Results tagged ‘ Wrigley Field ’
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.
All-Star shortstop Jean Segura has been one of the few bright spots for the Brew Crew in 2013. (Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty)
Not much has gone right for the Brewers this season, as Milwaukee continues its tumble from perennial contender to NL Central also-ran. The Brew Crew suffered a huge power outage in the early going thanks to a rash of injuries, starting with preseason surgeries to two first basemen—Corey Hart and Mat Gamel. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who had a terrific 2012 campaign, has played only 54 games because of knee issues. But as stagnant as the offense has been, the pitching has been even worse. Milwaukee’s pitchers own a combined 4.09 ERA, 11th in the NL, and their starters have a league worst 4.79 ERA. To add insult to injury, there’s the inescapable saga of former MVP Ryan Braun, who has drawn the ire of baseball pundits, players and teammates for his reported PED use and links to the Biogenesis Clinic in Florida. Braun’s suspension, which will keep him out of action for the remainder of the season, puts an exclamation point on an already disappointing year in Milwaukee.
HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (10th in NL)
Despite their middle-of-the-road offense, the Brew Crew have profited from one of the top one-two punches in the game, with Norichika Aoki leading off and Jean Segura having a breakout season in the second slot. Aoki’s .360 on-base percentage is one of baseball’s best from the top of the order, while Segura has been doing it all. He leads the NL in hits, and is second in the league in triples and stolen bases. And Segura is not the only hitter who has developed In Milwaukee when given a chance to play every day. Center fielder Carlos Gomez has finally become the player many expected him to be when the speedster was a top prospect in Minnesota. On a less positive note, second baseman Rickie Weeks’ game continues to be in free fall, and the Brewers have yet to find a playable bat to man first base with Hart out for the season.
PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-15th in NL)
The Brewers’ initial decision to go with a youth movement in the rotation was moderated by their late-spring signing of veteran free agent Kyle Lohse, who is having another solid season in the NL Central. But whatever Milwaukee’s master plan is—or was—none of it has worked in a rotation that ranks close to the bottom in quality starts. Expected ace Yovani Gallardo hasn’t been able to pitch reliably past the sixth inning, and not one other starter has truly been effective. Just three Milwaukee starters have made more than 20 starts on the season (Lohse, Gallardo and Wily Peralta). Other than those three, only Marco Estrada (12) has made as many as 10 starts. Matters aren’t much better in the bullpen, as John Axford pitched his way out of the closer’s role, and replacement Jim Henderson lost time due to injury. With the trade deadline nearing, the Brewers could be looking to deal experienced bullpen arms such as Mike Gonzalez.
(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.”
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)
Quick … which catcher had the greatest statistical season in Cubs history?
I’ll give you a second to think about it.
What about Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett? He went to six All-Star Games, won the 1935 NL MVP and was generally considered the best catcher in NL history until Johnny Bench came along.
Maybe Randy Hundley. He went to an All-Star Game, won a Gold Glove and threw out a remarkable 50 percent of base stealers four times in his career.
Jody Davis? Johnny Kling? Keith Moreland even played some catcher.
What would you say if I told you it was Rick Wilkins? Yes, the same Rick Wilkins who was a 23rd-round pick out of Furman University. The same Rick Wilkins who played for eight different teams in his 11 big league seasons. The same Rick Wilkins who put up a career .244/.332/.410 (AVG/OBP/SLG) slash line. Not exactly the stuff of legend.
But then there was 1993—a year in which the peripatetic Cubs backstop hit .303 (he never again hit better than .270), slammed 30 home runs (he never again hit more than 14) and drove in 73 runs (he never again plated more than 59). That season, he compiled 6.6 wins above replacement (WAR), an advanced statistic meant to summarize a player’s value to his team in a single, all-encompassing number.
According to stats website Fangraphs, the source of these ﬁgures, anything above a 6.0 is considered an MVP-caliber season. The best Hartnett ever managed was a 5.6. Mind you, Hartnett’s career WAR was 53.4; Wilkins’ was only 14.0 (and, remember, almost half of that came from one season).
There’s no better way to get baseball fans riled up than starting a good, old-fashioned intergenerational debate. Stats geeks and old-school fans alike can spend countless hours arguing the merits of Aramis Ramirez over Ron Santo or Ryne Sandberg over Rogers Hornsby.
For our July All-Star issue, we set out to ﬁnd the best-ever single season by a Cubs player at each position in the team’s more than 100-year history. Of course, it seems obvious Mark Grace would have had the best ﬁrst-base season (he didn’t) or that Billy Williams was the top left ﬁelder (he wasn’t).
There are a million ways to go about a task like this, and they’re all incredibly subjective. So we turned to a single advanced metric to help us ﬁgure things out. WAR is an all-inclusive stat that takes into account offense, defense and baserunning to determine how many wins a player is worth over a league-average replacement player.
We’re not saying the men on our list are necessarily the best players in Cubs history. Some of them are. Several of them decidedly are not. But they all had at least one spectacular season that set them apart statistically and can truly be considered the best ever by a Cub at their respective positions (as measured by this one metric).
We also take time this month to look down the chain at some of the other All-Star athletes throughout the organization. The Cubs are building a winner from the bottom up, and fans need to know which players are on the rise. That includes everyone from this year’s ﬁrst-round draft pick (second overall) Kris Bryant to minor league mashers like Dustin Geiger and Rock Shoulders (whose name we try to work into every issue if we can).
Finally, to ensure the pipeline of young talent remains strong, the Cubs are investing heavily in their international scouting and player development. Outside of the U.S., more major league players hail from the Dominican Republic than from any other country. The Cubs crop includes big leaguers such as Starlin Castro and top minor league prospects like Junior Lake. While the restoration of Wrigley Field is getting the headlines on the facilities front, the Cubs recently opened a 50-acre baseball academy in the Dominican to ﬁnd more top talent and diamonds in the rough. We give you a look inside the state-of-the-art facility.
We’ll be releasing our WAR All-Stars position by position here on the blog in the coming weeks. If you want to weigh in with your own opinions, email us at email@example.com or talk to us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.
Let the debate begin.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
One year ago today, first baseman Anthony Rizzo made his Cubs debut in a 5-3 victory against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field. The then-22-year-old got off to an auspicious start, going 2-for-4 with a double and the go-ahead RBI. In 161 games for the Cubs, Rizzo has hit .270/.341/.466 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 27 home runs and 92 RBI. In May, the team locked up the cornerstone player with a seven-year, $41 million contract that includes two option years.
(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.”
The Chicago Cubs today announced Friday start times for the remainder of the 2013 season. The four Friday games listed below previously marked as TBD are now scheduled for 3:05 p.m. CDT.
Friday, July 5 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, CSN-TV
Friday, July 12 vs. St. Louis Cardinals, WGN-TV
Friday, Aug. 2 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, WGN-TV
Friday, Aug. 16 vs. St. Louis Cardinals, CSN-TV
Most people who throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field worry about just getting the ball to home plate. Former Scrubs star John C. McGinley worried about getting the proper movement on the pitch. The character actor and big-time sports fan has been gracing screens big and small for more than 20 years. He recently played iconic broadcaster Red Barber in the movie 42 and was on hand at the Friendly Confines for Jackie Robinson Day on April 16.
To read the entire interview, pick up the June issue of Vine Line.