GOODYEAR, Ariz. — About to begin a season where anything but a World Series title will be considered an epic disappointment, the Cubs refused to get into a war of words with Donald Trump.
The Cubs have been on the periphery of a surreal presidential race, with Trump sending out a cryptic tweet threatening the Ricketts family last month, and then doubling down during Monday’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, saying ownership has done a “rotten job” running the team.
“Maybe Mr. Trump did not follow the season last year,” manager Joe Maddon said.
Maddon claimed to be unaware of the story and had a reporter read Trump’s comments back to him before Tuesday’s 9-6 Cactus League win over the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark.
After overseeing a 24-game improvement and guiding a young team into the National League Championship Series, Maddon won his third Manager of the Year award, with his own press conferences becoming must-see TV.
“I don’t want to get into a battle with Mr. Trump,” Maddon said. “I have no idea what this is all about. It’s been a very entertaining political season. It’s actually to the point now where I prefer watching Fox and CNN over ESPN any day of the week.
“I’m totally enjoying the sport right now. So regardless of what’s being said or how it’s being said, it’s just posturing, anyway.”
Trump took aim at Cubs ownership after reports surfaced that Marlene Ricketts contributed $3 million — before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — to a Super PAC designed to stop the Republican frontrunner.
Marlene is married to Joe Ricketts, the TD Ameritrade founder who is not a visible presence around the team. Board member Pete Ricketts — who made an appearance at Cubs camp in Mesa over the weekend — is the Republican governor of Nebraska. Board member Todd Ricketts is also heavily involved in right-wing politics and helped bankroll Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor’s failed bid for the White House.
Staying in character, Trump didn’t offer much in the way of substance or specifics when Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt asked him about the Ricketts connection. From the transcript on the newspaper’s website:
HIATT: “You said a few weeks ago after a family in Chicago gave some money to a PAC opposing you, you said, ‘They better watch out. They have a lot to hide.’ What should they watch out for?”
TRUMP: “Look, they are spending vicious ... I don’t even know these people. Those Ricketts. I actually said they ought to focus on the Chicago Cubs and, you know, stop playing around. They spent millions of dollars fighting me in Florida. And out of 68 counties, I won 66. I won by 20 points, almost 20 points. Against — everybody thought he was a popular sitting senator. I had $38 million dollars spent on me in Florida over a short period of time — $38 million. And, you know, the Ricketts, I don’t even know these people.”
HIATT: “So, what does it mean, ‘They better watch out?’”
TRUMP: “Well, it means that I’ll start spending on them. I’ll start taking ads telling them all what a rotten job they’re doing with the Chicago Cubs. I mean, they are spending on me. I mean, so am I allowed to say that? I’ll start doing ads about their baseball team. That it’s not properly run or that they haven’t done a good job in the brokerage business lately.”
Theo Epstein, who has a wicked sense of humor, thought about it for a moment, but the president of baseball operations declined to respond to Trump. (Epstein headlined a private Lincoln Park fundraiser for Barack Obama during the last presidential election cycle after The New York Times exposed plans for racially charged attack ads linked to Joe Ricketts.)
Chairman Tom Ricketts, who carefully watches what he says to reporters, addressed the Trump situation during his annual spring-training media session.
“We stand up for what we believe in,” Ricketts said last month. “We support the causes that we think are important. That’s what America should be. That’s who we are.”
Maddon had dinner on Monday with David Axelrod, an old Chicago Tribune reporter turned political consultant and a former senior advisor in the Obama White House. Maddon and his entourage — strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Buss and media-relations director Peter Chase — met at Mastro’s City Hall, the Scottsdale steakhouse, the night before the Arizona primary.
Maddon has a libertarian streak and a $25 million contract. He grew up in an Italian-Polish immigrant family in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region and still returns home to support the Hazleton Integration Project, the foundation he launched to try to help ease the ethnic and racial tension in that blue-collar city.
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
But Maddon didn’t want to make any endorsements or comment on Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric.
“I think it’s very wise for me not to become political,” Maddon said. “I think it’s very wise for me to remain apolitical at this point. There’s so much time left to get this thing all figured out.
“I am a registered voter in Florida. I exercised my right in the primary, and I’ll continue to watch this whole thing unfold. It’s very interesting. Oh my God, I’ve never gone (home) — (or) back to the RV in this situation — and wanted to put on the news as much I want to do that right now.
“So I think from the perspective of getting more people involved — or paying attention — I think it’s all good. Now whether you agree with somebody or not, it never matters to me. I’m probably the most nonjudgmental person you’ve ever met in your life.
“It’s all about individual tastes, where you’re coming from, what do you think, and obviously it leads to some heated discussions.”
While sitting in the dugout, it took more than six minutes before Maddon got the first baseball question during his daily pregame media session.
“That’s all the political crap you’re getting out of me,” Maddon said. “You know I love all this stuff, but I’m not going there. I am not going there.”