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'Responsible fan,' rookie Ricketts eyes next year, century
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts

 

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Published: 9/27/2010 1:40 PM

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On April 5th, minutes after his first game as the Chicago Cubs boss ended in an embarrassing 16-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves, rookie owner Tom Ricketts surveyed the carnage.

"I remember just walking through the clubhouse and seeing one of the young pitchers who had had a tough day with his head down at his locker, and thinking, 'Wow. This is hard on them,'" says Ricketts.

Five months and 22 days later, after the Cubs' gutsy seven-run rally falls a run short in a loss to the rival Cardinals in the season's last game at Wrigley Field, Ricketts lingers in the stands. He's shaking hands, posing for photographs with fans and talking about all the signs of improvement this year that give hope for next year.

For instance, young Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija takes the loss Sunday after surrendering eight runs in a little more than four innings. That's a great improvement over his Opening Day performance when he gave up six runs and only got one out.

Ricketts has a sense of humor, but he won't mock his Cubs. When Ricketts says he attended 65 games this year, I quip that's the same number of games that underperforming third-baseman Aramis Ramirez showed up for. Ricketts gets the zinger, but he doesn't laugh along. Even as a fan in the bleachers back in the 1980s, Ricketts never booed the Cubs.

"Not at our players," Ricketts says, calling them "nice guys" whom he'll say hi to at batting practice or when he attends player charity events. "There were probably a few times I'd vent after the game, just like any other fan, but you have to keep perspective."

He's now THE fan.

"You're a fan. You're a responsible fan," Ricketts says of his owner role. "As a fan in the '80s under the carefree, drink-beer-and-sit-and-get-a-suntan kind of stuff, those were good days. This year was terrifically fun because it's so engaging and I care so much about it. I'm disappointed the season is over. I'm going to miss the games-But the season doesn't end for us."

He's figuring out who the next manager will be, how much he can pay players next year, what fans should pay for tickets and how to improve the team and Wrigley Field.

"This is the Ricketts' legacy, right?" says Ricketts, 47. "This will be what we add to the history of the Cubs. We want to make sure we really think through what we do, and what we don't do-I hope to be involved in 50 years. I'll be drooling in the corner."

While his honeymoon with some Cubs fans ended with that first Cubs loss, many of us still believe Ricketts is a guy with the ability to lead the Cubs out of their 102 years of wandering the baseball desert without reaching the promised land. Ricketts admits that he had higher hopes for his rookie season.

"Right, right, the first of 10 consecutive World Series championships," he says.

Whenever he talks about the Cubs, he talks about winning more than he talks about revenue streams.

"The Cubs are cash-flow positive, but it's not about the money," Ricketts says, acknowledging that the Cubs made money in a year with a big-budget, losing team and lots of fans who were no-shows by season's end. "We're trying to build a consistent winner."

Conceding "we had a tough season on the field," Ricketts looks at the big picture and the future. "A lot of great things happened in our organization this year. There's a lot of good players coming."

He's not an owner who thinks he knows more about baseball than the people he's hired to make baseball decisions. He's a big-picture guy, not a day-to-day tinkerer.

"One thing we've done all season is talk to fans," Ricketts says of a facet where the businessman is hands-on. "We're doing a lot of analysis on what kind of value we are offering people from every section of the park. I walk around all game. I talk to people all the time. When they are in their seats looking at the field, they are happy. The problem comes when they have to get up and wait in line for an inning."

He wants to make space in Wrigley for better bathrooms and more food options by moving administrative offices to a complex he plans to build next door. He wants to add parking and a museum that honors great players of the past and includes "some place to display all our future World Series trophies," he says without pausing for a laugh. He wants to install batting cages and other attractions for kids.

"As a father of five, I know Wrigley is a wonderful place, but not the most kid-friendly," Ricketts says.

Over and over, he says he wants a "holistic" plan for the future, not just quickie fixes to make a profit. He'll weigh his options, but he has no plans now for any divisive changes such as a giant TV screen at Wrigley or extending an olive branch to controversial retired slugger Sammy Sosa, who recently whined about the Cubs not honoring him.

"You know, I've never met Sammy," Ricketts says politely.

Ricketts won't tip his hand when it comes to the new manager, the team payroll for next year or any free agents. He's a smart guy with money and a passion for his Cubs.

So how much would a World Series championship be worth?

Ricketts smiles and says, "I'm anxious to do that math for you."