CHICAGO – As the baseball season began, Chicago buzzed about plans to upgrade wilting Wrigley Field. Then word spread that the patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs considered bankrolling a $10 million racially tinged campaign against President Obama, at the same time the team sought his hometowns help with its $300 million renovation.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the presidents friend and former chief of staff, has since refused negotiate financing or even take phone calls from the Cubs chairman.
Now fans are left wondering if the complicated financial deals and presidential politics mean the teams owners will have to put more money into the stadium, and less into building a winning team.
Hes got $10 million to spend on that nonsense. He should spend $10 million on pitching, longtime fan Pam Paxton said of Joe Ricketts, head of the Cubs-owning Ricketts family, as she waited for Wrigleys bleachers so she could watch the last-place team.
Ricketts, a conservative benefactor and founder of TD Ameritrade, swiftly squelched the proposal for an ad campaign revisiting racially provocative sermons delivered by Obamas former pastor. Ricketts children joined him in repudiating its message.
But now the family that three years ago bought the team with the famously loyal fans is learning something about Chicago-style hardball.
The Ricketts have tried to contact the Mayor but hes said that he does not want to talk with them today, tomorrow or anytime soon, read a statement sent to The Associated Press from the Emanuels office, which described the mayor as livid.
Unable to talk to Emanuel, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts – who three years ago won over fans with the story of meeting his wife in Wrigleys bleachers – has been calling black city aldermens offices and appearing on a black-oriented radio programs.
Hes pleaded for understanding and argued the team should not be blamed for the controversy, saying the attack campaign is not something that was ever considered by anyone in the Ricketts family, including his father.
One of the aldermen, Howard Brookins, said it would be folly not to expect blowback from Obamas Democratic hometown.
Especially with someone with the reputation of Rahm Emanuel, who punishes people who are his political enemies, I dont know how you think you can get away with that, Brookins said.
The political drama has meant limbo for a baseball team suffering through one of its worst seasons in its bleak history. Any hope the team had of starting construction as soon as the season ends likely has vanished.
The Cubs had asked the City Council for permission to put $150 million in city amusement taxes into the renovation, while asking state lawmakers to also issue $150 million in bonds. The team also asked the city to relax Wrigleys landmark status, which could bring in $150 million more from advertising, sponsorship and perhaps a Jumbotron.
It was a long shot that the legislature would approve public funds with the state embroiled in one of the nations worst budget crises. But with Emanuels support it was at least possible. If talks resume now, the team must wait until the fall session – after the November election – to even broach the subject. And the Ricketts negotiating stance is severely weakened.
The team says that means at least another year of spending $10 million to $15 million to keep up with repairs on the creaky 98-year-old ballpark
The rising maintenance costs associated with keeping a 100-year-old ballpark functioning diverts millions of dollars in resources that could be invested in player personnel, said Ricketts spokesman Dennis Culloton.
Even before the Ricketts flap, some had their doubts about renovating Wrigley – just the latest reminder of the sometimes uneasy relationship between the baseball team and the city to which its brought millions of entertainment dollars.
Residents grumbled when Wrigley installed lights in 1988, the last team in the majors to do so, arguing night games turned a quiet neighborhood into a drunken street party and front yards into restrooms.
Those who own the rooftop bleachers that surround the field bellowed when the team moved to cut off their views.
Now theyre concerned the Cubs quest for a more profitable ballpark ultimately will hurt the neighborhood, and are pleased with the latest delay.
It bought us some time, said Beth Murphy, owner both of rooftop bleachers and Murphys Bleachers, a tavern beyond the center field wall. One of my neighbors put it this way: Theres a tipping point where the neighborhood changes and its not the same neighborhood as it is now.