CHICAGO — It all looked so good on paper.
The new, expanded home clubhouse with plenty of space, flat-screen TVs and cryotherapy chambers. The chefs making healthier meals. The proliferation of mental skills coaches. The yoga instructor. The technological investments. The postgame dance-party room.
Anything Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts could do to help the players succeed, he was willing to do it.
And the more the Cubs won, the higher the ticket prices at Wrigley Field soared and the easier it became to sell exclusive club memberships, premium seating and rooftop parties. Not to mention the ability to fill the newly-built restaurants and shops near Wrigley, cram advertising signage in the bleachers and sell commercial time for the new TV network co-owned with Sinclair Broadcasting.
The infamous “wheelbarrows of cash” would land at the foot of team President Theo Epstein for years to come, making the Cubs organization the envy of every team in baseball.
This was the vision that turned Wrigleyville into Rickettsville, a mini-version of River North and a far cry from the days of Yum-Yum Donuts and a cramped postgame interview room nicknamed “The Dungeon.”
And it seemed to be working well when the Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal in 2018 before spring training. The Cubs had ended their historic championship drought only 15 months earlier, and the addition of one of the top free-agent starters was designed to keep the window of opportunity open until at least 2023.
But Epstein is gone, the wheelbarrow is empty, and new President Jed Hoyer finally has initiated the Undoing, trading Darvish to the San Diego Padres in an old-fashioned salary dump.
A rebuild that unofficially began nine years ago with the trade of DJ LeMahieu and Tyler Colvin to the Colorado Rockies for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers now seems headed in the opposite direction.
The Cubs will receive four young prospects and Zach Davies for Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini, while eating a small amount of the $59 million remaining on Darvish’s contract. We won’t know for several years whether any of those prospects will pan out, but unless Hoyer reinvests the savings into major league-ready players, the move will be considered a slap in the face to Cubs fans.
The Darvish deal may be the Cubs’ most unpopular offseason move since Mark DeRosa was sent to the Cleveland Indians on New Year’s Eve 2008.
But no one should be too surprised. Ricketts has been vocal about his allegedly “biblical” losses for months, as his water-carrying media members have exclusively “reported” during the pandemic. We knew the Cubs would shed some salaries, and the estimated 2021 payroll already is down to $141 million, according to rosterresource.com.
The only real surprise is that the first to go was Darvish instead of Kris Bryant, whose days likely are numbered if Hoyer can get the right deal. And if Hoyer could trade closer Craig Kimbrel, he’d save another $17 million — though no one likely would acquire Kimbrel without the Cubs paying most of the salary.
Jason Heyward has $63 million remaining on the final three years of his deal.
Anyone interested? Hello? Am I on mute?
It’s easy to feel sorry for Hoyer for having to carry out the sell-off at the behest of Ricketts, but he knew what he was getting into when he agreed to succeed Epstein. And, according to Ricketts, Hoyer had several other job opportunities over the years and opted to stay. Hoyer will take criticism for the dismantling, but he was well aware of that coming in.
It really is no different from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn being instructed to hire Tony La Russa as manager because of La Russa’s close relationship with Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
Ownership has its privileges, and if you don’t like taking orders from your owner, find work elsewhere.
So what can Cubs fans do to express their dissatisfaction other than write angry tweets or call The Score or ESPN 1000 to vent?
Normally they could protest by not attending games, but that’s already a done deal, at least temporarily, because of the pandemic.
They could echo Bryant’s memorable remark from last September — “I don’t give a (bleep)” — but that would be disingenuous. Being a fan means always giving a (bleep).
They could stop watching Marquee Sports Network, but would anyone notice? The only thing on these days besides Cubs reruns and Ryan Dempster are shows about betting, surfing, bass fishing and other activities with a limited audience.
On Tuesday morning I clicked on Marquee to see if there was any discussion of the Darvish deal. Appropriately, a show called “Follow the Money” was airing. Alas, it had nothing to do with the Cubs.
It seems like eons ago, but it was only last January that Ricketts was booed at the Cubs Convention when he mentioned Marquee, which had yet to come to an agreement with Comcast, the largest local cable provider.
Ricketts appeared quite shocked.
“What do you have against the Marquee Network?” he asked the crowd.
The booing only grew louder.
“Believe me, you won’t be booing (about Marquee) in a year,” he said.
He was partially correct. Almost one year later they’re booing ownership more than the network. Fortunately for Tom and his brother Todd, who oversaw fundraising for President Donald Trump’s failed reelection campaign, the 2021 Cubs Convention has been canceled because of COVID-19, so the siblings won’t be booed in public.
Who would’ve guessed last January that their world would turn upside-down, the Cubs’ wheelbarrow would be bare, Wrigley would be fan-free, more than 100 Cubs employees would be laid off, Epstein would resign, announcer Len Kasper would bolt for the White Sox and Darvish would be dumped after a Cy Young Award-caliber season?
Oh, what a year it has been.
But hope springs eternal. There’s always next year, and at least the Cubs have a ready-made slogan for 2021:
“Follow the money.”