Chicago Cubs Owner and Chairman Tom Ricketts was at Spring Training today, meeting with management, players, media, fans, and – as the case would have it – bloggers. Part of the reason I came to Arizona this week was to meet with Ricketts, together with a few other alternative media writers – bloggers, if you prefer the term – for a Q&A.
Before meeting with us, Ricketts met with the traditional media and got into some important topics. You can read up on his comments here, here, here, here, here, and here, among other places. Three of the big items he discussed then (so I wasn’t looking to duplicate those conversations later when we met with Ricketts) included Theo Epstein’s contract status, those Donald Trump remarks, and the state of the Cubs’ payroll.
The short version of Ricketts’ comments on those items (for longer versions, including more topics, check out the articles above):
- It’s status quo with the Epstein contract situation – the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations is in the final year of his initial five-year, $18ish million contract with the team – and Ricketts believes the two men are still on the same page. Ricketts believes Epstein is the best in the game at what he does, and should be compensated accordingly. That’s fantastic to hear, and, while we’ve never reached a level of “worry” about this situation, every step that brings the situation closer to a resolution is good by me.
- Although he said it was “surreal” to see Trump threaten his mom, Ricketts simply describes his family – which is a very public-facing family, I might add – as an open book. They have nothing to hide.
- On payroll, which has reached the $150 million range, topping the previous franchise high, Ricketts said that he was comfortable where it was, and it could even grow from here as revenues increase. But he reminds folks that the level of a team’s payroll in the current era is not determinant of competitiveness.
After meeting with the media, Ricketts sat down with us for an additional session. Among the things he discussed:
- In his meeting with the players, Ricketts addressed the importance of fan engagement with the players, and the importance of going out and doing things in the community when time allows. Also, it’s been a long time since the Cubs have had an off-the-field type incident, and Ricketts wanted players to remember to be professionals on and off the field.
- The big completed renovation project for this offseason was the new clubhouse, which Ricketts says will be the best in baseball (the Yankees’ might be bigger, but the Cubs’ will be better, he says). The work that went on around the park, itself, was mostly about the infrastructure – steel, concrete, plumbing, electrical, etc. – and won’t really be noticed by fans. Next offseason and beyond, more fan-amenity-type things will come online.
- For now, the plan with respect to the rooftop buildings the Ricketts Family have accumulated is to continue operating them as they have been: rooftop businesses and apartments. There could be more to them down the line, but right now, they stay the same.
- On in-market streaming, Ricketts says that the teams are not directly involved in getting those deals together – it’s between the regional sports networks and the league, though the teams are apprised. As you may recall, MLB got a deal done with the Fox RSNs for in-market streaming, and the hope is that deals with other providers – for example, CSN – will be done this year.
- When the time comes for the Cubs’ new TV deal, the expectation is that in-market streaming will similarly be handled through an authentication system (i.e., you are already a subscriber to a cable or satellite provider that carries the Cubs’ channel, and you can then authenticate your subscription to watch games via streaming on other devices).
- With new security measures in place at Wrigley Field, including metal detectors, per MLB’s guidelines, fans will want to plan to arrive a little earlier than they have been used to in the past. Any time you’ve got new protocols in place at the point of entry, there is going to be an adjustment period, which means that if everyone shows up at the same time during the National Anthem, there will be lines. The new gate on the western side of the park will eventually help with this issue, but it’s not slated for open until the 2017 season. In the interim, consider this your word to the wise: plan to show up a touch earlier than you have in the past.
- Ricketts says that a big part of what drives him right now is the desire to pay back fans who’ve been through some very lean, but very necessary, years before last season. Early on in the family’s ownership, they realized there were fundamental changes needed. Although the Tribune Company era had some close calls and, for example, some good teams in 2007 and 2008, the years were treated too much like discrete events, rather than part of a longer-term, comprehensive picture. When he brought Epstein in, Ricketts says he told the president that he should simply do whatever he felt was best for the organization. That was going to mean more thinking of the team on a continuum of years – how do these moves impact the organization in two years, four years, etc. – and that’s something that Ricketts says Epstein is very good at.
- To that end, Ricketts noted that, since World War II, the Cubs have had only about 20 winning seasons, while the Cardinals have had only about 20 losing seasons. It’s time for the Cubs to get on the other side of that.
- Ricketts underscored that the only way to win it all is to get to the playoffs as many times as possible, because the odds of winning any given playoff series are just about 50/50. That’s absolutely correct, and I was pretty excited to hear an owner acknowledging that reality.
- On the subject of competitive balance around the league and the deep rebuilding programs of some organizations, Ricketts says that every organization has to make decisions for itself, but was quick to point out that no team out there – no owner, no executive, no manager – wants to lose. It’s just a matter of allocating resources in certain ways, and that’s not new. That squares with the distinction between tanking and rebuilding that Michael recently explored, and that Epstein seems to adhere to.
After Ricketts finished up with us, I headed to the backfields to take in some of the Cubs’ batting practice. Tom Ricketts was there, too. I found it impressive that, even as the team’s owner was meeting with a variety of stakeholders all morning, he was still there at the backfields posing for pictures with the huge volume of fans who’d come out to watch batting practice. Not too many owners are meeting with fans at the backfields in early Spring Training, but, then, not too many owners walk around the ballpark meeting with fans at virtually every home game.