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With Joe Maddon gone, time for the Ricketts family to take the blame for the Cubs’ decline

Ownership confused the fan base’s aching hunger for a World Series title with the notion that nothing that came after winning one would matter.

Four years after winning a World Series, the Cubs and chairman Tom Ricketts are tearing it all down.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his siblings need to spend more money if they’re serious about returning to the glory days of 2016.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So now the unpleasant business of parting company with manager Joe Maddon is done. Two things about that are true: It had to happen, and it’s too bad it came to this.

The man who helped lead the Cubs to what had been unthinkable, a World Series title, was also the man who oversaw a talented team that couldn’t take advantage of the open window in front of it. The failure wasn’t all Maddon’s fault. He might not even be answerable to 25 percent of it. But in sports, if you’re not winning, you’re getting ready to be asked what you’d like for a final meal. So Maddon was taken away on a gurney after a meeting late Saturday with team president Theo Epstein in St. Louis. The announcement came Sunday. The next victim will be hired soon.

Not nearly enough of the blame for the decline of the last three years has gone to ownership. We’ve watched the Rickettses rest comfortably on their laurels since the 2016 championship. They confused the fan base’s aching hunger for a title with the notion that nothing that came after winning one would matter. And now, for the life of them, they can’t understand why any anger would be directed at them.

The anger, of course, comes from the feeling of being hung upside-down until every last dime has fallen out of every last pocket. The anger comes from chairman Tom Ricketts’ infamous quote in February, when he was asked why a team valued at $3.1 billion didn’t pursue top free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado during the offseason.

‘‘We don’t have any more [money],’’ he said.

The Ricketts family has turned the area around Wrigley Field into a glass-and-steel water park of revenue streams. And now, with the new Marquee Sports Network ready to suck more money from fans who want to watch Cubs games on TV, the family will achieve its goal of fabulous wealth. Oh, wait, it already is rich beyond belief. Well, you never can have too many mansions and tax-appeal opportunities.

If ownership is serious about returning to the glory days of 2016, it needs to open the vault even more for Epstein and the baseball operation. If it isn’t serious about winning another title or doesn’t think there’s a correlation between increased spending and sustained success, a class-action lawsuit for corporate malfeasance is in order.

The Rickettses will scream to the heavens that they spent large amounts of money on Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow, and where, they’ll say, did that get the Cubs? But saying, ‘‘We took the spending route before, and it didn’t work,’’ is a cop-out of massive proportions. For a major-market team, big spending shouldn’t be a one-time event. It should be a yearly exercise, especially when the farm system isn’t producing fruit. It should be incremental.

How often have we heard team owners say they needed a new stadium or higher ticket prices to have the revenue streams necessary to put a great product on the field? Beyond number. The Ricketts family is about to charge fans a premium fee to watch Cubs games on TV. There had better be a large, immediate bump in the payroll. Please don’t tell me, as Epstein told reporters the other day, that the baseball side won’t see any benefits of the new TV deal for a year or two.

Please don’t tell me the Cubs already have a big payroll. With the amount of cash ownership is hauling in, I’ll go all ‘‘Oliver’’’ on you: Please, sir, I want some more.

If the baseball operation gets more money — and I’m not convinced it will — the burden will shift even more to Epstein, who hasn’t done well in free agency the last few years. The Cubs depleted their farm system to help them win the World Series, and we saw the cost of it in 2018 and 2019. But that doesn’t explain their inability to draft a pitcher who can help at the big-league level. And it doesn’t explain the scouting department’s inability to find nuggets deeper in the draft. The exceptional September performance of Nico Hoerner, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2018, brought a lot of excitement to the fan base. More than anything, however, it was a stark reminder of just how little has come out of the farm system.

Epstein knows all this. He knows the Cubs’ backslide the last couple of seasons isn’t all the manager’s fault. Maddon was much the same Joe in 2019 as he was in the championship season, with the same virtues and the same warts. He still spun the lineup every day. He lacked the spark to fire up a too-often listless team.

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Epstein and Ricketts talked about Maddon’s future. I can imagine Ricketts’ inner struggle between wanting to keep the cute-and-cuddly Maddon, the epitome of Cubness, and his chance to cut a $6 million salary from the budget.

I’m guessing ‘‘Who can we get for $800,000 a year?’’ won out.

Whoever the next manager is will have big shoes to fill. Maddon was a huge presence in Chicago. He did what about 50 other managers before him couldn’t do. He was engaging and never met a news conference he didn’t like. He has a restaurant near Wrigley that will continue to operate even though he’s gone. The next manager won’t have Joe looking over his shoulder, but he will have the aroma of steak from Maddon’s Post in his nostrils.

What’s the most inexpensive item on the menu? I don’t know. Ask the Rickettses.