Wrigley 2014 on Hold?

Ricketts: Sorry, no pricey off-season plan for Cubs

By George Castle Times Columnist nwi.com

CHICAGO | Grantland Rice could not have been too poetic about the blue-gray autumn sky over Wrigley Field Sunday in the home-season finale for 2010.

And if you were looking for rays of sunshine from Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts to brighten up the off-season, you had to pick carefully among his often short, to-the-point comments in a 2010 wrap-up chat with media.

Ricketts’ discourse, taking place for the first time on the same dugout (hot) seat as occupied in recent years by Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella and Mike Quade, promised no magic formulas or showers of cash. That unfortunately clashes with the average Cubs fan’s high expectations for his big-market team’s modus operandi.

At least the chairman did not use the old, discredited Andy MacPhail phrase: “Slow, steady, unspectacular.”

Ricketts wants to go with a younger roster. Fine, but any team desiring to contend can’t field all home-grown kids. And the Cubs farm system, while apparently revived, isn’t nearly ready to stock half the lineup. At some point, at least a pricey veteran or three has to fill in gaping holes.

“I think it will be slightly lower than this year,” he said of the 2011 payroll numbers. In almost the same breath, when asked about the necessary veterans, he handed off to his subordinate in the smoothest of manners, leaving GM Jim Hendry to do the complicated math of addition by subtraction.

“I’ll leave that up to Jim,” he said. “It’s his responsibility to make sure he has a team on the field that’s most competitive.”

If Ricketts, who declined to reveal any financial specifics, could only assure Cubs Universe with concrete numbers that money he won’t pour into payroll would be allocated instead toward player development. Remember, the penurous MacPhail said in 1999 the Cubs were “middle of the pack” in scouting and farm-system spending.

“There’s a lot of evidence we’ve been drafting well and we’ve been developing well,” Ricketts said. “Our minor-league teams had the second-best won-lost record of all 30 … You can say there’s no question we’re heavily committed to player development, not just signings but the organization next year.”

The double-shot across the S.S. Ricketts’ bow was both the often-unwatchable play of the Cubs and the corresponding empty seats, particularly in the bleachers for night games before Sept. 1. On Aug. 30, when the Cubs honored Andre Dawson for his Hall of Fame induction, the Hawk strolled to home plate with precious few bleacherites able to “salaam” to him.

Once the cheap seats preferred for their solar exposure on cold days, the bleachers more recently became a frat-party must. They almost always were packed to the gills for night games and most day games. The recent empty benches appeared to be proportionally in line with tiny early- and late-season crowds that appeared until the early 1980s. In one game, the Cubs reportedly sold just 1,100 tickets for the 5,000-plus capacity bleachers.

However, Ricketts might have gotten his data wrong when he suggested those unsold seats for night games was not strictly a 2011 phenomenon.

“That’s not really true,” he said. “We went back and looked at the data. There’s been some soft night games in the bleachers in the last few years. The key to filling the stadium is to make sure we’re putting a great product on the field.”

One solution is lowering bleacher prices — shockingly high at $50 for many games — so they don’t match box-seat price levels. At least give Ricketts credit for taking a look at the situation.

“We’re doing a real thorough study of what we’re charging for which sections, understanding the value proposition that we’re offering people. I think we’ll do that study and come up with a ticket-pricing strategy, always keeping in mind it’s a tough economy and it’s ultimately our goal to get more families in the park.”

And if you think the long-discussed “triangle building” is going up on schedule this winter, as president Crane Kenney suggested last October, think again. Ricketts and Co. are still studying how to nurse Wrigley Field past its 100th birthday in 2014.

Behind the scenes, we’re working very hard to come up with the right answer for how that (triangle building) works into the big picture, which is really saving Wrigley,” Ricketts said. “And when we get closer to having a concrete plan on that, we’ll be happy to share it with everybody.”

He’ll be doubly joyful when he shares the World Series-winning formula, the greatest mystery in North Side history, with the masses.

George Castle’s “Diamond Gems” baseball show is posted weekly at NWI.com/sports/baseball and airs at 2 p.m. Saturdays on WIMS-AM (1420)

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