The Chicago Cubs and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Sunday that Ernie Banks’ Wrigley Field statue will be placed in Daley Plaza this week from Wednesday morning through Saturday, allowing fans to honor and remember the Hall of Famer. Banks passed away Friday night after suffering cardiac arrest at the age of 83.
Banks became the first player in Cubs history to be honored with a statue at Wrigley Field in 2008. Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago will host the statue, which has been temporarily removed from its home at the corner of Clark and Addison during the current phase of the Wrigley Field restoration project. The statue is being transported from a facility outside of the city where it is being restored and will be placed in Daley Plaza upon arrival in Chicago.
Mayor Emanuel called Banks a friend who was a great ambassador for the city.
“Ernie Banks’ legacy extends far beyond his Hall of Fame stats. He was beloved by generations of people for the way he played on the field and—more importantly—for the kind and warm person he was off the field,” Emanuel said. “We are bringing Ernie’s statue to Daley Plaza to honor not just one of the best ballplayers of all time, but a great man who made our city proud from the day we first met him in 1953.”
Inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977, Banks was a lifelong Cub who played for 19 seasons. He was a 14-time All-Star and back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959. He hit 512 home runs in his career, and his 277 home runs as a shortstop remain a National League record.
The greatest player in franchise history, Banks ranks first among Cubs in games played (2,528), at-bats (9,421), extra-base hits (1,009) and total bases (4,706); second in home runs (512), RBI (1,636) and hits (2,583); third in doubles (407); fifth in runs scored (1,305); seventh in triples (90); and eighth in walks (763).
He was the first Cub to have his number retired in 1982, was voted to Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team in 1999, and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
“Ernie Banks was a great player and an even better person,” said Tom Ricketts, Chairman of the Cubs. “He was a kind, gentle man who loved his fans as much as they loved him. We couldn’t think of a better way to honor Ernie than to allow those fans a way to pay their final respects to this great man.”
The 30th Cubs Convention is in the books. In the January issue of Vine Line, we looked back at how the convention got started and some of the event’s highlights from the last three decades. Check out our recaps of the 2015 panels here on the blog.
Have you ever been to bingo?” asked Jim Oboikowitch, laughing. “You will think it is insanity. It is so fun. It is so packed.”
Out of context, you’d be hard-pressed to find many 30-somethings who would refer to a retirement center game-night staple as insanity. But Oboikowitch, manager of game and event production for the Cubs, has a very different take on things. His job puts him in charge of the most entertaining weekend of the offseason for North Side fans—the annual Cubs Convention—and one of the event’s centerpieces is always Cubs Bingo.
So while matching numbers and letters might sound a little tame or old-fashioned on the surface, the reality is Cubs fans will do just about anything to grab a game card and get in on the action. And the man in charge has a front-row seat for all the excitement generated by one of the convention’s most popular events.
“[In 2013] at the Sheraton … one door kind of cracked open, and people just started pouring through,” Oboikowitch said. “[Manager of Broadcast Relations] Joe [Rios] was about to get tackled by about 1,000 people. They come running in, looking for a table and grabbing the bingo card. There’s not a seat to be had. They’re sitting in the aisleways.”
For nearly 30 winters, masses of Cubs fans from all over the country have congregated at a downtown Chicago hotel to take part in a weekend’s worth of activities centered around the team they spend their summers supporting. Where else can fans and players share an elevator ride and spark up a conversation? How often do young players get the opportunity to receive instruction from major league talent in the batting cages? And is there any other place you can ask Cubs owner Tom Ricketts a question and snag Gary “The Sarge” Matthews’ autograph in the same day?
While attendance at modern conventions generally nears five digits, there was a time when the club was unsure of what to expect turnout-wise, so they intentionally limited admittance to roughly the number of people who can fit in today’s bingo hall. But that was almost 30 years ago, when the Cubs became the first professional sports team to ever attempt a fanfest and well before the event became an annual institution. Now it’s safe to say they probably underestimated themselves—and the passion of their Cubs-crazed fan base—in those early days.
The Cubs were hot. In the offseason following their magical playoff run of 1984—the same campaign that snapped a 39-year postseason drought—John McDonough was looking for a way to grow the brand. The then-Cubs sales, promotion and community services director, now the president and CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks, wanted to capitalize on the new wave of fandom that had swept over the club and made its players the talk of the city.
“McDonough’s idea was ‘Hey, this is a great brand. It’s something everyone knows, but we’re only being seen six months out of the year,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig.
One of McDonough’s first orders of business was to gather a large group of die-hard fans willing to share their ideas for how the organization could grow. They met at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois, and there McDonough collected opinions on how the Cubs could maintain relevance, even in the winter months. This led to the idea of a convention celebrating Cubs fandom.
Sports memorabilia shows were at their peak during the 1980s, which gave McDonough a solid framework for his own concept. After more than a year of brainstorming, the initial Die-Hard Cubs Fan Club Convention opened its doors from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 1986, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. The event was the first of its kind—no other professional sports team had ever dedicated an offseason weekend to celebrating its fans.
“At this time, card shows, autograph shows, those were pretty common,” Hartig said. “But the idea of actually having people mingle with the players and [offering] hitting clinics, that was all new.”
McDonough had no idea what to expect and kept event promotion to a minimum. One of the few places the convention was marketed was in the small “Odds and Ends” section of the Chicago Tribune. The blurb, which was published nearly a year before the event took place, stated what the weekend would entail, when it would take place and where it would be held.
“The only thing they told [fans] was that this wasn’t going to be a card show. This was not going to be an autograph show. This was going to be interactive,” Hartig said. “You’re going to see the players walking out of the hotel. You’re going to see them in the elevator. You’re going to see them at the restaurants. … It was going to be all-access. You were going to be with the players all weekend.”
Nearly 3,000 fans—roughly 1,000 more than expected—packed into the Hyatt in late January 1986 to witness something totally revolutionary. Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe hosted hitting and pitching clinics, panels included the coaching staff discussing topics like Spring Training and injury recovery, and President and General Manager Dallas Green was made available for a Q&A session with fans. This was all in addition to memorabilia auctions, raffles, vendor booths and autograph opportunities.
The convention’s special guests included most of the 1985 team and Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks. For many of the players, showing up to that first event was a no-brainer. They understood the work McDonough had put in and immediately grasped what this could mean to the organization in the long haul.
“When [McDonough] created that … as a player I remember, quite honestly, we were open arms because we trusted him,” said former Cubs outfielder Bobby Dernier. “The idea is ‘Look, it’s good for the team, it’s good for the organization, and it’s good for the former players—on top of being good for the current players. So, really, it’s good for everyone.’”
Though Cubs regulars probably enjoy more interaction with their fan base than most other professional athletes—just ask the outfielders about their relationship with the Bleacher Bums—it’s still unusual for them to spend a lot of one-on-one time together. But the athletes quickly learned that the interaction with fans was one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekend.
“Most players would feel that it’s more flattering than nerve-racking,” said former Cubs outfielder Gary Matthews Sr. of the constant flock of supporters. “You’ve got to understand the Cubs fans.”
And for players who didn’t already understand Cubs fans, the convention served as quite the introduction. Former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett came to the team in December 2003 after spending his previous six years playing in the fan-starved Montreal Expos organization. Rios, who was in charge of the convention prior to Oboikowitch, still remembers the backstop’s reaction to the reception he received at his first opening ceremony.
“[Players] get quite a rush from the applause they get from the fans, especially the new ones,” Rios said. “I think of Michael Barrett, who played in Montreal, who played in front of [so few fans], and to come to the convention and have that many or more, and be sweating when they announce it—he was freaked out, and that’s still kind of cool to see.”
Mingling with the fans quickly became one of Dernier’s favorite parts of the weekend. The former center fielder said he’s missed only three of the 29 previous conventions, which puts him “in the 95th percentile” in terms of attendance.
“To be quite honest, I’ve gotten a lot of endearing experiences because I did take the time,” Dernier said. “Whether I sat with a bunch of 13-year-olds at the lobby there or I sat at the bar and had a cocktail with a dozen Cubs fans ready to watch the Bears at the playoff game that afternoon, they were enjoyable experiences.
“Whatever position I’ve been in, to get to come, it’s not a hard arm twist because all it is is just a giant hug waiting to happen.”
For the people in charge of the convention, knowing the players—the de facto entertainment—have an open mind about the event makes their jobs easier and allows a weekend with a high potential for chaos to run a little more smoothly.
Though the Convention spans only three days in January, it takes a lot longer than that to plan and organize the festivities. Oboikowitch said even during the baseball season, the convention is in the back of his mind. As the 162-game campaign is winding down, he’s in meetings and throwing ideas against the wall for what the next fan weekend will have in store.
“We’re always talking with fans throughout the season and through the offseason about what they might want to see, who they want to see, what activities they want to take part in,” Oboikowitch said. “We start putting together a road map of how we want to program Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
This road map is a jigsaw puzzle of panels, events, autograph signings and meet-and-greets. When it all comes together, it looks like a work of art, but getting things to that point is a painstaking process.
The staff has to juggle player and personnel arrivals (many attendees come from out of town), make sure individuals aren’t accidentaly booked in two spots at one time, and provide fans the opportunity to attend must-see events like the opening ceremony and the Ricketts panel. Despite doing their best not to overschedule the program, Rios said forcing fans to make tough decisions is all part of the plan.
“One thing that fans should realize is we want to make it difficult for them to decide what to do,” Rios said. “Every hour of the convention, day or evening, has something going on. You can be getting five or six different autographs, you can be getting a photo of somebody, you can be in the interactive room learning about pitching, you can be in a seminar with one of our business teams talking about The 1060 Project. … You have to decide what’s important to you.”
But amidst all the commotion, while fans are making those red pill-blue pill decisions, one thing they seldom see is just how busy the players really are. They are constantly moving into private rooms for one-on-one interviews or doing special autograph signings for Cubs Charities.
“We do a lot of behind-the-scenes interviews with players that our broadcast partners will use during the season,” Oboikowitch said. “That’s where you get some of that footage for rain delays and for different pieces when you want to hear a player talk about Jake Arrieta’s season preview. So we do a lot of filming in that time.”
Perhaps the best indication that McDonough hit the ball out of the park on the first try is how little the convention’s format has changed over the last three decades. Certain panels have come and gone, venues have switched (the Hyatt from 1986-90, the Hilton Chicago from 1991-2012, the Sheraton Hotel and Towers from 2013-present), and there are fewer vendors today than in years past. But fans still get the chance to interact with their favorite players through seminars, clinics, autograph sessions and meet-and-greets, just like they did in 1986.
“I think what the fans really like, that I’ve learned from them, is that they just really like having that experience where they get to actually sit down in that little floor lobby with Anthony Rizzo, and he’s signing autographs for the kids,” Dernier said.
Of course, the planning committee is constantly learning from fans, and they fine-tune things every year. In 2015, the Cubs will add a second interactive instructional field with hitting tees and batting cages. They will also pay tribute to the 2007-08 NL Central champion teams with a panel featuring Ryan Dempster, Mark DeRosa, Bob Howry, Jacque Jones and others. Another panel will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the convention and will include regulars like Dernier and Matthews.
The goal is to improve the weekend every year, while still offering the panels and events fans have come to know and love. In other words, rest assured, Cubs Bingo isn’t going away anytime soon.
The Cubs’ minor league system is viewed as a powerhouse, with many calling it the best in baseball. Several of the top prospects—including Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks—made their Wrigley Field debuts last season, but who is going to get the call this year? Accompanied by top prospects C.J. Edwards, Pierce Johnson, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, and Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod close out the convention by giving some insight into the Cubs farm system. This is always one of the better panels, and this year did not disappoint.
Mick Gillespie, broadcaster of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, is helming the panel and gives a quick intro. He also does Spring Training games with Len Kasper. Gillespie touts how this entire panel will soon be in the big leagues. These are the guys you’re paying to see in the minor leagues.
McLeod talks about his early days with the Cubs. He’s only three drafts in, but still feels really good about the type of players they’ve brought in. But it did take some last place finishes and difficult trades to make the Cubs top-ranked system happen. Russell wouldn’t be here if not for the Jeff Samardzija trade. The goal is to keep the talent flow going. There are great players at the top levels now, but they have to keep that talent coming.
Madison talks about how the process Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have has already been successful in Boston and San Diego. Now it’s successful here. They’re not just looking for good players. They’re looking for good people, and they all feel great about the caliber of young players the Cubs have.
Edwards talks about being a 48th-round pick. He was not phased by that because he knew what he could do on the mound. His dad instilled in him how to play the game. He says his love of the game is what got him to where he is now. That plus dedication and hard work.
Johnson grew up around the game. His dad worked for the Padres. His mom wanted him to do homework when he was younger, but he joked that he didn’t need to do it because he was going to be a pro ballplayer.
Schwarber talks about the choice between playing football and baseball. He only had three baseball offers for college. He had more than that for football. Though he had a chance to play both sports at Indiana, he decided to commit to baseball because he loved it and didn’t want his academics to suffer by playing two sports.
Russell talks about the differences between the A’s and Cubs fan bases. The fans here actually pull for you, and there are a lot more of them.
Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:
- An Indiana alum asks Schwarber about the challenges about playing on the IU field. The entire field is artificial turf, including the mound. Schwarber says everyone seemed to like it, but it was tough for opposing teams coming in. But with the cold weather in Indiana, they could practice in almost any conditions.
- Schwarber talks about helping build the IU program. The team was .500 when he got there, but they knew they were better than that. Eventually they got to Omaha and the national championship series. He says he loved the challenge there.
- The next question is about Russell’s reaction to his trade to the Cubs. Russell was in Arkansas. He says he missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury, and was just settling in with his teammates. Next thing he knew, he was traded. He didn’t know what to think. Did the A’s not want him? But he talked to a few people, and they assured him this was a good thing. Now he’s very happy to be a part of what the Cubs are building.
- A question about the upcoming draft. The Cubs are picking ninth. McLeod says they are evaluating the talent pool. It’s a strong college pitching draft and a strong high school draft. College position players haven’t really separated themselves yet. You have to let the season play out, but he feels confident the Cubs will get an impactful player.
- How do you know when to bring a guy up, especially a newer draft pick? Top college hitters like Schwarber tend to succeed pretty quickly at the lower levels, Madison says. But they look at each guy individually. They all have strengths and weaknesses. They talk to each player about these things. The Cubs lay out what they expect each player to work on. The players know themselves better than anyone. “When they show you they’re ready, that’s when you have to reassess the player plans,” Madison says.
- A high school player asks what each guy did to get noticed. “I grew out my hair,” Johnson says. It’s really about working hard and getting better, they all agree. Johnson and Russell went to showcases. Schwarber didn’t do many, but he thinks that’s why he didn’t have many college offers. Madison says they start to really look at players around their senior year of high school. Occasionally you can notice younger players when scouting older guys.
- There’s a question about Gleyber Torres and Armando Rivero. How do they assess these guys? McLeod likes them a lot. Rivero has a good mid-90s fastball, strong slider and has had nothing but success so far. He’ll be in big league camp this year and will challenge for a spot in the Cubs ‘pen. But he’s not on the roster yet, so that might factor in. Torres just turned 18. He was a high-profile guy when they signed him. He’s a long way away, but he’s good. He’ll probably start in South Bend.
- Which position would Schwarber rather play: catcher or outfield? Schwarber wants to catch. He’s played there all his life. He’s self taught and was doing a lot of things wrong. He got a crash course at Kane County, and it really clicked in. He loves catching, but you have to really like the position to be there.
- Who are some under-the-radar players to watch? Madison says they have a lot of good guys who don’t get noticed because of the talent they have in the system. Victor Caratini is due for a breakout year. Jeimer Candelario has all the tools to be an impact third baseman, and they expect a big year out of him. McLeod says he expects one or two people from the Kane County staff this year to become major leaguers. He also really likes Bijan Rademacher and what he can do.
- McLeod talks about the wonderful problem of having too many talented shortstops. You can never have too many good middle infielders. They just let these guys go out and compete, and it will sort itself out. Players will force them to make decisions, and that’s a good thing. McLeod talks about meeting Schwarber in college and asking him if he thought he could really make it as a catcher. Schwarber looked at him stone-faced and said, “It really *** pisses me of when people think I can’t catch.” They loved his confidence and knew he was their guy. He was not intimidated in the least by talking to Epstein and McLeod.
- What’s the difference between college and pro ball? Schwarber talks about the difference in the schedules. You get a lot more days off in college. If you’re struggling, you have days off to work on your swing and go figure it out. In pro ball, you have to fix things on the fly because there are really no days off.
- Who is your mentor/hero? Russell says his favorite player was Barry Larkin, but his idol is his dad. Or Bruce Lee. Schwarber most looks up to his mom and dad. He was outside every day hitting, and they helped him every day. His dad coached him and came to almost every game in college. Whenever things are going bad, they are always there for him. Johnson also credits his parents. They supported him and brought him to practices and games. He still talks to his parents after every game. Edwards also talks about his parents and his dad. He says he started throwing a baseball at 3 years old. When he was growing up, he admired Pedro Martinez the most.
- What was your favorite team when you were younger? Russell didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. He played outside. But he’d have to say the Red Sox, even though he’s from Florida. He was actually more of a football fan. He wears 27 partly because of Edie George. He loved the Tennessee Titans. Schwarber grew up near Cincinnati so he rooted for the Reds. Johnson’s dad worked for the Padres, so he grew up rooting for them. Edwards was a Red Sox guy because of Pedro and Manny. Madison lived in New York so he started with the Mets, but he transitioned to the Yankees. McLeod grew up in San Diego, so he followed the Padres and Chargers.
- A question about Kevonte Mitchell. McLeod says he’s very interesting. He was drafted last year out of southern Missouri. He was a basketball player and is a tremendous athlete. He had a great first season in rookie ball, but he’s still a long way away. Still, he has a great body and a lot of talent. They were surprised by how well he controlled the plate this year.
- How is the pitch clock in the minor leagues going to change how the game works and your approach? Edwards was in the Arizona Fall League, where they used it. It wasn’t a big factor for him. He moves quick already, but he thought it was more of a factor for relievers. If you’re in a rhythm, you should be fine. When things go wrong, it could be trouble. Schwarber says it will only affect someone if they are really, really slow, so it’s probably a good thing to speed them up.
- Any failures you’ve had to overcome? Russell says failure is good, especially early on. He really struggled coming out of high school. You dig deep and learn from failure, and it ends up being a good thing. Schwarber struggled to get better as a catcher in college. The things that frustrate you are the things that drive you to get better and better. How you rebound from struggles defines you as a player, he says. You just can’t let failure get the best of you. Johnson talks about the injuries he had to struggle through last year. Edwards struggled in extended Spring Training too. He started questioning whether he really wanted to play baseball. But he knew he didn’t come from the west coast to the east coast to fail, he’s still riding that wave.
That’s it for our 2015 Cubs Convention coverage. We’ll be posting a video recap early next week. Thanks for following. Next stop: Mesa.
This year, the organization is celebrating the 30th consecutive Chicago Cubs Convention, dating back to “The First Ever Die Hard Fan Club Convention” from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 1986. This panel gives fans a chance to visit with some of their favorite Cubs of the past as they tell 30 years worth of stories and talk about what it’s like to come back to Chicago each January. The panel, hosted by Wayne Messmer, is comprised of convention regulars Bobby Dernier, Gary Matthews, Lee Smith, Rick Sutcliffe and Billy Williams.
This panel was actually more about reminiscing with a host of Cubs favorites from the 1980s than celebrating the Convention, but it was enjoyable hearing players recount stories about everything from Harry Caray to Ryne Sandberg the prankster.
The event started with a thank you from the players for the fan support and some recollections from Cubs Conventions past.
One of the highlights included when Sutcliffe explained how being a Kansas City guy, his lifelong dream was to play for the Royals. But after his first half season with the Cubs in 1984, his mindset changed largely because of the fan base. Sutcliffe then said he was part of a video that was used in the recruiting of Jon Lester. After the two talked at the convention, the newly acquired free agent said Sutcliffe’s portion about Cubs fans sold him.
Sutcliffe recalls the first Cubs Convention. ‘The phone call came from John McDonough, and this was really John’s idea. This was before sports-talk radio, this was before autograph sessions. … He really wanted to break down the barrier between fan and player.” He also talks about Harry Caray being the first honorary chairman of the convention.
“Something that’s so awesome for me is that everyone remembers me as a Cub,” Smith said.
The panelists start talking about Smith in his playing days. A favorite story from Sutcliffe: After Smith beaned an opposing Mets hitter after a brawl, Smith puts down his glove and offers a challenge to the Mets’ dugout, and they back down.
Sutcliffe talks about the Cubs Convention. The people are still here. “For me, you just get another little piece of what Cubs fans are all about. They keep calling him the big red head, but you take that cap off and there’s no red hair.”
“We’re always in first place at the Cubs Convention,” Messmer said.
All of the panelists agree that what makes playing for the Cubs special is the fan base, and that really came alive when they played in 1984. “I played for a couple of ballclubs, but when I came through here, I have so many fans I remember on a first-name basis,” Smith said.
Next comes the question-and-answer session with fans:
- A fan thanks Dernier for spending time with her kids years ago in the lobby and talking for hours.
- Dernier told a story about a time they were in Montreal and Harry Caray said to him: “Even when ya stink, you look like you’re trying.”
- A fan asked about the panelists’ time with Don Zimmer, and Sutcliffe recounted a story about how Zimmer, who had a tough time as a manager in Boston, emotionally thanked the 1989 team for their efforts. He said he was so disliked in Boston he couldn’t go out to dinner with his family. In Chicago, he was loved because of those guys.
That’s it. Down on the Farm with the Cubs minor leaguers is next on the schedule, and that will close out the 2015 Cubs Convention.
In addition to providing an update on the organization’s accomplishments and progress, the Business Operations Update gave fans additional insight into what to expect at Wrigley Field next season. From the overall expansion and restoration of Wrigley Field to the new video board, Cubs executive leadership covered a wide range of important topics related to the 2015 season.
All great plans have minor setbacks. That may be the case for the 2015 plans of the extensive 1060 Project, the stadium-wide renovation of Wrigley Field. During Saturday afternoon’s business panel, a panel that continued its trend of being one of the most attended, the Cubs announced that the bleacher restoration will not be ready for the start of the 2015 season.
The left-field bleachers are expected to be ready in early May while the right-field bleachers hope to be prepared by late May. That said, the new scoreboard in left field will be up and running come Opening Day, while the scoreboard in right field should be ready in May.
Bleacher season-ticket holders have been given three options on their tickets for the first few series: receive a credit on their account, relocation on tickets, or a full refund on the game tickets. Those fans have until the end of January to let the Cubs know of their decision.
“This is about trying to get this project done right instead of cutting corners,” said Carl Rice, the vice president of ballpark operations.
It wasn’t all bad news from the panel, as business president Crane Kenney announced the Cubs have more season ticket holders today than any time in the organization’s history, and could possibly have the most in the league. Season ticket renewals were also at 90 percent.
Though there may be a delay in the 2015 plans, the Cubs’ concourse restoration has actually made 2016 renovation plans ahead of schedule. The 2015 delay has also not slowed plans for new clubhouse construction, which was planned to be finished prior to 2016. The organization plans to work all season long to ensure its completion.
“We’re getting ahead of next year’s project, now,” Kenney said.
In terms of the new video boards, the panel unveiled what types of graphics and images would be displayed going forward. Concepts were divided into five categories: game replays, in-game stats, historical videos of the club, in-season team videos and other scores around baseball. Though the new video boards will be nothing short of state of the art, the Cubs intend to have the text graphics look similar to the historic scoreboard in center field. The Cubs showed simulations as to what the scoreboard would look like on an in-game basis. They’ll combine the classic look with some some full-color animated images. They wanted to remind people the purpose of the boards is to enhance the game-day experience, not detract.
With the new TV deals, some fans are concerned they’ll be blacked out for a vast majority of Cubs games in the near future. Kenney said the team is willing to contact outlets like MLB.TV, should something not be worked out.
As it does every year, Saturday at the Cubs Convention kicked off with the Ricketts Family Forum. Heading into their sixth season as owners of the Chicago Cubs, the Rickettses have made significant progress on the organization’s goals to win a World Series, preserve Wrigley Field for future generations and be a good neighbor in the community. Tom, Todd and Laura Ricketts were on hand with host Len Kasper to discuss the strides the team has made in support of these goals over the last year. As always, they also took plenty of questions from fans. Here’s are the highlights from this morning’s convention:
Pete couldn’t be here because he is now the governor of Nebraska. I guess that’s a good excuse, but the rest of the family is here.
Tom Ricketts opened things up with a statement about the state of the Cubs now. He started with the Ricketts’ three stated goals—winning a World Series, preserving the ballpark and being a good neighbor in the community. He said they have made a lot of progress on all of them last year.
Cubs Charities donated more than $4.5 million in 2014. Cubs associates donated 100 gifts of service during Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary year.
On the ballpark side, the Cubs had THE year. Ricketts joked about how easy that process has all been.
“We are going to preserve and improve the best ballpark in the world,” Tom said.
On the field, it doesn’t all happen at once. They have been spending a lot of time, energy and resources to build best organization in baseball. The new facilities in the Dominican and in Mesa, Arizona, have been big steps. They broke all Spring Training attendance records at Sloan Park/Cubs Park in 2014. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been adding talent through minor leagues, trades and the draft. It was rewarding seeing people say the Cubs had the top minor league system in baseball.
“When you add all those things up, we feel like last year was a real inflection point in the history of the organization, and we look forward to the year ahead,” Tom said.
Next came the question-and-answer session:
- The first question is not a question, but a huge pat on the back from a fan. He complimented the Ricketts family on the care they’ve put into their ownership.
- The second “questioner” brought a prepared, written statement. It started with an audible audience groan, but it was actually pretty complimentary. And not as long as you’d expect.
- Another compliment, but we do finally get a question. She has heard the ivy and outfield wall are down and wants to know if they will be up for Opening Day. Tom says the ivy has been taken off the wall and laid on the ground, so they can work on the wall brick by brick. They keep what they can, and replace the damaged bricks. The wall is actually still standing right now. They will always keep the same ivy. Also, this isn’t the first time the ivy has been removed.
- Laura takes a minute to thank the fans for their patience with this process. It’s a lovefest so far.
- When are the bathrooms going to be done? They can’t say exactly when each thing will be done in the restoration. It’s a process. They can’t do everything at once because they want to play at the ballpark in the summers, so they can only work in the winter. The Cubs contemplated trying to play at the Cell or in Milwaukee for a year to get the renovations done faster, but quickly decided against it.
- How hard is it to balance profitability with the other three main goals? Tom talks about the context of making money in sports. You generate as much as you can, you pay your expenses, then you take the remaining dollars and allocate them to the organization. That’s why the restoration is so important. That money goes back into the team.
- A question about the three new rooftop properties the Ricketts family recently purchased. Tom talks about doing what is best for the Cubs to generate revenue and do what’s right for the team. They intend to run the buildings as rooftops for the time being. It’s what’s right for the team and what’s best for the organization.
- Here’s the long-awaited question about the new broadcast deal. The questioner is now out of market for many games. Is there anything that can be done for people in Peoria, Rockford, etc.? Tom says the Comcast games are still on Comcast, but he talks about how the WGN Superstation—or the idea of a superstation in general—is going away. Tom says it’s a high priority to make sure people have access, but he doesn’t have many answers to offer yet.
- If the bleachers aren’t ready on Opening Day what’s going to happen? Tom says it looks like it’s going to be a challenge to get that done. It could take through April. They do have a contingency plan in place for season ticket holders, and that will be discussed in detail in the Business Ops panel at 2 p.m. Renovating this ballpark is a big challenge, and there may be delays here and there, but it’s well worth it to continue to play at Wrigley Field, Laura says.
- There’s a lot of talk about making the park more kid friendly. The Ricketts are working on it. Clark was a big step in that direction. But a 100-year-old ballpark wasn’t built with kids in mind. The restoration will add more kid-friendly aspects. Quote of the panel: “If you’re bringing your five best friends from college, Wrigley Field is built for speed,” Tom says. “But for kids, it’s a little bit more of a challenge.”
- A question from a local resident about what fans will see at Wrigley on Opening Day and what the parking situation will look like. It will be similar to years past, Tom says. There’s the free remote lot. But things really won’t be that different from a parking perspective.
- A fan who grew up in the 1990s asks a question about Sammy Sosa and whether a reunion is in the works. Sosa is the main reason he became a fan. Tom says there are a few things that have to happen before Sosa comes back. It was a pretty vague answer, but that’s been the answer for a while now.
That’s it. Off to the Baseball Ops panel. Stay tuned for more. We’ll be blogging all day today and tomorrow.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Late Monday, the Cubs announced the stops for the upcoming 2015 Cubs Caravan tour. The two-day event will start on Jan. 14, at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and conclude on Jan. 15, at Jacob Beidler Elementary School. The annual community outreach tour will feature two buses full of players, coaches and front office personnel.
Later this week, the tour will visit Advocate Children’s Hospital-Park Ridge, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, three elementary schools and the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine base where 200 military service personnel and veterans will be served lunch in partnership with the USO of Illinois.
This two-day program implements Cubs Charities mission to harness the passion of Cubs fans to improve the lives of children and families across Chicago and beyond by providing increased access to sports opportunities and targeting improvements in health, fitness and education for those at risk.
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which receives a significant grant from Cubs Charities to support adaptive sports programming, will kick off this year’s Cubs Caravan. Patients of RIC will have the opportunity to learn drills, play a baseball game, and participate in a Q&A session with Cubs players and coaches.
The Caravan will make a final stop Thursday with a visit to Jacob Beidler Elementary School. This visit will serve as the Caravan’s designated media stop, featuring Cubs players and front office associates painting wall murals, building benches and organizing reading spaces.
The 2015 Cubs Caravan Tour itinerary is as follows:
Attendees (subject to change) include: Laura Ricketts, Joe Maddon, Arismendy Alcantara, Albert Almora, Jake Arrieta, Dallas Beeler, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, Kyle Hendricks, Pierce Johnson, Eric Jokisch, Rafael Lopez, Jason Motte, Mike Olt, Blake Parker, Anthony Rizzo, Zac Rosscup, Brian Schlitter and Ryan Sweeney. Please note players/staff will be split up among the multiple stops on each day.
6 p.m. — Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Chicago
9:30 a.m. — Advocate Children’s Hospital, Park Ridge
10:30 a.m. — Horace Greeley Elementary School, Chicago
10:15 a.m. — Henry D. Lloyd Elementary School, Chicago
11:30 a.m. — 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine base, Chicago
2 p.m. — Jacob Beidler Elementary School, Chicago
Cubs announce legacy partnership with Sloan Valve Co.; Spring Training facility in Mesa now called Sloan Park
The Chicago Cubs and Sloan Valve Company today announced Sloan will become the naming rights partner of Sloan Park—formerly Cubs Park—the team’s Spring Training facility in Mesa, Arizona. Sloan, a global brand based in the Chicago area, joins the team as a Legacy Partner and the official water efficiency partner of the Chicago Cubs.
Sloan has been a leading global manufacturer of water-efficient solutions for 109 years. As a fourth-generation family business, Sloan prides itself on promoting a healthy environment through water conservation and understands what it means to build a legacy. The Cubs will utilize Sloan’s products in the newly-named Sloan Park in Mesa and target integration inside Wrigley Field and its surrounding facilities as part of the 1060 Project construction—helping the organization expand its ongoing sustainability efforts.
In addition to the Spring Training facility naming rights, Sloan will have a branding presence at Wrigley Field, including fixed signage in the visiting team’s bullpen.
“Teaming up with Sloan—another family-owned company based in Chicago with more than a century of history—is an important move for the Cubs as we look to provide clean and sustainable water solutions for our facilities in both Mesa and Chicago,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts.
Sloan becomes the sixth Legacy Partner of the Chicago Cubs, joining Anheuser-Busch, ATI Physical Therapy, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Under Armour and Wintrust.
“Sloan is passionate about providing intelligent water solutions to the communities we serve,” said Sloan President Jim Allen. “We are excited to have a major presence both in Chicago and Mesa to authentically convey the message of water sustainability.”
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Now things are starting to get fun. Last month when I sat down to write this letter, I was reflecting on the improvements of the past year and the splash the Cubs made by signing free-agent manager Joe Maddon to a five-year contract. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein had recently spoken about how the organization was turning a corner and how he expected the Cubs to contend for the NL Central crown in 2015.
“We’re going to be very involved [in the free-agent market],” Epstein said. “It’s starting to be the right time to add impact talent.”
I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t exaggerating. Christmas came early for Cubs fans when the team landed coveted left-hander Jon Lester, righty Jason Hammel, All-Star catcher Miguel Montero and backup catcher David Ross around December’s Winter Meetings.
Lester, whom the Cubs signed to a six-year deal with an option for a seventh, was the jewel of the offseason pitching market, and several top teams—including the Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers—waged a fierce battle over him. Though those teams have been postseason fixtures in recent years, Lester ultimately chose to come to Chicago and reunite with Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, the executives who drafted him back in 2002 with Boston.
For years, people have questioned the front office’s plan for the organization, and many wondered aloud if and when they could get a major free agent to buy into their vision. But the Cubs’ plan all along has been to rebuild the minor league system as quickly as possible and add impact players from outside the organization when the time was right.
These recent moves weren’t a deviation. They were a confirmation.
The Cubs’ pitch to Lester, who turns 31 years old on Jan. 7, centered around the lure of bringing a World Series title to the North Side, the unrivaled young talent filling the system and the restoration of Wrigley Field, which will soon provide players with some of the best facilities in the game.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think [the Cubs] were going to win in 2015,” Lester said. “So that’s how I think. I’m never going to say, ‘Well, we’ll be all right this year, and we’ll get ‘em next year.’ I’m going in with the intention of winning in 2015. And that means the division, that means the World Series, that means everything. Like I said, I don’t like to lose. You can call it arrogant, you can call it cocky, whatever you want. But I like to win, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
The baseball world has long been drooling over the Cubs’ preponderance of young bats, from Javier Baez to Kris Bryant to Addison Russell to Jorge Soler. Add that to an already solid bullpen and proven major league players like Jake Arrieta, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Hammel, Lester and Montero, and you’ve really got something.
This month, we only touch on the recent signings, which hit the Chicago area like a tsunami moments before we went to press. Next month, we’ll take a deep dive into all the moves (along with providing our annual minor league prospectus).
It’s funny how fast things change. Last I checked, the Cubs were at 12-1 odds to win the World Series at online sports book Bovada. Like I said, things are starting to get fun.
Speaking of fun, in this month’s issue, we get the backstory on three decades of the Cubs Convention, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary from Jan. 16-18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. We also shed some light on the charitable work the team performed in the last year as part of its 100 Gifts of Service, the club’s most ambitious philanthropic initiative ever. Finally, we get our first chance to talk to new hitting coach John Mallee about his philosophy and what he hopes to achieve on the North Side. With a talented crop of young players now under his tutelage, it’s safe to say the Chicago native is eager to get started.
Here’s the good news: We’re just one month away from pitchers (Lester, Hammel) and catchers (Montero, Ross) reporting to Spring Training. As always, look for us at the convention, where we’ll be renewing subscriptions, meeting fans, and possibly hosting a player or two. See you there.
The Chicago Cubs and WLS-TV/ABC 7 Chicago today announced a historic partnership for television rights to Cubs games. For the first time in the 68-year television broadcast history of the Cubs, baseball games will air on ABC 7. Starting in April 2015, the channel will air 25 games per year through the 2019 season in primetime, daytime and on weekends.
“We are excited to have WLS-TV as our new television broadcast partner,” said President of Business Operations Crane Kenney. “WLS-TV has established itself as a trusted voice in Chicago, and we look forward to a new chapter of Cubs baseball airing on the flagship station of the ABC television network.”
WLS-TV echoed the Cubs’ excitement and said they are looking forward to this new beginning with the organization.
“ABC 7 is thrilled to be a part of this new chapter for the Chicago Cubs organization, and we welcome Cubs fans to the No. 1 station in Chicago,” said John Idler, president and general manager of ABC 7. “Like all Cubs fans, we are eager to celebrate the 2015 Chicago Cubs.”
Kenney added the Cubs will soon announce the home for the team’s remaining games not currently under contract to ABC 7 or Comcast SportsNet, ensuring all Cubs games will be on the air in Chicago next season.
“We will complete our broadcast realignment shortly, allowing every Cubs fan in Chicago the opportunity to watch every game of what we believe will be an exciting and competitive season,” he said.