It's about time Cubs played a little hardball

Ricketts' reluctant proposal of potential move from Wrigley should be dose of reality for renovation opponents

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reacts to Tom Ricketts comment that if he doesn't get the Wrigley renovations he wants, he'll consider moving the Cubs.

Hearing Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts publicly threaten to move the team out of Wrigley Field for the first time Wednesday if his restoration plan meets resistance immediately raised an obvious question.

What took so long?

Ricketts told the City Club of Chicago what he should have shouted from the rooftops of Wrigleyville months ago to anybody standing in the way of the Cubs spending $300 million of their own money to make changes to the 99-year-old ballpark. If Ricketts had taken this tack earlier in the process, the only thing awaiting renovation at Wrigley would be the Cubs pitching staff.

"I'm not sure how anyone is going to stop the signs in the outfield, but if it comes to the point that we don't have the ability to do what we need to do in our outfield, then we're going to have to consider moving,'' Ricketts said in response to a direct question. "It's as simple as that.''

It's never that simple in Chicago. And in the context Ricketts pleaded for after making those potentially game-changing comments, he reiterated his first priority remains "to win in Wrigley Field.'' In all likelihood, the Cubs will play at Clark and Addison into perpetuity, which is even longer than Alfonso Soriano's contract. Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel, when asked about Ricketts' threat, vowed "there will be a Jumbotron in left field.''

Odds still favor that result. But the chairman of the Cubs didn't accidentally say to a roomful of political junkies what so many have been thinking about his weak negotiating position for a while. This was a businessman making a point, not a mistake.

Ricketts used too much subtlety in delivering his overdue message and, as ultimatums go, his surprising words lacked force and conviction. Yet they still resonated beyond an audience that included Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens because Ricketts never had said them before.

Opting to include moving as a consideration now speaks mostly to how little ground rooftop owners have ceded to the Cubs since the joint announcement April 15 that, in hindsight, seems premature. This was a statement made for their behalf more than the politicians in the room.

Every other time throughout this long, drawn-out process when Ricketts had been asked how he would respond to opposition to a revenue-generating, 6,000-square-foot video board and other signage, he stressed how optimistic he was of a deal. This time, Ricketts reopened a door that presumably had been shut two weeks ago. This time, Ricketts took advantage of early positive reaction to artist renderings of a restored Wrigley Field and the surrounding area to apply pressure to any remaining opponents to get on board.

Examining the detailed drawings of the Cubs' vision for Wrigley and the surrounding neighborhood released Wednesday makes it hard to imagine anybody looking at the plans without seeing progress. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the plan preserves tradition represented by the center-field scoreboard as well as recognizes the lucrative marketing opportunities that currently don't exist for the Cubs.

The concerns of purists remind me of Notre Dame renovating its football stadium, a sports landmark on par with Wrigley Field, in 1997. The stadiums stage different sports in very different cities and neighborhoods but both represent something nostalgic and special worth preserving.

Once a bigger, more modern-looking Notre Dame Stadium reopened, all the fears and complaints subsided. Architects seamlessly blended the past with the future in a way sketches suggest Wrigley renovators will try.

An emailer asked me what Bill Veeck would think of the Cubs tearing out the seats in the front row of upper center field called "the Bill Veeck seats'' to make room for an LED ribbon board. I think Veeck might applaud the innovation of incorporating 42,000 square feet of advertising inside and outside a baseball relic.

From where I sit, the only view that needs to change is the rooftop owners' perspective.

Fighting the Cubs in court only will exhaust money and resources that might be invested wiser in business opportunities related to the new Wrigley Field experience. Why should we assume rooftop businesses will wither and die if the Cubs block some of the views with a giant video board? The neighborhood figures to be livelier than ever. They still can throw parties on the roofs during games and might even benefit from the increased bustle from the development on Clark that includes a 175-room hotel and plaza. They still can work with the Cubs to figure out creative ways to maximize potential out of new customers.

They think Ricketts was bluffing when he finally played the relocation card Wednesday.

Maybe he was. But can they really risk being wrong?

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO