You remember, because nobody could ever forget, that last year, Al Yellon had a sitdown with Cubs “owner” Tom Ricketts, where he asked Tom 100 questions, and 94 of them were “Who owns the Cubs?” After a thorough grilling like that it’s no wonder that Ricketts and Al sat down again. Â Let’s take a look at what they covered–mostly so we can see how many ways Al can ask, “Who does Theo report to?”
Sweet Jesus, he’s going to make this three parts again? Â The Thorn Birds was less drawn out than this.
Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts for another wide ranging interview, covering topics from the hiring of Theo Epstein, to ticket sales, to the Triangle Building and Wrigley Field, and a number of other topics.
Note he says “recently” as the very first word. Â This will become important later. Â Yes, I know, it’s like homework. Fine, I’ll remind you when it’s important.
BCB:Â To begin, describe the process of how you wound up with Theo Epstein here.
Any answer that doesn’t involve an ether soaked rag, a black windowless van, and Todd accidentally roofie-ing himself is a lie.
Here’s how you know Al is a trained journalist. Â The answer to this first question was 678 words long. Â I’m not making that up. Â Six hundred seventy-eight. Â That’s 600 more words than Dale Sveum even knows. Â That answer is too long for any question. Â Terrence Malick makes four hour long movies that have less than 678 words in them (and like this answer, makes no sense.)
Take a deep breath. Â Let’s wade into this complete nonsense.
TR:Â Iâ€™d be happy to talk about the process.
Apparently, you’re more than happy to talk about it.
It kind of began, obviously, in August.
It was a dark and stormy night…
One of the thoughts on the timing of the announcement on Jim [Hendry] was that it would give us a good runway to do some homework before the end of the season because you really canâ€™t talk to people that are employed by other teams during the season.
Of course, everyone knows this is bullshit.
Typically you want to talk to teams that are on their way to the playoffs and itâ€™s really awkward and you just want to wait till the end of the season.
It’s too bad everyone’s season couldn’t have ended in May like yours did. Â Think of all the time you could have saved on tampering.
So we had about six weeks to do a fair amount of background work, and there were really two types of background work.
Tom went to see “J. Edgar” to learn how to do background work, but then spent weeks wasting time trying to dig up dirt on the Kennedy family and figuring out what sized panty hose he should wear. Â The other kind of background was hours of daydreaming about whether Theo should hyphenate his name or if Tom should.
We did a lot of quantitative work. I worked with Ari [Kaplan] on our staff and another outside consultant that weâ€™ve used to really study all the teams in two categories. We studied them in wins and we studied them in player development.
No, Ari Kaplan is not Dave Kaplan’s long lost twin brother. Â He’s the stat whiz behind this impressive Web site.
And, by impressive, I mean “pathetic.” Â Check out the “quotes” section, where everyone is unnamed with two notable exceptions. Â The first is Bill James, who says it’s “going to take people like Mr. Kaplan” to understand stats…not Ari himself, just somebody like him. Â And the other named guy? Â Matt Spiegel…oh, for fuck’s sake.
On the win side, we looked at how many wins each team had over the last 10 years, how many games theyâ€™d won for how many dollars theyâ€™d spent over the last 10 years and then how consistently they had won over the last 10 years. Then we tried to rank the teams in who has really won over the last 10 years.
That’s just busy work. Â First, putting ten years on it is dumb, because it can’t accurately capture the work that newer front offices like ones run by Andrew Friedman in Tampa and Jon Daniels in Texas are doing. You know who’s won over the last ten years? Â The Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals. Â Way to go, ace. Â You could have asked a 12 year old and he could have told you that in two minutes. Â Keep writing those checks to Ariball.
So we looked at which teams had won, and we looked at which teams had better systems. In terms of player development, we had some reports that we generate here about how many players of each team make it to the major leagues. We looked at what they call bona fide prospects in each system over time, like how many of the players in each system rank at what would be producing productive major league players. And we also looked at systems in terms of which system had on balance across the entire system the best rankings in terms of looking at each player, projecting them forward and then again ranking all the teams.
Blah, blah, blah…you claim you did all this and you hired Theo. Â Any asshole with a checkbook could have told you to hire Theo. Â You made a great hire, try not to underwhelm us with your description of your search process.
In terms of wins and in terms of player development we also built a tool that kind of cross references them so you could take a team and see where they are in these various different, on these different scales.
Are you still answering? Â Did Al have a stroke? Â We get it, you hired Theo. Â He’s famous. Â Even my mom knows who he is, and this is the woman who called me on July 31, 2004 to ask if I’d heard that the Cubs traded for “Norod.”
So, on the quantitative side, we basically tried to figure out which systems were outperforming the others. And in general, there are probably seven or eight that rise to the top when you look at it. And some are probably several of the teams that youâ€™d expect. But, there are a handful of teams that have out-performed on those metrics.
One team who has not out-performed those metrics has been the Cubs…for like 70 years, nice of you to finally get around to playing lip service to it.
On the qualitative side, or kind of on the personal side, I talked to about 20 people in baseball who I thought I could trust and who had perspectives I thought would be useful.
But you just said you can’t do that in-season. Â Were they all unemployed? Â Were they all your own employees–who should be unemployed?
Thatâ€™s some current GMs, some former GMs, some future GMs, agents, owners that had been through the process, other people who had been around baseball, really with two focuses.
I’m gonna need a nap to get through this answer. Â You know what? Â Let’s ask this cat if we should read the rest of the world’s longest, most pointless answer:
I agree. Â Let’s skip ahead.
Of all those people, everybody gave me a few ideas on who they like and who they think is good and Theo was at the top of everybodyâ€™s list.
Well, no shit.
BCB:Â Did you think he would be available at the time you started the process?
TR:Â I had no idea.
We figured that out two years ago.
BCB:Â Was he eager to talk when you approached him?
TR:Â He was interested. I think Theo saw this as the next challenge for him, something that might fit.
He was interested in two things. Â Turning the biggest end of season choke in baseball history into more power and more money someplace else. Â Congratulations on both counts.
So we got together and talked for a few hours one day about philosophies and baseball and it just felt right from a baseball perspective, from a personality perspective. It seemed like we would get along well and be able to work well together. So we had that meeting and he came to Chicago and looked around and got comfortable with us and we got comfortable with him and then we went back to the Red Sox and said weâ€™d like to finish this deal up.
I’d have bet you money I don’t have that Al would have tried to make a hilarious joke here about Starbucks, but apparently Al was so worn down by the first question soliloquy that he lost all will to make a funny.
BCB:Â When you hired him, or when you were going through this process did you anticipate him being in the position he is now or did you anticipate him being in the same position as Jim Hendry? Now you have a President of Baseball Operations and a General Manager, two people when there was just one before. Had you anticipated that or is that something Theo brought up? How did that all come about?
Even for Al this is dumb. Â You can’t hire a guy away who is under contract for a parallel position. Â They had to give Theo a VP or higher title.
TR:Â I had read that he was looking for a higher title in his next position.
Read that where? Â In one of Bruce Levine’s love notes?
He had said that in a public comment.
What? Â How do you casually work, “I will only leave here in a monkey suit or for a promotion with some other team” into a “public comment?”
We talked about it internally and thought it kind of makes sense.
Remember that at this time the “we” he’s referring to included himself, Crane Kenney and Wally Heyward. Â I wouldn’t let those three stuffed shirts handle a catering order, much less something this important.
Thereâ€™s a lot of decisions on the business side that roll up to the president of business and thereâ€™s all sorts of decisions that roll up to the top of baseball. If we can get a president of baseball operations and he can build his team around him I think weâ€™ll be better off for it. So, it just made a lot of sense for us.
I hope it made more sense than your answer.
BCB:Â Maybe this would be a better question for Theo…
But Theo will never talk to you, because you’re a lunatic.
BCB:Â So what isÂ yourÂ position now?
He did it! Â AL YELLON WINS THE INTERWEBS! He somehow rephrased a “who owns the Cubs” question and got it in!
They report to you ultimately, so what is your position now because you had been overseeing a lot of thisâ€¦. Does it take some of your work?
The only right answer to this question is for Tom to say he hasn’t been involved in the kind of “things” that Theo will. Â You know, player stuff.
TR:Â I hope it takes some of my work.
No. Â You fail. Â Sell the team.
No, the way it works is Crane and Theo report to me and theyâ€™re really the only people in the organization who report to me.
But you report to Crane, too, right? Â I mean, that’s the only reason that dumbass can keep his job, right?
My job is to give those guys all the support they need to be successful. And where I can help out on something, Iâ€™ll help out on something.
You could help Crane pack his office.
BCB:Â To move on to what Crane Kenney does, because you now have two presidents, what specifically are Craneâ€™s responsibilities and what does he nowÂ notÂ do in his position?
Good question, Al. Â What does Crane do, anyway?
TR:Â Thereâ€™s not a lot of change in what Crane does.
There needs to be a complete change in what the meddlesome prick does.
First of all, Crane does a terrific job in terms of keeping the business running
Apparently he doesn’t. Â You guys are running all over the city and state looking for money. Â If he was doing a great job, you’d either actually get some or not need so much, right?
and also he does a great job in looking to the future in things we should be prepared for or changes in the system or changes in baseball or the business of baseball.
From what I hear the only things he’s great at are berating other employees, strolling through the clubhouse before games trying to act like the players don’t hate him to impress his guests and inexplicably sitting in the dugout during batting practice. Â Oh, and lying to people. Â He’s apparently awesome at that.
Craneâ€™s job really hasnâ€™t changed that much.
You said that. Â Twice now, in fact.
I think Theo has a little more bandwidth on some of the things like building the new facility in the Dominican.
“Bandwidth?” Â Oh, just stop talking.
He weighed in on how our new facility will look down there.
“You know what would look awesome here? Â One of these posters!”
Heâ€™ll have the bandwidth to weigh in on the Mesa redesign which is just now getting drawn up.
Knock it off with the bandwidth shit. Â You still own the only park in the big leagues where there isn’t enough real bandwidth for three people to run iPads at the same time.
So I think he can fill in a lot, but in the end it comes down to if itâ€™s a baseball decision itâ€™ll roll in through Theo and if itâ€™s a business decision itâ€™ll roll in through Crane, and I think for the most part we have very little overlap on those two silos.
The only thing that should make silos overlap is a tornado.
Note: this interview was conducted before the Cubs’ recent purchase of the McDonald’s property across Clark Street from Wrigley Field, so that topic wasn’t available to be addressed at the time I spoke with him.
I told you to remember the “recently” thing right? Â The McDonald’s purchase was announced on December 14, so for some reason Al “embargoed” his own interview for two weeks. Â Hey, he didn’t have time, what with the recaps of randomly chosen boring games from Cubs history and all that titillating Andy Sonnanstine news.
BCB:Â What about the Triangle Building? In the end, whoâ€™s going to raise the funds for that? Is that going to go on the business side?
TR:Â Thatâ€™s a business thing.
Crane’s going to have a bake sale.
BCB:Â Some people have said Theoâ€™s going to be doing that now because he has the background in doing it and it really seems more like the baseball side.
You know who says that? Â Crazy people.
BCB:Â Where do things stand as of now on both the Triangle Building and the ballpark renovations?
Didn’t you just ask him…one question ago…about the triangle building? Â And why are you capitalizing it?
TR:Â Itâ€™s still a work in progress.
No. Â Work has to have started for it to be a work in progress. Â It’s still a pipe dream you choose to pretend you can’t afford. Â You could have built the triangle building for what you will pay Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano this year.
We have done a lot of our homework on what we need to do with the field.
By watching a video about Fenway Park and drinking a Sam Adams out of one of those weird glasses.
Weâ€™ve hired the architects and designers, some who have done a lot of the work on Fenway.
Knock me over with a feather.
We think we have a pretty good feel for what we have to do with Wrigley long term.
Burn it down seems like one way to go.
The question is how it all fits with what has to go onto the Triangle parcel, so weâ€™re not 100 percent sure.
What you need is a fucking office building. Â Just rent some space in one and move all of the non-essential baseball shit…like for example…Crane and Wally’s offices…out of the park.
Weâ€™re also still in dialogue with our elected officials and other people to talk about how we can make it all work for the Cubs the best â€“ come up with the best win-win solution, but we donâ€™t have an answer yet exactly.
We’ve seen what your win-win situations look like. Â The city of Mesa won’t be able to sit right for years after you got done win-winning them.
BCB:Â Do you have any specifics? I know there was a survey sent out to season ticket holders about …
It took all Al could muster for him not to say, SEASON TICKET HOLDERS OF WHO I AM ONE, in that “question.” Â The answer, by the way, which took Tom 100 words to blabber out was “no.”
BCB:Â And are you still looking at a time frame that would get the 2016 All-Star Game here as well?
TR:Â Weâ€™re always hoping to get it sooner rather than later.
Ooh, the All Star Game! Â You know who still likes the All Star Game? Â Morons.
BCB:Â Any truth to the rumors that the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority is going to buy Wrigley Field and run it?
TR:Â Weâ€™re not talking with anybody about selling the field.
We’re texting, not talking.
BCB:Â In terms of renovations to the ballpark, Iâ€™ve got to ask the Jumbotron question and the ribbon board question again. Any big things that youâ€™re looking at?
Love Al’s passive agressive way of asking about the Jumbotron. Â “I’ve got to ask” but I don’t want to, because I’m against anything that makes it easier to actually see what the fuck is going on, during the game. Â I enjoy sitting 500 feet away from the action and paying $60 to sit on a plank of wood, and unless you’re going to show videos of Tom Glavine winning his 300th game on that thing, I don’t want any part of it!
TR:Â Weâ€™ve looked a lot of those different ideas and weâ€™ve surveyed people about them. We really wonâ€™t know what the changes are until we get kind of a real good feel for what the final plan is. Itâ€™s still kind of a work in progress there, and we have to weigh all the factors at the right time and when we can, make the right decision. So, nothing yet. No big plans for this off season.
Here’s a tip. Â Stop surveying Cubs fans. Â Some of my best friends are Cubs fans, but the vast majority are clueless dolts. Â They don’t know what they really want. Â Just try to drag the park into the 20th century…then worry about the 21st. Â And stop treating the “neighbors” like they’re special. Â They fit into one of two categories. Â Either they’ve lived there a long time and their property is now worth 800% what it was when they moved in, or they moved there because it was cool to live near Wrigley. Â And, unless they’re 115 years old the park was there when they moved in, so fuck them. Â Do what you want. Â Stop kissing their asses.
BCB:Â So the work thatâ€™s going on right now is just general maintenance?
No, they’re trying to sandblast the boogers off the bottom of the last row of bleachers just to the foul pole side of the Toyota sign. Â OK, maybe that is “general maintenance.”
BCB:Â Whatâ€™s the latest on the spring training complex? Where does that stand and where will it be moving, say, in the next six months to a year?
TR:Â We are in the stage now where weâ€™re still working with the architects to design the complex. Weâ€™ve got to figure out how it all fits on the property and the basics of how itâ€™s going to look. Itâ€™ll take a few more months.
This whole thing is boring, but I left it in to set up this ponderous question and answer. Â Trust me, it’s worth it.
BCB:Â Iâ€™ve seen some drawings. Maybe those are just renderings.
Well, are they drawings or renderings? Â Which ones are they? Â This is important, you know, because they mean exactly the same thing.
TR: I know there have been some renderings that have been out there, but I think itâ€™s only now that the architects are digging in to make sure that we have it the way that we want it.
Oh no, there’s nothing worse than a premature drawrendering!
BCB:Â Is the Wrigleyville West area with the restaurants and everything still part of that plan?
Restaurants and everything? Â Everything is going to be there? Â There’s going to be a carnival and a water park and a tire and oil change place, and a mental asylum and a Supermax prison and a SuperTarget and an old folks home and a Chik-fil-A and a Pink Taco and a dry cleaners and a palace with a moat and alligators a guy speaking Swedish with a lisp and a WNBA team and a Walgreens where Ryan Braun can get his Valtrex and EVERYTHING?
Note: this interview was conducted before the details of the new MLB/MLBPA collective bargaining agreement were made public — at the time, Tom Ricketts didn’t have any information on the new draft rules so he didn’t want to make any comment on them, but I included that in this transcript to note that I did ask about it.
The terms of the CBA came out on December 3. Â How old is this interview? Â Just one part ago we thought it was two weeks old, but now we know it has to be a month old. Â I think it took Al that long to type Tom’s first answer.
BCB:Â Let’s move on to baseball related things. Youâ€™re anticipating the overall baseball budget to be pretty much the same as it was a year ago or a little increase? Decrease?
TR:Â In the same ballpark. How the baseball budget is determined is you take all the dollars you bring in, pay all your expenses and you give everything else to the baseball guys.
BCB:Â When you say expenses youâ€™re talking about paying nonplaying employees?
BCB:Â Travel, electric bills, overheadâ€¦
Expenses, Al. Â He means expenses. Â Maybe you could Google it.
BCB:Â Do you have any sense whether the major league payroll will be a little higher, a little lower, about the same as last year?
TR:Â You know, I donâ€™t have a final number on that. Itâ€™ll be Theoâ€™s call.
You know, that sounds like a business decision…you know, Crane’s. Â Oh, never mind.
BCB:Â And he wonâ€™t talk about it. He made that clear.
TR:Â Well, he makes it clear thatâ€¦ itâ€™s just not something that most teams talk about in advance.
You know what you should do? Â You should do a study. Â Go back, say, 10 years and see what the most successful organizations did about telling nosy bloggers what the payroll was going to be.
BCB:Â In relation to that, in terms of the new collective bargaining agreement that was just signed where there is now supposed to be some sort of luxury tax for over-slot signings, do you think that will have an effect on future international signings or draft signings? Last year you did over-slot for quite a few signings.
TR:Â You know, itâ€™s really hard to say. I havenâ€™t seen any language that is in this yearâ€™s collective bargaining agreement yet so I donâ€™t want to speculate on how that impacts teams. If the rules change somewhat on signing players, weâ€™ll just adapt to them and be the best we can be regardless of what the underlying ground rules are.
This answer didn’t mean much pre-December 3 and it means even less now, but for God’s sake, Al, keep it in.
BCB:Â In other words, if there were a luxury tax and you still wanted to make the signings you want to make, you would consider still doing them?
TR:Â Once again, I donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t know what the rules are, and if it got to that point it would be a decision for the baseball guys if that was the best allocation for their dollars.
You really need an editor, Al. Â And some talent.
BCB:Â You definitely make a statement the last draft and Theo said that they watched it while he was still in Boston and said: “They get it.”
TR:Â I think that as a team weâ€™ve probably under-invested for a while now. I think there was a little too much emphasis on getting the last piece on the major league club and that cost us in the dollars that were available for our amateur signings. I think that our draft guys did a pretty good job, given the constraints. But this year we looked at it and said letâ€™s go ahead and try to get a few more high ceiling guys. A few guys who want a little more money over-slot and start really restocking the system with guys that may be real contributors at the major league level.
Here’s an infuriating answer. Â Ricketts wants to give the impression that he thinks the Cubs should have been spending more on the draft for years, but it took his THIRD draft to finally do it. Â And we wonder why this team is the laughingstock of pro sports.
BCB:Â The added hirings that have been made, the new scouting director and various other people, I assume thatâ€™s also Theoâ€™s call. That also comes out of the one big baseball budget that heâ€™s given whenever he wants to hire new scouts and whenever he wants to expand the baseball department?
TR:Â Yes, that comes out of the baseball budget. Obviously they brought in Theo, then Jed and Jason [McLeod] and then Joe [Bohringer] and Shiraz [Rehman] have all come in and weâ€™ve also blended them in with some of the guys that were already here. So, itâ€™s definitely in their budget and actually itâ€™s great. I think itâ€™s great that weâ€™re building a little more depth in our baseball staff.
You know, you could have told Jim Hendry he had to do this two years ago. Â If it’s such a great idea, why did it take you until year three to finally do it? Â Thanks for wasting everyone’s time. Â Again.
BCB:Â Where are you putting everybody?
TR:Â We are space constrained, that’s for sure. The good news is these guys travel a lot so we actually can figure out where to fit them. It is a need.
A need that’s not all that hard to address. Â You know, like maybe start here.
BCB:Â Regarding ticket sales, what do you hear or know about season ticket renewals? How are they going? Because I heard that some of the deadlines actually were extended for people that hadnâ€™t paid their deposit yet.
TR:Â The ticket sales are very strong. Weâ€™re very, very happy. We asked for peopleâ€™s deposit to come in much earlier than usual. If they missed, we just want to make sure that if anyone missed the deadline it wasnâ€™t because they didnâ€™t know. So thatâ€™s what youâ€™re hearing.
You know how you can tell they aren’t “very strong?” Â They’re extending the deadline. Â If they had people waiting to buy those tickets they would just sell them to those people. Â Attendance is going to take it in the shorts again. Â I’m sure they can just blame it on the weather again.
BCB:Â And this year youâ€™ve offered upgrades to people who might want to change locations.
Into the non-renewed seats. Â But things are “very strong.”
BCB:Â Last year, after Carlos Zambrano was asked to leave, when you were asked whether heâ€™d be back, you said on TV, something to the extent of youâ€™d find it very difficult to see him in a Cubs uniform again. And then Theo has laid out some ground work for him to maybe work his way back to the team.
TR:Â I forget the exact words I used on that television broadcast. The fact is we were very disappointed in his behavior and it wasnâ€™t the first time weâ€™ve been disappointed in his behavior, so at the time, it was just a matter of, well, itâ€™s just really hard to imagine heâ€™s really coming back in the near future. But itâ€™s really Theoâ€™s decision. I think that Carlos wants to be a Cub and he wants to do whatâ€™s right. Weâ€™ll leave it up to the baseball guys to manage it from there.
Two things. Â Carlos isn’t coming back. Â Theo wants teams to think it’s a possibility to try to salvage some sliver of trade value. Â Second, if Ricketts wants to play tough guy like he did when the Cubs put that nonsense suspension on Carlos he should have grown a pair and released him. Â But he didn’t. Â So he can drink a big glass of shut the fuck up.
BCB:Â What would you say, then, is the biggest difference between having Theo and Jed in charge of the baseball operations and Jim Hendry running the baseball operations?
The expense reports have a lot less charges for Hawaiian shirts and titty bars, and the Christmas party really sucked this year.
BCB:Â You met with Dale Sveum after they told you he was their choice. Whatâ€™s your impression of him after having talked to him?
Any accurate impression of Dale Sveum includes a lot of mumbling.
BCB:Â What was the feeling of the players when they found out Mike Quade wasnâ€™t going to be back?
Who gives a shit?
TR:Â I havenâ€™t spoken to any players on that.
BCB:Â I donâ€™t think any fans were surprised.
I don’t think any of us are comfortable with you talking for us.
BCB:Â What do you say to the people who are upset that Ryne Sandberg wasnâ€™t even going to be considered?
Double your Prozac dosage.
BCB:Â Any final words of wisdom for Cubs fans?
Buy lots of tickets or we’ll bring Milton Bradley back?
TR:Â I think most fans understand that to really get the organization heading in the right direction, it doesnâ€™t happen overnight.
These are Cubs fans. Â They don’t understand anything.
That said, you get a few good off season moves and you have guys who stay healthy next year and anything can happen.
If by “anything can happen” you mean 112 losses, then sure.
Weâ€™re excited about next season, but weâ€™re really excited about our future as we go forward. Â Some of the lower profile but very smart decisions that we make will start to pay off over time and fans should know that their baseball team is in good hands.
Theo we trust. Â You…not so much.
We have the right guys running the organization.
Except in the business office. Â But if you can keep them there, it’s a start.