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Graphic: Stephen Layton
On one of my walks around Wrigley Field with Tom, he muses on restorations both cosmetic (replacing cement overhangs with terra cotta and chainlink fencing with wrought iron) and structural. The ballpark desperately needs upgrades. The bathrooms reek. The locker rooms squeeze the teams into uncomfortable boxes. And unlike virtually every other team in the major leagues, the Cubs do not have a batting cage where pinch hitters can warm up.
Initially, the team sought public funds by asking for a freeze in the 12 percent amusement tax it pays to the city, the second highest in the major leagues. A deal seemed close—until the May 2012 New York Times story about Joe Ricketts’s potential anti-Obama campaign.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, went ballistic. The outrage, many said, was more show than anything, the perfect opportunity to bash a conservative entrepreneur for the apparent hypocrisy of seeking public funds while saying that the government was a profligate spender.
The criticism stung the Rickettses. For starters, Joe may have supplied the money to buy the team, but he was not, as many media outlets reported, the owner of the Cubs.
Joe quickly proclaimed that he had nothing to do with the potential ad campaign, which had been pitched by his consultants. Tom and Laura (who had been a top Obama bundler) also denounced it. The damage, however, had been done. “It was horrifying,” says Todd.
Photo: Taylor Castle
Tom kept a cool head. A few months later, he offered a new plan. This time, the team would not seek taxpayer help and would fund the entire renovation on its own. In exchange, it expected to be able to make the repairs it deemed necessary.
While the mayor (who declined to comment for this story) reportedly looked favorably on the plans, nothing in Chicago is easy. A major sticking point arose: the Rickettses’ desire to put a 1,000-square-foot advertising sign in right field that could partially obstruct some rooftop views.
The rooftop owners, led by Beth Murphy of Murphy’s Bleachers, became the face of the opposition, hinting darkly that they might sue if the Rickettses blocked their vistas. (A contract between them and the Cubs, negotiated with Tribune, still has more than a decade left on it.) Wrigleyville residents, meanwhile, complained that the organization’s plans to build a hotel near the park and hold more night games would bring too much noise and congestion. (For details on the proposed changes, see the map at the top of the page.)
During the marathon negotiations that ensued, Tom’s siblings grew restless. But the chairman remained upbeat and unflappable. That’s not to say his handling of the situation has received uniformly glowing reviews. Some sports business experts say he is too nice—too Omaha—to get what he wants. “Tom is paying the price of being a nice guy,” says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a sports consulting firm in Chicago. “I think [he] is perhaps disgusted by the blood sport that is Chicago and Illinois politics. It is not part of his DNA to have every matter be a knife fight to the death.”
Ganis’s biggest complaint is that Tom did not play hardball about moving the team to the suburbs. It was not until a City Club breakfast in April—at which Tom announced that he had reached the framework of a deal with the city—that he said he would have to consider moving the team if rooftop owners blocked his proposed signage. He was almost apologetic.
Emanuel scoffed at the idea, as did a number of Cubs observers. “Rosemont is the worst possible location I can ever imagine for a professional baseball stadium,” says Al Yellon, managing editor of the Cubs fan blog Bleed Cubbie Blue. “People do not want to drive to a suburban stadium on weeknights.”
More to the point, critics say, Tom Ricketts has made it clear from day one that he’s loath to move the team. “No one is afraid of Tom Ricketts,” Ganis says. “No one is afraid of the Chicago Cubs.”
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Indeed, hanging out with Tom, it’s hard to feel intimidated. Whether it’s listening to a fan’s complaint or posing for pictures with sombrero-wearing dudes at a bachelor party, who slosh beer on him during the game, he is every bit the affable, funny, mild-mannered guy. He almost never raises his voice, nor does he register displeasure, beyond occasionally pressing his lips together and glancing sideways.
Some who have watched him at the negotiating table, however, say not to be fooled. “He’s a smart, very purposeful guy who delivers in a measured and unflappable way,” says Alfred Levitt, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., who helped Tom close the Cubs deal (and is now president of the holding company for Joe’s businesses). “I’m not an expert in Chicago politics. I’ve heard similar comments, that you have to be able to brass-knuckle it or whatever. But I actually think that Tom is an incredibly effective person at getting things done.”
Adds Laura: “This is like his blood, sweat, and tears now.”
I see a flash of what they mean during one of my interviews with Tom. While sitting in his family’s box, perched near home plate, I ask him how serious he is about moving the team. Does he really want his family’s name to go down in history as the owners who uprooted the Cubs from one of the most iconic stadiums in baseball and moved them to . . . Rosemont? Can he live with that?
At first he launches into his boilerplate response: that he doesn’t see it happening, that everyone is close to an agreement, that the family’s proposed $500 million remake is going to keep the Cubs as the state’s third-largest tourist attraction, that when a player catches the last out in the clinching game of a World Series, he will do so in Wrigleyville. “This is not just any old ballpark, and I don’t think we really needed to resort to any crazy type of threats for everyone to feel like they have incentive to save it,” he says. “I think everybody knows this is a huge economic driver for the city [and] the local businesses, including the rooftops. Everybody has an incentive to make sure this goes forward.”
But then his expression changes. All that said, he tells me, his proposals must happen. As for a fan revolt, his answer is a chilling one for those who think a move is impossible. “Overwhelmingly, the people I talk to say, ‘Do what you have to do.’ They really do. Every fan puts winning over Wrigley.”
He pauses. The nice guy returns. “But I don’t think we’re there. We’re going to win the World Series in Wrigley. And everyone will get what they need.”