From the Pages of Vine Line: Tom Ricketts, Man of the People

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Wednesday, May 8, was a beautiful afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The game time temperature was 60 degrees, the wind was blowing gently in from right field, and the sun was shining brightly as the division rival Cardinals were in town for a two-game set with the homestanding Cubs.

Though the bullpen would ultimately let a well-pitched game by Carlos Villanueva slip away in the late innings, things were looking good in the bottom of the fourth. After Luis Valbuena walked and Anthony Rizzo singled off starter Jake Westbrook to lead off the inning, Nate Schierholtz cracked a sharp line drive to right field to drive in two. Groundouts by Ryan Sweeney and Dioner Navarro would plate one more to give the Cubs momentum and a 4-2 lead.

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, standing just to the fair side of the right-field pole near the entrance to the bleachers, stopped for a minute to catch his breath and cheer on his team. He appreciated the chance to see this momentary offensive outburst because, despite being the team’s owner, he often misses such things.

“Generally, if there’s any great action in a home game about the fourth or fifth inning, I probably don’t see it,” Ricketts said.

That’s because Ricketts does the same thing during the middle innings of every game—something that’s all but unprecedented in the world of fabulously rich, highly inaccessible professional sports owners—he talks to fans.

And he doesn’t summon them to the owner’s suite like a king calling his subjects. Nor is he chaperoned by a phalanx of security guards as he makes his way to the upper deck or the bleachers. He just pulls on his Cubs fleece, slings a bag full of baseballs (each inscribed with that day’s date and opponent) over his shoulder and heads out into the stands like a common fan. Even though he embarks from the owner’s suite, he actually mingles, shakes hands and poses for pictures—even with Cardinals fans. It’s downright strange behavior for a man of his stature.

“As Opening Day was coming up in 2010, my first year with the team, I was like, ‘What am I going to do, just stay up in the box behind the plexiglass?’” Ricketts said. “That just wouldn’t feel right. I decided if I do that, every time I start walking around the concourse, it will be a big deal, and I didn’t want that to be the case. I just want to be part of the scenery. So I basically just built it into the routine to be around.”

In an era in which professional sports owners tend to make news for all the wrong reasons (see: Loria, Jeffrey) or are faceless corporations that acquired their team as an asset in a larger deal (see: Liberty Media), Ricketts is something of a throwback. He has always seemed more like a fan than a high-powered, cold-hearted executive. Perhaps that’s why he relates to Cubs fans so strongly.

The stories of Ricketts’ ties to the team have been repeated ad infinitum since his family acquired the Cubs in 2009 from the Tribune Company for $845 million. By now, most Cubs fans know the Omaha, Neb., native first moved to Chicago at age 18 to attend the University of Chicago—just in time for the Cubs’ 1984 playoff run; that he and his brother Pete lived above the Sports Corner bar across from Wrigley Field; and that he met his wife, Cecelia, in the bleachers.

Though the organization is owned by the Ricketts family and all four siblings sit on the board, Tom is the chairman and the public face of the franchise. Before he and his family acquired the keys to the kingdom, he attended hundreds of games at Wrigley Field, so he understands what it means to be a fan. Of course, it’s one thing to relate to the fan base and share in their collective ups and downs; it’s quite another to be responsible for the fate of the franchise and the happiness of millions of fans worldwide.

“I feel a ton of pressure,” Ricketts said. “I literally wake up at three in the morning and feel like 15 million fans are standing on my chest. I feel a lot of responsibility. But we know what we’re doing is very important to a lot of people, and we have to get it done right. Any time you’re sitting in that kind of situation, you feel the pressure.”

THE MAN IN CHARGE
When Sam Zell and the Tribune Company announced their intention to sell the Cubs in 2007, Ricketts, whose father founded the investment company TD Ameritrade and is worth upwards of $1 billion, couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

The family officially acquired the team in 2009, just one year removed from an NL-best 97-win season. but the organization’s shaky foundation was beginning to crumble. The old baseball ops department had mortgaged the future in an attempt to “win now,” and Wrigley Field was in need of structural and cosmetic repairs.

In his introductory press conference, the new chairman announced three goals for his family’s stewardship of the franchise: win a World Series, preserve and improve Wrigley Field, and be good neighbors in the Chicago community. Though they have made good progress on the latter objective—in each of the Ricketts family’s three years of ownership, the Cubs have increased charitable donations—the first two have proven complex. But Ricketts is undeterred.

“He’s a very earnest person,” said longtime Cubs television broadcaster Len Kasper. “I think there’s a lot of trust in what he’s told people. Everything he’s talked about since the day he bought this team, he’s followed through on. That’s really, really important for not only the public trust but also for morale within the organization.”

Ricketts has spent much of his time in the last year locked in a very public debate with rooftop owners and city politicians over his proposed restoration of Wrigley Field, which would include improved player facilities, a 6,000-square-foot scoreboard in left field, new signage around the park and additional community development. The goal is to bring in more revenue for the team and improve player facilities that are woefully below league standards. Wrigley will turn 100 years old next year—the next-oldest stadium in the NL Central was built in 2001.

“The fact is it doesn’t matter who bought the team three years ago, someone had to solve these problems and fix them,” Ricketts said. “The can has been kicked down the road for 60 years. So it’s time to make sure we address all the structural issues and make sure that it’s going to be there for the next generation of fans.”

Though the team might still be far from winning a World Series, Ricketts has accomplished a lot in his short time with the club, from hiring proven baseball men like Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to getting a new Spring Training facility built in Mesa, Ariz. And though things are just starting to develop at the major league level, the minor league system has made great strides. In 2009, ESPN’s organizational expert Keith Law ranked the Cubs farm system 27th out of 30 teams. In 2013, he had the team ranked fifth.

“In general, I think the fans really do understand that what we’re trying to do is build an organization that has a strong foundation and is going to be consistently successful at some point,” Ricketts said. “Hopefully soon, but the point is not to take shortcuts, but to do things the right way.”

CROWDSOURCING
When the Cubs are at home, Ricketts has a standard routine for every game. He usually spends his mornings working on the business side of things. That could mean meeting with a sponsor, checking in with the ticket office or doing work in the community. These days, his mornings are generally spent facilitating the Wrigley restoration, which has necessarily pushed him out into the spotlight. But Ricketts, who comes across as every bit the Midwesterner, would rather not be the one generating headlines.

“You want the focus to be on the players, what’s happening on the field,” he said. “I think it’s a function of our circumstances. We have to do a lot to get this organization caught up to where other organizations are, and that means being out in front. Getting a new Spring Training facility, getting down to the Dominican to build a new facility there, doing what we can to get Wrigley where it has to be, I think those things push the owner out a little bit to the forward. Hopefully, over the next couple of years, all those stories are behind us, and we can be much lower profile.”

Sometimes Ricketts will get to the game early to meet special groups—on May 8, it was breast cancer survivors on hand for the Cubs’ “Pink Out” in the bleachers—but he’ll always try to be up in his suite for the first pitch. Once there, he grabs a bite to eat, makes a phone call or two, and watches the beginning of the game.

By about the second inning, he grabs his bag of baseballs and maybe a few extra front-row tickets, and heads out for his daily constitutional.

During the Cardinals game, things started out slowly. As he moved down from the suite level, a few people recognized him and asked to shake his hand. Others, seeing the commotion, tried to figure out who he was. Absent a security detail or any other telltale status giveaways, Ricketts truly could be just another fan.
As he worked his way down through Section 208, heading toward the bleachers, he spotted kids in the stands and handed out baseballs. The kids, just happy to have a ball to play with, had no idea they had just interacted with the Cubs’ owner. The parents invariably whispered conspiratorially and pulled out their cell phones to take a quick photograph.

Eventually, Ricketts got waylaid talking with a young mother of two, Jessica McCall, who was sitting under the grandstand with her two sons, Dylan, 6, and Sawyer, 3. May 8 was one of those chameleonic spring days at Wrigley Field where it feels like it’s 80 degrees in the bleacher sunshine but is relatively chilly high up in the shade. The family, thinking their seats were going to be in the sun, was underdressed in shorts and T-shirts.

“Hold on,” Ricketts said, as he moved quickly away to talk to a Wrigley Ambassador down in the outfield club boxes. “I need to move these kids into the sun. They’re freezing up there.”

Soon, he made his way back up to McCall and asked the family if they wanted to move down, which, of course, they did. The joke was, McCall’s husband, Rick, had gone into the concourse to get food for the family, so Ricketts and the group moved down by the tunnel to intercept him when he came back up.

“My 6-year-old asked if we could go move in the sun, so we were standing in the sun for a while,” McCall said. “[What Ricketts did] was really awesome. I was so shocked. It’s funny because I’m so clueless, and Rick is a huge Cubs fan. I called him and said, ‘Some guy named Tom is trying to move our seats.’”

As Ricketts patiently waited with McCall in plain view of the Wrigley faithful, he began to get swarmed—individual fans, families, even a high school group on a senior trip all stopped by to take pictures, shake his hand and ask him to sign something. Finally Rick arrived, said a sheepish hello, and the whole group moved en masse down to their new (infinitely better) seats.

What’s surprising, especially given the recent media scrutiny of the Wrigley restoration, is how overwhelmingly positive the reactions to the owner are. Of course, there’s a snide remark here and there (“Down in front, Ricketts, I paid good money for these seats”), but those are drowned out by a sea of “God bless you’s” and “I really appreciate what you’re doing around here’s.”

“I think we’re getting stuff done,” Ricketts said. “I feel really good about the direction of the team. We’ve accomplished a lot in a few years, and we’re really kind of taking all the issues head-on. I’m looking forward to getting through this part of our discussions on what happens at the park, but I think we’re really building the foundation for a great future here.”

Ricketts, for his part, is patient, talkative and genuinely seems to enjoy interacting with fans. He often remembers the names of regulars and can tell you where specific die-hards sit. He’s game to sign autographs (no body parts, please), pose with large groups or simply talk Cubs baseball.

“Getting out and talking to people just reminds me what it means to be a Cubs fan,” Ricketts said. “Honestly, in three years of walking around almost every single home game, I’ve only met great people. There have been only a couple of instances where I think anyone has said anything inappropriate. Everyone generally is supportive and engaged as a fan.

“There are days where it’s cold and wet and I’m sitting up there in the box, and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be a great day to just turn on the space heaters and watch the game.’ But I don’t do it because once you get out and start talking to people, that’s the good part of the day for me. It’s fun.”

But what Ricketts and his family are trying to do is about more than fun. He’s trying to revitalize a franchise and do something no Cubs owner has done in more than a century. When asked what he wants his legacy with the team to be, he doesn’t miss a beat.

“First and foremost, it comes down to winning,” Ricketts said. “I think that’s what this organization needs more than anything else. There are a lot of great things you can do, like the Wrigleys—P.K. and William—they made this park beautiful with a lot of the changes they put in in the ’20s and ’30s. That’s a nice legacy, and that’s something I think is great. But, in the end, it will come down to were we able to do it on the field. And that’s still No. 1.”

—Gary Cohen

2 Comments

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Great insight into a great man. –Ella

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