm offensive began Monday with the roll-out of WrigleyField.com.

"Yes, I support the restoration of Wrigley Field," the online petition on the right-hand side of the page urges, "because it's a win for the Chicago economy, the Lakeview community, Cubs fans and the team."

(Not mentioned: And a potentially really big win for the already well-to-do Ricketts family.)

The Cubs stunk last year — what's new? — yet Forbes ranked them as the most profitable organization in baseball. They're no better this year, but that hardly matters. Ricketts knows what chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley figured out soon after he gained control of the team and the stadium in 1921: Ballplayers may come and go, but the ballpark wasn't going anywhere.

Wrigley decided his money was better spent on the destination than the journey, since even the best teams were bound to lose 60 times a season. And as long as the ballpark was full of beer, sunshine and the opposite sex, the baseball came to matter less and less. In a town that always prided itself on making deals, that was the deal the Cubs finally struck with their fans: You can't beat fun at the old ballpark — so long as you don't waste too much time worrying about what was happening on the field.

After his family paid $845 million for the Cubs in 2009, Ricketts vowed to change that. He brought in Theo Epstein, the architect of Boston's short-lived dynasty, to run the front office. Even measured against a century-and-counting of futility, the best thing you can say about his tenure is that the organization is making scant progress. So just in case things don't work out on the baseball side, plowing money into Wrigley turns out to be a very good hedge bet.

And to be fair, there's plenty to like in the plan.

First, Ricketts is using his own money. Next, fans get better views, wider concourses, more bathrooms, a GIANT digital scoreboard (more on that in a moment), and for those who can afford them, more luxury boxes. Ballplayers get an indoor batting cage, flat-screen TVs in a sleek new locker room, and a real soaking tub in the trainer's room. And the generations of rats who've watched lousy teams come and go get thrown out.

Ricketts is proposing to peel back nearly every inch of the place, and rebuild it better, or at least that's what the video said. If he's smart and doesn't skimp on the construction or materials — the proposal includes a 175-room hotel and an office building with retail space and a health club — he'll make his money back in no time.

It's a little late in the game to rail against progress, especially since Wrigley is genuinely worn out. There's some comfort to be had, too, in that Epstein and several of his aides now in Chicago were in Boston finessing the overhaul of Fenway Park, no easy feat.

Ricketts got beat up early in the process, but he's proving a quick study. He dropped his demand for taxpayer funding, as well as the laughable threat to move the Cubs to the suburbs. But he's standing firm on the digital screen planned to top the left-field bleachers that makes traditionalists queasy — at 6,000 square feet, it's nearly three times larger than the manual scoreboard atop center field — and on swallowing up some sidewalk on several sides of the park to build out the foundation.

And he wants it all approved by the Plan Commission, the Landmark Commission and the City Council in time to start construction this offseason.

Toward that end, Ricketts is finally making friends in high places, beginning with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But he's going to need every bit of that clout — and likely a high-priced legal team on retainer — to get the owners of the rooftops just beyond the bleachers to cut a deal. They already have one — a contract running another 10 years that guarantees 17 percent of their revenue to the Cubs — and are threatening a lawsuit if the new signage blocks their view. Tellingly, perhaps, they don't appear in the otherwise-thorough artist's renderings on WrigleyField.com.

To summarize: Ricketts want tax breaks, a few public sidewalks, as much advertising space as possible, a bigger cut of the commercial action in the neighborhood, and here's the big stretch — for the rooftop owners to learn to live with it, or better yet, simply go away.

Considering how many of the people he'll be dealing with are Cubs fans, Ricketts will probably get everything he wants, and then go back to the real business of the ballclub: losing.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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