Lovable loser Cubs sitting on gold mine

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Around the trade deadline, when Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts let a man he just fired run his team at one of the most important times of the season, Cubs officials spread the word: Alfonso Soriano(notes) can be had, and we'll eat a lot of money if you want him. One of those disseminating the information was Jim Hendry, the lame-duck GM and issuer of Soriano's crippling contract.

No team bit, of course, not even with the Cubs offering more than half of the $54 million remaining on the final three seasons of his eight-year monstrosity. And those moments leading up to the deadline best encapsulate the Cubs' descent into futility in recent years and worries regarding the coming ones. Any GM who botches a monster contract that badly (and complements it with a few others) deserves to be fired, and any owner who keeps a canned GM on board during such a seminal time deserves to be questioned.

Hendry's misdeeds are well-chronicled. He thrived early in his tenure, nearly delivered a World Series appearance, turned aggressive in free agency after falling short, bombed out and rode a wave of his own sewage to the unemployment line. He'll find work. He'll succeed. He just didn't in Chicago, same as everyone else who held his title over the past 103 seasons.

Ricketts, on the other hand, remains a wild card more than two years after his family bought the Cubs for $845 million. He wants to turn the Cubs into Red Sox Midwest, a bold – and, even better, doable – plan that would necessitate overhauling Wrigley Field the same way Boston did Fenway Park and creating tens of millions, and maybe more, in new, annual revenue streams.

How he wants to do it is the disturbing part. Crain's Chicago reported this week that Ricketts has met with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel about using upward of $200 million in public funds to renovate Wrigley. Ricketts tried convincing former mayor Richard M. Daley to pledge the same; he said no. Emanuel, Crain's reported, is far more keen on the idea and could propose it to the state legislature within months.

Unlike the Florida Marlins or even the Chicago White Sox, who received public money to fund their stadiums after threatening to move elsewhere, the Cubs are going nowhere. With zero leverage, Ricketts is essentially asking taxpayers to pay for his team's competitiveness. The Cubs have sapped most of their existing revenue streams and raised ticket prices to the max ($53 per on average, higher than every team but the Yankees and Red Sox). A bigger, better Wrigley would create jobs, sure, but not nearly enough to offset the $200 million, and the remainder of the benefits would go directly into the Cubs' coffers.

Public funding of stadiums remains a remarkable boondoggle, so one-sided that the mere mention of it should inspire politicians to publicly berate owners for suggesting it. Instead, they kowtow, a cadre of jock-sniffers conspiring with the spineless ones worried their constituents will consider them feckless for daring to mess with an institution like the Cubs. This is how stadiums got built during the boom of Bud Selig's tenure as MLB commissioner. This is how Ricketts hopes to define his ownership.

And if it works, it will more than overcome the mistakes of Hendry, whose three biggest ones – Soriano at $136 million, Carlos Zambrano(notes) for $91.5 million and Milton Bradley(notes) for $30 million – cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars, enough to cover the money Ricketts wants from the city and a few cases of Old Style to spare.

With a new Wrigley and better management, the Cubs very quickly could make the Big Three – the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies – into a Big Four. The state of these Cubs is ugly. Next year's won't be much better, not with a young core of Starlin Castro(notes) and … uh … hmm.

There are pieces (Matt Garza(notes)) and parts (Marlon Byrd(notes)) with some value. Soriano and Zambrano, who has one more year at $18 million, are zircon at diamond prices. It still makes no sense that Hendry held onto free agents-to-be Carlos Pena and Reed Johnson(notes) at the deadline, and his excuse – he wanted to let the new GM deal with them – rings especially hollow considering August trades are near-impossible to make and his successor is Randy Bush, who happened to be his right-hand man.

Ricketts' logic was backward, too. He said he kept Hendry on board to ensure drafted players signed … which they would've no matter who was GM. And certainly the new GM, who Ricketts said he wanted to have a better grasp on statistical metrics than born-scout Hendry, would've cared that Pena and Johnson have no value to the 2012-and-beyond Cubs while a prospect, any prospect, might.

Whoever takes the job will inherit a potential gold mine, especially if Ricketts succeeds in convincing Emanuel hundreds of millions of dollars are better served enriching rich men than fixing schools or curbing violence or doing just about anything (don't fall for the charlatans who use the not-all-public-money-is-the-same argument; it's nothing more than spin). It's one of the best gigs in sports, the resources combined with the promise of deification should the new GM actually win a World Series.

It's still a good gig even without the new stadium, as long as someone smart is running the show. Hendry, in the end, wasn't astute enough. At the public execution Friday, Ricketts preached that Hendry hadn't satisfied the Cubs' "culture of accountability." He wasn't wrong. Go a century without winning a championship, and nine years is a more-than-fair shake for a GM.

Ricketts thanked Hendry for his years of service and his laudable three weeks of work following his July 22 firing. Both parties now move forward, Hendry to a scouting job somewhere, the Cubs to a new leadership group and, they hope, a renovated Wrigley to boot.

The paradox is evident: Even if it's bad for the people of Chicago, a publicly funded Wrigley restoration is excellent for the Cubs. The team's future as a have vs. a mega-have depends on it. As does the question of whether Tom Ricketts is the best thing for the Cubs or just another Jim Hendry in the owners' suite.

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