It’s getting harder and harder to remember when the Cubs were fun.
When adoring fans waited to mingle with golly-gee chairman Tom Ricketts. When you had to stifle the urge to bounce adorable Addison Russell on your knee. When a World Series title, after more than a century of waiting, pointed to more championships ahead.
When baseball was the only thing that mattered.
Remember those more innocent times?
You can be forgiven if your memory is getting a little fuzzy. Since the 2016 season and the World Series party that threatened to never end, real life has intruded in all its ugliness. The Cubs no longer are the organization that sows fun. They’re the organization that defends itself.
The latest reminder, one that arrived like a hammer to the head, is a batch of emails from Joe Ricketts, the father of Tom Ricketts and the billionaire who helped his children buy the Cubs in 2009. The emails leaked by the website Splinter revealed racist views.
“Muslims are naturally my (our) enemy,” Joe Ricketts wrote in one of them.
Since the emails were made public, Tom Ricketts has tried to distance himself from Old Man Wing Nut, saying Joe Ricketts has nothing to do with the team. But when your dad basically bought the club for you, it’s like a dollar bill trying to distance itself from George Washington.
If it were just that one episode, you might be inclined to call it an unfortunate and isolated incident. But the Cubs have had a string of unpleasantries, starting with their 2016 decision to trade for closer Aroldis Chapman, whom Major League Baseball had suspended earlier that season for domestic violence. There was an initial public outcry, but it went away about as fast as Chapman threw his first pitch at Wrigley Field. What’s one choked girlfriend when there’s a World Series title beckoning?
Then came the Cubs’ decision this offseason to stand by Russell, the shortstop who was accused by his ex-wife of physical and mental abuse. The progressive franchise didn’t look so progressive anymore, try as it might to sell the idea that it had a responsibility to keep Russell and help him deal with his issues.
Tom Ricketts has worked hard to portray himself as a man of the people, a regular guy who met his wife in the bleachers at Wrigley. But in stark contrast to his assertion that he’s the most accessible owner in sports, he and other family members have been exposed as media-averse. In an email leaked to Splinter in December, the Rickettses seemed extremely concerned about “ambush interviews” — those in which reporters, unannounced, might corner them without clearance from the Cubs’ public-relations department. The horror!
What questions would Tom Ricketts not be ready for? Questions about the player payroll? Hit-and-run strategies? It was a head-shaker. But now that the Islamophobic emails have surfaced, maybe the Cubs chairman had been worried someone would ask him about Joe Ricketts’ views on, I don’t know, why black basketball players jump so high.
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The Cubs are not as fan-friendly as they’ve painted themselves. They’ve tried to wring every last dollar out of their customers, which makes them like every other professional sports franchise. But team officials present the franchise as something distinct, as something noble, as something better. With evidence pouring in to the contrary, they should probably stop that.
Relations between the city of Chicago and the Cubs have often been a contact sport, but the Rickettses have taken it to a different level. The family is trying to unseat Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), whom they see as standing in the way of their push to turn Wrigleyville into Rickettsville, a glass-and-steel world of perpetual cash flow. On the nefarious scale, it falls somewhere between vindictive and downright dirty.
Remember when all you wanted to do was watch Kyle Schwarber have fun? Seems like eons ago.
A lot has changed since the World Series season, but it’s naïve to think life was ideal before the Ricketts family rolled into town. There were issues. Sammy Sosa’s use of “Flintstones vitamins.” Milton Bradley’s anger issues. The 1969 Cubs probably weren’t all choirboys. There wasn’t social media back then, and there wasn’t TMZ. For the longest time during the team’s history, there wasn’t a whole lot of winning, either.
But the gripes about previous ownership groups usually had to do with perceived cheapness. The Ricketts family is dealing with issues that point to insensitivity toward women and religious groups. They have an image problem, which is strange, considering they’re so concerned about image.
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training Tuesday. There will be the usual high expectations for the Cubs. There will be lots of excitement, despite the latest dark clouds and the wild-card loss to the Rockies last season. Fans will lug the usual amount of hope to Mesa, Arizona.
But one thing seems clear: Innocence won’t be making the trip this time.