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Steve Stone in Exile

Three years ago, after a simmering feud with Cubs players and management, the popular broadcaster Steve Stone resigned from the Cubs, though his affection for the team and for Chicago never wavered. Now, with new ownership likely to take over he waits—often at the bar at Harry Caray’s—hoping for a summons to the front office.

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“Steve’s Thoughts on New [Cubs] Ownership,” somewhat abbreviated, per his blog: “The [new] owner will ideally understand the psyche of the Cubs fans whose hopes have been largely unrewarded. I hope the new owners will bring Wrigley Field gracefully forward for fans’ comforts, but will preserve the historic feeling of what I consider one of baseball’s treasures. A deep unabiding [sic] love of the Cubs and Chicago would certainly help. An understanding of the Cubs’ place in baseball history is essential. The confidence and desire to bring the best baseball people available to the organization, and the intelligence to give them autonomy would be a great start.”

In imagining this perfect owner, he is describing himself, of course, if unwittingly. It’s his manifesto, formulated over decades, written in less than ten minutes, succinctly articulated. (He proudly carried the handwritten original in his briefcase for days after composing it in June, reading it to friends from his legal pad and into my tape recorder, during which he made sure to stress the words “love” and “autonomy.") And yet, despite having twice before joined groups attempting to buy a major league franchise—the Oakland Athletics and Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals)—he says it’s unlikely that he’ll be a financial partner in any Cubs ownership deal. “I’m about $800 million short,” he jokes when asked if he’s going to buy the team. But Stone would like an official post in a new owner’s front office. “The title itself means little to me,” he says.

“Because of the way Steve is viewed in Chicago, it would be a great decision on the part of anybody who buys the Cubs to make him instrumental in the baseball side of the team,” says Chicago businessman Lou Weisbach, Stone’s close friend and a partner in the Expos venture. “It will buy you the fans for a long time.”

As of mid-August, Reuters had reported “15 credible expressions of interest” in buying the team, and Fortune named a consortium led by John Canning Jr., head of the Chicago investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners, as the early favorite. The bidding was to begin after Labor Day, and the process was expected to conclude by the end of the year. The final sale price could reach $1 billion, if it includes Wrigley Field and the Cubs’ share of Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Though he maintains he’s unaligned with any potential ownership group, Stone seems optimistic that he will find a role in the front office. John McDonough is more guarded: “As we sit right now, [Stone’s joining the front office is] something I’ve never really discussed internally with anybody. But you never say never. People have a lot of respect for Steve. It’s maybe the question that I get asked the most: Do I ever see a role in the organization for Steve? Jim Hendry is the general manager, so bringing anybody on board would be Jim’s decision.” Of course, current management could change with a new owner, too, as everything about the Cubs’ future remains unknown.

Thus, Stone waits. “I would say that I’m a free agent,” he explains. “I say to everybody who talks to me, ‘I will be more than happy to talk to you, and I’ll answer any question that you ask.’ Wherever it goes from there, it goes.” He continues, adding emphasis: “Having been through the process [of trying to buy a team] myself, it’s long, it’s confusing, it’s dramatic; at times it can be convoluted, and at the end of the day, there’s no way to predict which direction it’s going to go in. I just have to hope that I know some of the people who are in that room on the last day, and that they view what I have to offer as valuable.”

And if not? “There was a long period where I thought I would be broadcasting for the Chicago Cubs for the rest of my life,” he says, “but that didn’t happen. There was a time when I thought that I would be the president of the Oakland Athletics, but that didn’t happen. There was a time when I thought I might be able to bring the Montreal Expos to Las Vegas, but that didn’t happen. Life always went on. The one thing that remains constant is that this is the city that I come to. This is where I want my baseball career to end." 

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Chicago, summer 2007, Al’s Beef on Ontario: Stone is about to pay for his lunch, when the owners of an air-conditioning company (one a Cubs fan, the other a White Sox fan) spot him in line. “We’re going to buy this,” they tell him. The requital for a beef sandwich and hot dog: baseball discourse. So, for the next hour and 15 minutes, Stone answers whatever questions they pose. He says such afternoons seldom take place in Arizona. And that all of those who do approach share a common characteristic: “For the most part, they’re from Chicago.”

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