Cubs

Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

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Ricketts on pursuit of Theo, Kenney's future and more

With Theo Epstein and Co. firmly ensconced in the Cubs offices at Wrigley Field, Tuesday was time for Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts to finally discuss the process that he followed in wooing Epstein away from his hometown Boston Red Sox. Ricketts shed some light on the hiring and what it took to convince him to take on the ultimate sports challenge in trying to win a World Series with the Cubs.

I sat down with the chairman for a one-on-one interview for an "Inside Look" epsiode that will air in a couple weeks on Comcast SportsNet.

Ricketts touched on a multitude of topics, including the future of Crane Kenney, the Cubs' president of business operations who has come under fire from some members of the media as well as the Cubs' rabid fan base who have linked him to the failures of the past regime. However, Ricketts pledged tremendous support for Kenney and even went as far as announcing that he is working on a contract extension for him.

Day one, square one when we bought the team, everyone that was already here started fresh," Ricketts said. "What Ive seen firsthand is execution. The baseball side and the business side are two sides of the same coin. We have to be working together to push the team forward to be the best we can be on the field.

"Im talking with Crane on extending his contract. Were going to have him as part of this organization for a long time, locking down all the business side. Crane has done a great job of executing on the business side. There has been some stuff in the media (about Kenney) and that doesnt apply to me. I dont listen to that. Hes doing his job and hes doing his job well and Cubs fans need to know that.

While the Cubs ownership group understands the need to build through player development, Ricketts expects his major league team to be vastly improved in 2012 despite a rough 2011 season that saw the Cubs finish 71-91 and 25 games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers.

"We don't talk about rebuilding," Ricketts said. "We are coming to win every year. However, we will not look at 2012 at the expense of our long term future."

With large contracts on the books for Carlos Zambrano (one year left at 18.875 million) and Alfonso Soriano (three years left at 18 million per season) many around the baseball world have assumed the Cubs are stuck with both players but Ricketts made it clear that if Epstein decides that he needs to eat both deals and move forward, then he has the authority from ownership to do just that.

"Theo and his team have complete and total authority on all baseball decisions," the chairman said. "You as the owner cannot insert yourself into the process. If you do, then you have no level of accountability in the organization."

Ricketts had been under fire from the media and an increasingly apathetic fan base as the 2011 season spiraled out of control and saw the Cubs far out of the race in early July. It was at that point that he had a meeting with then-GM Jim Hendry and both men decided it would be best for the Cubs and Hendry to part ways.

"We think we gave Jim a fair shot, but when it looked like it wasnt going to be where we needed it to be, we had a great conversation and just decided to part ways, and that got the process started," Ricketts said. "The period between when Jim left and Theo came in was a little awkward because you couldnt really tell people what you were doing. But there was never a moment where I didnt really feel we had it under control."

Ricketts spoke with approximately 20 people within the baseball world and got varying opinions on how to rebuild his baseball organization. But he posed one question to everyone he spoke with and their answers were key in how he proceeded to find Hendrys successor. The question was in a perfect world, who do you think is the right guy for this team?"

We went through all that process and, obviously, Theo came right to the top," he said.

With Epstein and his team now on board, the next big project on Ricketts' plate is the renovation of Wrigley Field and that process will have to be a team effort between the Cubs and the City of Chicago, according to the chairman.

"Where were at right now is we really just have to keep the dialogue going with our elected officials on what we can all work on together, because for the amount of money were talking about to really get Wrigley up to where it should be, its going to have to be a team effort," he said.

"Its going to have to be a contribution from us, a contribution from the different levels of government, a few other pockets if possible, to really package up something that works for everyone."

Ricketts has heard the suggestions of knocking down Wrigley Field from foul pole to foul pole and rebuilding the ancient grandstand from scratch replete with all of the modern amenities. However, he does not favor that model and believes that his intensely loyal fan base does not either.

"I dont think people want a replica of Wrigley Field; they want Wrigley Field," Ricketts said. "And I think that fans, when they get here and get to their seats and look out on the field, theyre where they want to be. This is the best place to watch a game and the energy and the field, the charm are all there."

On the topic of how the new collective bargaining agreement will change how the Cubs do business because of the restrictions on spending in the amateur draft and in international free agency, Ricketts is confident that his new baseball operations team will maximize the value of their draft picks and will spend their available dollars wisely.

"What the league has done is theyve taken that play out of the playbook, where you spend a lot on the amateur players to build up the system which we probably would have done, much like we did in June," he said. "We probably would have kept that going and spent more on amateur players than well be allowed to spend in the current CBA. Its a fact of life; were just going to have to adjust the strategy around the new rules. And ultimately, I think well be fine.

"We have the best fans. They need to see a plan and with Theo, Jed and their team, they have a plan and fans can be confident about the future"

See more of Tom Ricketts on Chicago Baseball Hot Stove, CTL and SportsNet Central.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”