Chicago Cubs chairman riled about foes playing hardball on Toyota sign

By Ameet Sachdev, Tribune Reporter
Updated: 4:29 PM 4/30/2010

One month into the baseball season, and the new owner of the Chicago Cubs is frustrated. With the team’s lackluster record? No, though that probably will come.

What’s got Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts sounding more like an ornery Lou Piniella than most observers thought possible are the responsibilities that come with owning Wrigley Field, the baseball stadium fans seem to view as their own personal shrine.

Politics and opposition by a Wrigleyville building owner have so far handcuffed his plan to generate more revenue by erecting a Toyota advertisement behind the left-field bleachers, Ricketts complained Friday. He said he knew that an illuminated, 360-square-foot sign would stir some debate about preserving the tradition and ambience of the ballpark, but he’s surprised to be still wrestling with the controversy.

Ricketts, in a meeting Friday with the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, suggested that the family’s future investment in projects in the Wrigleyville community hinges on the approval of the sign. His family bought the team and stadium from Tribune Co., parent of the Chicago Tribune, last fall in a deal valued at $845 million.

“I have a lot of other dollars that can be invested in Wrigleyville, or not,” Ricketts said.

It was unusually aggressive stance by Ricketts ahead of the May 6 meeting of the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks to review the team’s permit to erect the sign. Because Wrigley Field, built in 1914, is an official Chicago landmark, alterations have to be reviewed by the commission.

If the landmarks commission OKs the sign, it could still be derailed. Sources say Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, has asked the city’s lawyers whether the sign also needs City Council approval.

Tunney, whose ward includes Wrigley, has said he would like the sign “to be a little more modest.” He declined to comment Friday because the sign remains under review.

Navigating City Hall has not gone as smoothly as Ricketts would have liked for what he considers an “innocuous” sign that he said could be worth more than $2 million to the team over the next three years. City zoning officials had asked the Cubs to revise its plans, which delayed the unveiling. The team has changed the proposed location by a few feet and made minor modifications.

“It’s my belief that with more aldermanic support, we could have put this behind us,” Ricketts said.

Changes to Wrigley Field bring public reaction, but additional advertising raises objections to the overcommercialization of the historic ballpark.

The Toyota logo would be more conspicuous than other signage at the ballpark. The top of the sign would rise some 40 feet above the back of the bleachers. Preservationists have said the vertical sign would interrupt the sweeping contour of the bleachers and stick out like a “sore thumb.”

Ricketts said the sign is tasteful and does not alter the design or character of the stadium. “It’s not a billboard,” he said.

This is not the first time Ricketts has defended the Toyota advertisement. In recent public appearances, he has made an economic argument for the sign, and reiterated it again Friday. The sponsorship revenue would go toward investing in Wrigley infrastructure and repairs and free up other resources for baseball operations, he said.

He said the family has shown its commitment to preserving Wrigley by spending $10 million after it bought the team to shore up the stadium’s infrastructure. He said much of the investment was in bricks and mortar that did not generate additional revenue.

“Wrigley Field is not a museum,” he said. “We have to look for revenue opportunities.”

Ricketts singled out one person for stirring up much of the opposition to the sign: Tom Gramatis, who owns four buildings overlooking the stadium. He has converted three into rooftop clubs that sell tickets to games and host groups. The fourth features an ad for an Indiana casino on its roof. The Toyota sign would partially obstruct the view of the ad from inside the stadium.

Gramatis belongs to a small group called the Wrigley Rooftop Association that opposes the sign, saying it would violate the ballpark’s landmark features. The group issued a satirical video last week, which shows signs popping up all over Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered walls and around its center-field scoreboard.

Ricketts said Gramatis wants to stop the sign because he would like to add rooftop seats to the fourth apartment building.

“If the way this works in the city, that one guy can stop a sign, then let’s find out now,” Ricketts said, adding that if the team does not gain city clearance, it would affect family investment decisions in the neighborhood.

“I don’t see how it couldn’t,” he said. “It’s going to color everything.”

Gramatis did not return requests for comment. Rob Nash, a spokesman for the rooftop association, said the group is concerned that the Toyota sign may be the first of many. More signs in the outfield would threaten the livelihood of all rooftop owners.

But Ricketts said the family has no intentions of installing other signs along the outfield. The rooftop owners and the Cubs have a revenue-sharing agreement until 2023, which is an incentive to the team to not destroy the views from those perches.

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