ROSEMONT – Bud Selig made a point Thursday to say he wasn’t ready to sign off on the Miami Marlins’ roster-purge trade with Toronto that has fans in Miami still paying for a year-old stadium fuming.
But during the same conversation with a handful of baseball writers at a Rosemont hotel, the baseball commissioner made it clear he’s a willing, vocal supporter of high-revenue signature teams such as the Cubs and Boston Red Sox committing to rebuilding seasons despite charging some of the highest ticket prices in the game – with the Cubs’ intentional, multiyear project in particular marking an historic first for a big-market team in the free agency era.
“What the Cubs are doing in my opinion with [team president] Theo [Epstein], they’re absolutely on the right track. I can’t be critical of that,” Selig said when asked about the Cubs’ and Red Sox’ stated plans of rebuilding despite continuing ticket prices that rank both among the top three in the game.
Selig said he doesn’t believe the Red Sox are rebuilding, despite Boston president and CEO Larry Lucchino acknowledging at least a short-term rebuilding while talking with two Chicago writers a day earlier.
“We refuse to put a timetable on it,” Lucchino said. “But we sure don’t have any five-year plans or any such things.”
The bottom line in baseball’s highest offices seems to be just that. Selig spoke at Thursday’s conclusion of quarterly owners meetings about record attendance and the potential for the industry to crack the $8 billion mark in revenue for the first time next year – in part on the strength of a new set of national TV deals that were approved by owners Thursday and that roughly double the annual take from the previous deals.
Selig invoked the name of legendary executive Branch Rickey when talking about Epstein’s organization-building efforts while ignoring that the erstwhile Rickey operated in a pre-free agency, pre-draft, pre-TV-money era of cheap labor that required drawing paying customers to make a profit and that presented Rickey with the greatest, most obvious market inefficiency in baseball history to exploit, given the brass to tackle it: segregation.
The fact is the Cubs are one of the highest-revenue teams in baseball. And they raised prices on 38 of their 65 ticket price points after losing 101 games last season. And their first two free agent signings of this winter are bargain one-year deals as they continue to suggest patience for a homegrown core they envision emerging in some uncertain future.
And the game’s top official is on board, even if it means a lukewarm effort to be competitive in the short term.
“There are different ways to try to compete, and sometimes you’ve got to be realistic,” Selig said. “And sometimes you have to say to yourself, I’ve got to rebuild my scouting [department], I’ve got to rebuild my international, I have to do a series of things.
“I’ll repeat to you one more time: I’m a believer in that. In spite of the fact that our dynamic has changed, I still believe it. I would do it again if I was running a club, and I can’t be critical.”
That doesn’t justify one of the highest revenue teams in such a growing-revenue sport not making a bona fide effort to provide present-day value for the present-day dollars they’re charging for their product.
“I don’t think anybody can accuse the Red Sox of not [trying to compete]. And I like the way the Cubs are going,” Selig said. “If I was running the franchise, I would follow that pattern to a T.”
Selig’s willing to do more than that for the Cubs and chairman Tom Ricketts when it comes to reviving efforts to get $160 million in public money for Wrigley Field renovation now that the presidential election has passed.
“I’ve talked a lot to Tom, and I certainly want to be involved and helpful, to help them get done what they want to get done,” said Selig, who also got involved to help push through public funding for the Cubs’ new spring training complex, as well as the controversial new stadium in Miami. “Tom and I will have conversations in the near future, and I’ll learn more about where they are.”
In a rare and brief media interview Thursday, Ricketts said he doesn’t expect Selig to get involved in talks with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that ended abruptly several months ago over family patriarch Joe Ricketts’ involvement with a proposal for a racially-tinged smear-campaign against Emanuel’s pal President Barack Obama.
Emanuel is expected to eventually sign on to a Wrigley plan but not until handling several higher-priority items on his agenda. And Ricketts on Thursday said he had no immediate expectation of renewed traction in the post-election climate.
“Basically, right now were just working through our plans and then we’ll just start the process,” Ricketts said, “and hopefully sometime soon we’ll have it all figured out. That’s really all we can do.”