Some people simply sound like baseball. It’s hard to imagine Ernie Harwell or Vin Scully rotating your tires, doing your taxes or getting your drink at the local coffee house (though they would sound great calling out the order).
Count Pat Hughes, the longtime voice of the Chicago Cubs on WGN Radio, among that number. Just the sound of his voice conjures warm summer nights, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the distinct thwack of wood meeting leather.
Having a conversation with Hughes can be an interesting experience. Even if you’re away from the Friendly Confines or talking about non-baseball matters, there’s just something about his manner that compels you to sit back and listen. It’s easy to forget you’re supposed to respond. At any moment, you’re waiting for him to break out with, “Chicago Cubs baseball is on the air!”
When it comes to broadcasting, Hughes knows he has had a charmed career. In his 30-plus years in the booth, he has had the remarkable good fortune of working with some of the most iconic sports broadcasters in the business, from Al McGuire to Bob Uecker to Cubs legend Ron Santo.
Hughes, who was born in Tucson, Ariz., but spent his formative years in Northern California, has called just about every sport under the sun, but his passion has always been baseball. He got his first shot at calling balls and strikes at the major league level with the Minnesota Twins in 1983, and followed that up by pairing with Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Uecker in the Milwaukee Brewers’ broadcast booth from 1984-95. He’s also called minor league baseball, college basketball, hockey, water polo, even darts.
But he’s best known for the 18 years he has spent as the radio voice of the Cubs and the remarkable on-air chemistry he shared with Santo. This month, we spoke with Hughes about his long career, flaming hairpieces and the grand masters of sports play-by-play.
And, for the record, it all sounded great.
Vine Line: You’ve called about every sport there is in your career, but you’ve said baseball has always been your passion. What is it about calling the game that’s so special?
Pat Hughes: It’s a real challenge every day because the game is so familiar to virtually everyone in this country. I mean, everyone has played baseball. Everyone has gotten up and had a chance to take their swings in a softball game or a youth baseball game or a sandlot game. So the game is very familiar to everyone. Since everyone kind of feels like they know baseball in America, I think there’s a perception outside of broadcasting that baseball is the easiest sport to announce.
On the contrary—and I’ve done football, basketball, golf, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, you name it, I’ve done it—baseball is by far the most difficult to cover if you want to do it well, because there’s so much downtime. Generally, if you go back and watch or listen to any baseball game, there is only a total of maybe about five minutes where there is a lot of action going on. The great majority of the time is just the pitcher making a pitch, and it’s either fouled away, or it’s taken for a ball, or it’s taken for a strike. There’s a lot of time you have to fill, so that’s the challenge of doing baseball. At the same time, it’s probably the best sport to do in many regards. I love the game. I still feel very proud to be known as the voice of the Cubs, and I’ve had that title for 18 years now.
VL: How hard is it to fill time and stay focused in games that have rain delays or go 17 innings?
PH: We are putting on a show. It’s a performance, and you just have to keep it going. It’s a test of your stamina, your endurance, your patience, your concentration and all of the above. You just grind it out. In that regard, you do become almost like a ballplayer, where you have to stay focused, and you have to concentrate on every pitch. It’s so easy to make mistakes, trust me on that one. It’s so easy. If you think you can just put it on autopilot and broadcast a game, you’re wrong. The minute you slip up and start to relax, you’re not going to do that job as well as you can or as well as you should. So it’s a grind. I always laugh after a five-hour game, when people say, “Well, at least you won.” Yeah, that’s nice. I mean, that’s a given. I want the Cubs to win every single game. But the fact that they win does not begin to erase the stress or the weariness that you feel at the end of a five-hour game.
But my job is not about winning or losing games. It’s about broadcasting as well as I possibly can. It’s about pleasing sponsors and radio station management personnel and baseball club front office personnel. My job is not as difficult as being a manager or a general manager or a player. And, yet, unless you’ve ever done these jobs, they’re not nearly as easy or as fun as people think they are.
VL: For years, you and Ron Santo were known for your chemistry in the booth. Did you guys hit it off immediately, or was that something you had to work at?
PH: It was a real exciting ride for 15 years. Ronnie and I had an unusual chemistry. We were so different that the contrast I think is what people enjoyed. But he was a great guy. He loved the Cubs, he loved to laugh. And I love to laugh, I love the Cubs. So we certainly had that in common. But I think Ronnie and I both realized that when the Cubs win, it’s great. Your broadcast is going to go smoothly because you have a lot of positive things to talk about. But when the Cubs lose, and they have a difficult season, and they’re losing on a regular basis, you have to go to Plan B. I don’t think the audience would stick around and listen if you just did, “Ball one, strike one, and there’s a guy at first, let’s see if he can hit behind the runner.” That gets old when the team is 30 games out of first place. So I think Ronnie and I both felt—and we never really articulated this to each other—but it seemed like a natural thing to do to have fun and to tell stories and to poke fun at each other. So that’s what we did.
VL: It’s probably hard to pick just one, but do you have a funniest or favorite moment from your years with Santo?
PH: I don’t know, there were so many. I guess the hairpiece is the most famous incident. In New York at Shea when he burned his hairpiece. I’ve embellished that story, I’ll be very honest with you. There was no real flame coming out of the top of his head, as I’ve told many times. There was a little smoke coming up from the top of his head, and he did slightly singe the top of his hairpiece. And it did look like there was a little divot in the top, and it did look like a golfer maybe had hit a pitching wedge off the top of his head. I think that was probably the most famous incident with Ron, and we certainly got a lot of mileage out of it over the years.
VL: Santo always used to give you a hard time about the old sweater you used to keep up in the booth for particularly cold days at Wrigley. Where is that sweater now? Did it make it into the Hall of Fame?
PH: First of all, thanks for asking. I don’t get that question nearly enough. You have to understand, I live way up north [in Lincolnshire], and when I get to Wrigley, sometimes the temperature difference is 30 degrees from where I came from. That’s just Chicago. That’s the lakefront. But sometimes you’re underdressed. You have a short-sleeved shirt on, and you need an extra layer of clothing. So I would always keep a sweater—not my best sweater, in fact it would probably be about my worst—in the booth at Wrigley just in case. Occasionally I would have to bring it out, and it was hideous, not attractive. But it was warm, and it got the job done.
Well, Ron hated it, and one day he just got sick of it. He waited for me to leave, he snuck in, took the sweater, took it home with him, and for whatever reason—he never really did explain properly—he took it to a carwash and threw it away at the carwash. I asked him, “You mean they’re using it as a rag to dry off cars after they wash them?” And he did not really divulge the secret nature of this operation. But that’s where that sweater died, at a carwash. I don’t know what happened, but it was a sad ending to a rather pathetic garment.
But I was undaunted. I simply went out on eBay and shelled out at least a dollar and a half for a brand new sweater, and now that’s the one that is hanging at the closet at Wrigley Field.
VL: You’ve called some big moments in your career, from Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run to the Cubs clinching a postseason berth. Do you have a favorite call?
PH: I think if there was one call I kind of liked, it would have been Sammy Sosa homering late in the ’98 season. It was up in Milwaukee. It was a day game, bright and sunny, early fall. He hit a homer to center. If you remember ’98, Harry Caray passed away in February, and Jack Brickhouse passed away in August. That was an unbelievably exciting year, with Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game and Sammy Sosa with the 20-homer June and the great home run chase and then this Wild Card race. And I kept thinking about Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, two of the most famous Cubs broadcasting icons ever. I wanted to pay some kind of a tribute to them. So finally I did after Sosa’s, I don’t know, maybe his 66th home run, I said something like, “Holy cow and hey, hey for Harry and Jack.”
The reason it’s important to me is because of the friendship I had with both Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse. They were both incredibly nice to me. They went out of their way to say nice things to me and to help me become acclimated in Chicago.
VL: You’ve done both radio and TV. Do you prefer one medium over the other?
PH: To be honest with you, I prefer radio. It’s more my style. I’m more into the description and the constant chatter of working with a partner. With TV, sometimes I’ll turn on a game, and guys aren’t talking for two or three minutes, and I feel like they’re not even there. Or they are, but they’re not really there. It’s just a different thing. Now don’t get me wrong, to do television well takes every bit as much, and maybe even more, talent than it does to do radio well. Put it this way, I do radio right now for the Cubs. I’ve done it for 18 years. If I would ever lose this job and the only thing available in baseball was a television job, I’d be the first in line to apply for that opening. But I prefer radio.
They’re both great jobs. They’re both difficult to try to master. But I think radio is more of an intimate thing with your audience. They invite you into their cars. They invite you into their office place. They invite you into their backyard when they’re on the patio listening to a game. It’s a very personal relationship that a radio baseball man has with his audience that a TV announcer does not have.
VL: I would think on radio you have a lot more responsibility to describe the game. On TV, we can see what’s going on, but on radio it’s incumbent on you to tell the story.
PH: Ernie Harwell once told me, “On radio, nothing happens until you speak.” On television, you’ve got pictures, and you’ve got cameramen, and you’ve got announcers, and you’ve got directors, and you’ve got producers, and you’ve got a lot of people who think they are all in charge. But on radio, it’s you. Nothing happens until you speak, so it’s a lot of responsibility. But you have a lot more freedom, and I like that freedom too.
VL: Is there anybody you modeled your style after?
PH: I would say no. It goes back to your own individuality and your own sensibilities. I think it’s fine to learn from other announcers, but you can’t ever try to sound like somebody else. If you do, you’ll probably lose some of yourself, and I think it’s very important to be yourself and not try to sound like anyone else.
Having said that, though, I think there are what I would call three grand masters of sports play-by-play or just sports broadcasting. And those three would be Vin Scully, Bob Costas, and a guy by the name of Bill King, who used to be the voice in the Bay Area where I grew up of the Oakland Raiders, the Golden State Warriors and then later on the Oakland A’s. Those are the three grand masters of play-by-play.
VL: You’ve been to almost every park in the majors. Which one is your favorite, aside from Wrigley Field?
PH: For sentimental and personal reasons, I probably was most thrilled to work games at Candlestick Park before they moved to AT&T, because that’s the park I used to visit as a kid. To be sitting there broadcasting was surreal. I love Dodger Stadium. It’s aged as gracefully as any ballpark in the world. It’s over 50 years old, and still feels like it was built within the last decade. Plus, you’re working right next to Vin Scully, and that’s still a thrill for me.
I like all the ballparks. They’re big league ballparks, and I feel privileged and fortunate to still be doing this after all these years. Again, you get to cover a big league baseball game every single day. It’s a position of prominence and privilege, so I’m a pretty happy guy being in any baseball park and covering the game for the Chicago Cubs.
ESPN basketball analyst Digger Phelps will be conducting the stretch on Saturday, Aug. 18. (Photo by Stephen Green)
Starting Monday, the Cubs are back at Wrigley Field for a 10-game homestand with the Reds, Cardinals and Nationals. If you’re headed out to the Friendly Confines from Aug. 12-22, here are your first pitch and seventh-inning stretch lineups:
Monday – 8/12
First Pitch: Aimee Garcia, actress, Dexter
Stretch: William Petersen, Chicago native and actor
Tuesday – 8/13
First Pitch: Colin Cowherd, ESPN
Stretch: Mike and Mike, ESPN
Wednesday – 8/14
First Pitch: Marquis Teague, Chicago Bulls
Stretch: Tom Skilling, WGN weatherman
Friday – 8/16
First Pitch: Lee Brice, country musician
Saturday – 8/17
First Pitch: Umphrey’s McGee, Chicago band
Stretch: Digger Phelps, former Notre Dame basketball coach and current ESPN analyst
Sunday – 8/18
Stretch: Fergie Jenkins, Cubs Hall of Famer
Monday – 8/19
Stretch: Richard Lariviere, Field Museum president
Tuesday – 8/20
First Pitch: Steve Byrne, Chicago native and comedian, Sullivan & Sons
Wednesday – 8/21
First Pitch: Social Media Night winner
Stretch: Darren Rovell, ESPN
Special Event: Social Media Night, broadcast from the Budweiser Patio
Thursday – 8/22
First Pitch and Stretch: Plain White T’s, Chicago band
Today marks a monumental day in Chicago Cubs history. While 8-8-88 gets the proper hype for being the first game under the newly installed lights at Wrigley Field, a postponement due to rain actually pushed the first full game to the next day. Therefore, today actually marks the 25th anniversary of the first completed night game at Wrigley Field. The following feature can be found in the July issue of Vine Line. For stories like this and more all season long, be sure to subscribe today.
It’s not often you get that Opening Day or postseason feeling during a mid-August game. That time of year is usually reserved for the baseball doldrums. The All-Star break is over, and it’s a little too early to get excited about the divisional races—especially in 1988, when only four teams reached the postseason.
But Game 111 for the Chicago Cubs, set to be played on Aug. 8, 1988, was one for the ages at the Friendly Confines. An estimated crowd of 40,000 was on hand, a then-record 556 media credentials were issued, and 109 newspapers and magazines, 38 radio stations and 49 TV crews—including the Today show, Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight—packed the venerable stadium. The announcers wore tuxedos (except for Harry Caray), and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams were on hand to toss out the first pitch.
At 6:06 p.m., the festivities came to a head when 91-year-old Harry Grossman, a Cubs fan since 1906 and the team’s oldest season ticket holder, stood on the field with ball girl Mariellen Kopp and Hall of Fame announcer Jack Brickhouse and bellowed the fateful words that propelled Wrigley Field into the modern era:
“Three … two … one. Let there be lights!”
Viewers from around the country watched in awe as Grossman flipped the switch and six banks of lights—three each on the left- and right-field rooftops—slowly glowed to life at Wrigley Field for the first time. The famed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there to help mark the occasion, broke into the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Witnessing the field lit for the first time was pretty cool, but also a little eerie to me because it was so different,” said Ben Hussman, a longtime Cubs fan and high school history teacher at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., who traveled from Iowa to watch the game with a friend.
Though the lighting ceremony was high theater, there was also a game to be played, as Cubs ace Rick Sutcliffe was set to take the mound against a fifth-place Phillies squad under ominous clouds for the first home night game in franchise history.
Things got off to a fast start. After nearly being blinded by the simultaneous popping of about 40,000 flashbulbs, Sutcliffe surrendered a long home run over the left-field bleachers on the fourth pitch of the game to Phillies leadoff hitter Phil Bradley.
In the bottom of the inning, after Cubs outfielder Mitch Webster led off with a single, Morganna the Kissing Bandit—a fixture at many major sporting events in the 1970s and ’80s—ran onto the field to try to plant one on Cubs star Ryne Sandberg, but security was ready for her, and she never sealed the deal. Ryno, apparently motivated by his close encounter, then blasted a two-run home run off Kevin Gross to give the Cubs the lead. The North Siders added another run in the third inning when Rafael Palmeiro singled home Sandberg.
Only, as far as the record books are concerned, none of this ever happened.
Midway through the fourth inning at about 8:15 p.m., a torrential rainstorm washed into Chicago and washed out the game. After a two-hour-and-10-minute delay, home plate umpire Eric Gregg officially put an unceremonious end to the first night game that never was.
Apparently the excitement of the event was too much for some people. During the delay, as many as 13 Cubs fans ran out onto the field to slide on the tarp—one unlucky reveler was even taken to the hospital after running into the third-base wall. Around 9:30 p.m., the Cubs got into the act as well, as Jody Davis, Les Lancaster, Al Nipper and Greg Maddux all took their turns making a giant slip-and-slide of the infield tarp. The fans were arrested; the unrepentant Cubs players were merely fined.
Of course, countless jokes about God not wanting to have night baseball at Wrigley Field followed, but the Cubs proved the doubters (and the heavens) wrong when they played their first official night game at the stadium the following evening, a 6-4 victory over the Mets. Frank DiPino picked up the win in relief of starter Mike Bielecki, left fielder Palmeiro went 3-for-4 with a triple, and right fielder Andre Dawson drove in two runs.
To understand the importance of the lights going up, it’s essential to know the history behind the event. This was the first time a big league ballpark had added lights since Tiger Stadium (then called Briggs Stadium) in Detroit did so on June 15, 1948. It was also a deeply controversial decision that divided the city between supporters of modernization and traditionalists who believed day baseball at Wrigley Field should last forever.
But this wasn’t the first time lights were attempted at the Friendly Confines. A series of concerts, rodeos, circuses and a combined boxing/wrestling match were held at the stadium under portable lights in the early to mid-1900s.
Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley and treasurer Bill Veeck started looking into installing permanent lights at the stadium in the early 1940s. In the fall of 1941, Wrigley went so far as to order light standards for the park to be installed in early 1942. The material for the lights was stored under the Wrigley Field bleachers, but after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Wrigley donated the 165 tons of steel, 35,000 feet of copper wire and other equipment to the U.S. war effort.
“We felt that this material could be more useful in lighting flying fields, munitions plants or other war defense plants under construction,” Wrigley said.
Later, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis requested more night baseball games, the Cubs looked into using wooden poles and secondhand equipment to erect lighting for the 1942 season, but those plans were rejected by the War Production Board.
Throughout the 1940s, Wrigley tried to find a way to add lights to his stadium so more people could see the games after the workday was over, but to no avail. He even initiated talks with the White Sox about playing a limited number of night games at Comiskey Park, which had installed lights in 1939.
Although adding illumination to the Confines was always on the table, the organization didn’t resume serious talks about it until 1982, shortly after the Tribune Company purchased the team from the Wrigley family. In March of that year, General Manager Dallas Green publicly stated that lights needed to be installed at Wrigley Field “or we’ll have to think about playing in another ballpark.”
In August 1984, with the team making a surprising playoff push, MLB announced the Cubs would lose home-field advantage in the World Series if they got that far because they couldn’t play night games. Under the typical AL-NL rotation, the NL club was set to host Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 of the World Series. Without lights, however, network TV commitments would force Game 1 from Wrigley Field to the AL home park.
Baseball owners feared a $700,000 loss in television revenues per club as a result of World Series games played in the daytime. In subsequent years, the Cubs explored the possibility of playing night World Series games at Comiskey Park or St. Louis’ Busch Stadium.
Finally, on Feb. 25, 1988, after years of arguing, cajoling and negotiating, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance, 29 to 19, that allowed the Cubs to play night baseball at Wrigley Field—if they complied with a substantial list of terms. The deal permitted the Cubs to play eight night games in 1988 and 18 per year from 1989-2002.
On April 7, 1988, a helicopter lifted the first of three towers onto the roof along the third-base line, and crews began working every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Most of the project was completed in June and July when the Cubs were on the road. When the team was at home, work had to stop at 10 a.m.
On June 20, 1988, the Cubs held a press conference at the park to announce a slate of seven night games for the current season, the first of which was to be held on Aug. 8. After commitments were met to season ticket holders, dignitaries, front office personnel and the like, there was only a limited number of available seats left for the night opener.
The team decided to hold a phone lottery on June 28 for the remaining 13,000 tickets to the historic contest. During the three-and-a-half-hour lottery, the Cubs ticket office fielded more than 1.5 million calls.
The lighting system was tested throughout July, leading up to a Cubs Care event on July 25 that debuted the $5 million system to the public. That night, the club held an informal workout for the team and a home run contest featuring Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, with Ken Holtzman and Fergie Jenkins pitching. Approximately 3,000 fans, including then-National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti, were in attendance.
“I think the future of Wrigley Field is secure and assured because of the installation of this modern convenience,” Giamatti said.
The rest is Cubs history. Day baseball at Wrigley Field hasn’t gone away; it has just been augmented. Now the team can finish day games that stretch into the twilight, play nationally televised games on ESPN, host the All-Star Game (which it did in 1990) and maintain home-field advantage in the event of a postseason berth. Night baseball now feels normal, but a quarter of a century later, fans still remember what it was like to see the stadium lit up for the first time.
“[It was] a big relief, because I knew night baseball would help the Cubs be more competitive, and because it would be easier for more Cubs fans to go to more games during the week,” said Walt Denny, owner of an advertising and public relations firm in Hinsdale, Ill., and a season ticket holder since 1984.
Fans traveled from all over to attend the game and watched around the country on the WGN broadcast. The fact that the game was ultimately rained out didn’t dampen the spirits of the fans or the players who were there that night. And it didn’t erase the memories of what was one of the most important nights in modern Major League Baseball history.
“I remember thinking that the most beautiful place to watch day baseball was now the most beautiful place to watch night baseball,” Denny said.
Twenty-five years later, it still is.
Actor Jim Belushi will be conducting the stretch on Thursday, Aug. 1, and his daughter will sing the anthem. (Photo by Stephen Green)
After the All-Star break and a West Coast road trip, the Cubs are finally back home for an eight-game homestand versus the Brewers and Dodgers from July 29-Aug. 4. If you’re headed out to Wrigley Field, here are your first pitch and seventh-inning stretch lineups:
Monday – 7/29
Pitch and Stretch: Bill Kurtis, Journalist
*Don Kessinger will be on field pregame
Tuesday – 7/30 (Day)
Pitch and Stretch: Rich Nye, Former Cub
Tuesday – 7/30 (Night)
Pitch: Danni Allen, The Biggest Loser winner and Chicago native
Stretch: CM Punk, WWE superstar
Special Event Night: Lucha Libre mask (Bleachers only)
Wednesday – 7/31
Stretch: Members of the Chicago Fire TV show (Christian Stolte, Joe Minoso and David Eigenberg)
Special Event: Firefighter Appreciation Night
Thursday – 8/1
Pitch: Imagine Dragons, Indie band
Anthem: Jami Belushi, Jim’s daughter
Stretch: Jim Belushi, Actor and Chicago native
Friday – 8/2
Stretch: Michael Shannon, Actor (Man of Steel)
Saturday – 8/3
Pitch: Ben Bridwell, Indie rock band Band of Horses
Sunday – 8/4
Stretch: Jody Davis, Former Cub
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs are giving fans even more reasons to visit Clark and Addison. In addition to Cubs baseball, Wrigley Field will be hosting a pair of popular musical acts this weekend in front of the bricks and ivy.
On Friday, July 19, rock band and grunge icons Pearl Jam will grace the outfield stage, and country star Jason Aldean will headline a group of country musicians the following night. The Friendly Confines has been hosting summer concerts for some of the biggest names in music—including Roger Waters, The Police and Bruce Springsteen—since 2005.
“We’ve benefited over the last several years from really great, great artists who wanted to play at Wrigley Field,” said Julian Green, the Cubs’ vice president of communications and community affairs.
The Friday night show, titled “An Evening with Pearl Jam,” made news earlier this year for selling out in roughly 45 minutes—the fastest concert sellout in Wrigley Field history. The Grammy-winning group, which has been touring lightly in 2013 and recently announced they’ll be releasing a new studio album, Lightning Bolt, on Oct. 15, has always been extremely popular in Chicago. Though Pearl Jam was a seminal part of the Seattle grunge scene, frontman Eddie Vedder hails from nearby Evanston, Ill., and is a huge Cubs fan.
Country star and Grammy Award winner Aldean, who has been touring since mid-February, headlines the 2013 Night Train Tour, featuring American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett.
“[The concerts] bring significant economic impact to both the city and the state,” Green said. “At the same time, it allows us to put more economic resources into the organization. The ability to have an additional two, three, four concerts a year works really well for us.”
The following is a feature from the July issue of Vine Line.
Though the Cubs have made strides on the field in 2013 behind some outstanding starting pitching and veteran acquisitions like Nate Schierholtz, it seems like this season has been all about facilities, buildings and permits. No matter what is happening between the white lines, the majority of the recent press has gone to the restoration of Wrigley Field and the accompanying community development adjacent to the venerated ballpark.
In fact, the chorus surrounding the Friendly Confines’ rather unfriendly debate has nearly drowned out the other significant progress the organization has been making on the facilities front—namely, the impressive new Spring Training complex in Mesa, Ariz., which will be ready for the 2014 spring slate, and the multimillion-dollar training academy in the Dominican Republic that celebrated its grand opening on May 20.
The new Dominican complex is part of an effort to improve and professionalize all aspects of the Cubs system to ensure the team has the resources to compete at every level and bring a championship-caliber team to Chicago.
“Think about where we’ll be in a couple of years,” said Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “The organization is going in the right direction; we’ll get [Wrigley Field] fixed; we’ll have the best Spring Training facility, the best Dominican facility. We’ll have the infrastructure to be one of those consistently great teams.”
With new collective bargaining restrictions limiting how teams can build through the draft, it’s becoming more important to make inroads into the international market. And a great deal of major league talent comes out of Latin America. Though the Dominican might be nearly 2,000 miles away from Wrigley Field’s doorstep, the new facility—located in La Gina, just outside of Santo Domingo—is a major component to building the kind of lasting success the Cubs brass has repeatedly talked about.
“We’re in such a competitive industry, and the great organizations throughout baseball history have built a strong foundation for sustained success starting with their minor leagues up through the majors,” said President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “To become the organization we aspire to be and win multiple World Series titles, we have to build a foundation that can last—a solid infrastructure that puts our ballclub in a competitive position year in and year out.”
The Dominican Republic has always been a hotbed of major league talent. Of the 856 players on the 30 big league rosters, the disabled list and the restricted list at the outset of the 2013 season, 89 came from the Dominican. That makes the Caribbean nation the best-represented country outside of the U.S., which claims 615 players. In 2013, the Dominican also became the first undefeated team to claim the World Baseball Classic title, behind major league stars such as Edinson Volquez, Hanley Ramirez, Robinson Cano and Wandy Rodriguez.
The Cubs currently have eight players on their 40-man active roster who hail from the Dominican, including Welington Castillo, Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Villanueva. This glut of Dominican talent is why every big league team is looking to improve its scouting and player development in the area.
“The competition for scouting talent in the Dominican Republic is high,” Ricketts said. “With the most major league players per capita here, it was no surprise all 30 baseball organizations run facilities in the country. We quickly realized that we had frontline talent here in the Dominican and needed a world-class facility to develop these players in order to achieve our goal of winning a World Series.”
The Cubs’ new Dominican complex spans 50 acres, making it the largest such academy in the country. It will be open year-round, complete with baseball fields, training facilities, and housing for minor league players during the season as well as major league players in the offseason. The goal is to serve athletes from across Central and South America, including Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Aruba, Curaçao and Mexico, in addition to the Dominican Republic.
The new complex, which has a comfortable on-site dormitory that can house up to 80 players and eight staff members, strives to give young players every resource to succeed. It features three fields, including one with artificial turf, four covered batting cages, eight bullpens, a weight room, a cafeteria and kitchen, two locker rooms, two meeting rooms, a large classroom that can be converted into four smaller classrooms, a theater and a video room.
“If you’re going to search for the best of the best, you want to give them everything they need and create the right kind of atmosphere and environment,” Epstein said. “We know our players and staff are putting in an enormous amount of work, and providing quality facilities is just as important as teaching the fundamentals of baseball.”
But the academy is about more than just churning out quality baseball players; it’s also about nurturing quality people. The Cubs are putting an emphasis on education, health and nutrition throughout their organization. To that end, the facility will also serve as an educational center equipped with classrooms and staff to teach English and Spanish, and players will be able to earn their GED high school equivalency.
The opening ceremony for the new Dominican facility drew a pedigreed crowd, including the Ricketts family; President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and other members of the Cubs front office; Dominican President Danilo Medina; Hato Viejo Mayor Reynoso Hichez Telleria; and former Cubs players and Dominican natives Moises Alou, Amaury Telemaco, George Bell and Henry Rodriguez.
“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.”
Coach Joel Quenneville of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks will be throwing out the first pitch and singing the seventh-inning stretch on Saturday, July 6—and he’ll be bringing the Cup with him. (Photo by Stephen Green)
After a long West Coast road trip, the Cubs finally head back to the Friendly Confines Friday for a nine-game homestand with the Pirates, Angels and Cardinals. If you’re headed out to Wrigley Field, of if you just want a chance to see the Stanley Cup in person, here are your first pitch and seventh-inning stretch lineups:
Friday — 7/5
Bryan Bickell, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Bollig (Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks)
Saturday — 7/6
First Pitch: Coach Joel Quenneville and the Stanley Cup (Chicago Blackhawks)
Stretch: Jim Cornelison (singer at Chicago Blackhawks games)
Sunday — 7/7
John Groce (University of Illinois head basketball coach)
Tuesday — 7/9
First Pitch: Neil Flynn (actor, Scrubs and The Middle)
Stretch: Cast of the Goodman Theatre’s The Jungle Book
Wednesday — 7/10
Jeff Garlin (actor, producer, comedian)
Thursday — 7/11
First Pitch: Jeff Larentowicz (Chicago Fire) and Bo Pelini (University of Nebraska head football coach)
Stretch: Jeff Larentowicz, Mike Magee and Gonzalo Segares (Chicago Fire)
Friday — 7/12
Jerrod Niemann (Country music artist)
Promo Item: Cubs cowboy hat
Saturday — 7/13
Dutchie Caray (Harry Caray’s wife)
Promo Item: Harry Caray statue
Sunday — 7/14
Gary Fencik (former Chicago Bears player)
(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.”
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.”
Actor Joe Mantegna will be throwing out the first pitch and singing the seventh-inning stretch on Sunday, June 23. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs are at home this weekend for a quick three-game set with the former division rival Houston Astros. If you’re headed out to Wrigley Field, here are your first pitch and seventh-inning stretch lineups:
Friday — 6/21
Joel Murray (Actor and emcee for the 2nd Annual Hot Stove Cool Music Chicago benefit concert at the Metro)
Saturday — 6/22
Christian Madsen, Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Amy Newbold (Cast members from Divergent, an upcoming film release currently shooting in Chicago)
Sunday — 6/23
Joe Mantegna (Actor, Chicago native)