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Cubs Winter Meetings Preview: Fans Disillusioned, Need Big-Time Moves

The Ricketts family had a tough "Year One" of Cubs ownership. That's beginning to spill over into this offseason.

Short of landing Adrian Gonzalez in a shocking, unexpected trade or robbing a bank to snare Cliff Lee away from the Yankees, Jim Hendry won't be able to impress Cubs fans with any move he'd make at the upcoming MLB Winter Meetings in Orlando. This is the first of two Winter Meetings previews; the White Sox will follow tomorrow.

It's a perfect storm of downcast members of the Cubs Universe and a series of moves by new owner Tom Ricketts that have turned to stone right in his hands. Maybe the last time the atmosphere was so negative was the final winter of the Wrigley ownership regime, in 1980-81, when Bill Wrigley ordered GM Bob Kennedy to trade Bruce Sutter because an arbitrator had awarded him a $700,000 salary a year earlier.  Secretly, Wrigley prepared to sell the Cubs, and confidant Andy McKenna was no fool, tipping off Jerry Reinsdorf, then bidding for the White Sox, that another Chicago team might just be for sale.

So Hendry could land a Carlos Pena or Adam LaRoche for the gaping hole at first base, and the best reaction would be "meh," the worst, outright derision.  Pursuing a plethora of formerly injured pitchers like Brandon Webb or Jeff Francis in order to stay within a frozen payroll isn't going to stir the masses to buy tickets.

It's apparent the majority of fans have resigned themselves to a long, hard slog where the clock ticks over a multi-year period until bad contracts run out while the revived farm system is given more time to produce position players. The year "2013" often is bantered about as a time when the Cubs might next be worth watching.

And that might be the right strategy, if only Ricketts and his sibiings could articulate it. Say something, anything, about a direction they want to take the Cubs.

That was Andy MacPhail's downfall. The erstwhile Golden Boy of the Metrodome refused to strip down the Cubs to start over in 1995, but he also declined to go for the home run in spending.  Cubs fans were ready to follow MacPhail to hell and back when he began if he had told him that was the only way to right the ship. But his only mantra was "slow, steady, unspectacular," matching MacPhail's arch-conservative, ancient-before-his-time persona. In reality it was complete and utter drift, and more years wasted in building up a top-notch baseball operations department and productive player-development system. Only at the end, when Hendry hired scouting maven Tim Wilken, did the Cubs position themselves properly. And MacPhail had to be forced out completely before spending at both the big-league, minor-league and scouting level was increased significantly.

The Ricketts have enabled Wilken to further build up his scouting department, but they haven't beaten their chests about it as proof of their good intentions to bolster the Cubs at their core.  And if that was the route they wanted to go, even as the cost of several mediocre seasons while the re-building proceeded, just say so, and how much you're spending where it counts. Enough fans would understand. Instead, the ruling family has been enmeshed in a series of business decisions that have backfired in the court of public opinion.

Most controversial was the plan to fund a Wrigley Field renovation by tapping the increase in amusement tax growth on Wrigley Field tickets while locking in a $16 million annual payment to the city and state. But in this environment, any attempt to feed at the public trough looks bad even if a lot of it makes sense. The proposal gives the impression the Ricketts want a handout or don't have enough of their own money to upgrade a private business.

Another decision to hike the price of bleacher tickets to $81 for 13 prime games came off as terrible, even though less-desirable games actually decreased in cost. Such a top price far outstrips any other outfield seats in the game. When you compare that top price to the Red Sox holding at $28 for Fenway Park bleacher seats, including the hyper-popular Yankees series, the decision is downright disillusioning. It's as if Ricketts ignored a basic law of business in which if you have a bad year, attendance is down and the economy is stuck in the mud, you do not raise prices. Instead, you freeze everything and offer incentives, even if it takes a cash call to fund the deficit.

For instance, if Todd Ricketts suffered a drop in sales in bicycles and parts at his two north suburban shops, would he raise prices at all? We think not.

The Cubs also have outsourced their award-winning publications department, which was a key element in introducing modern marketing to the team in the mid-1980s. Although three publications mainstays have been offered jobs by the Cincinnati-based publisher who will take over VineLine, the operation won't be the same if not produced close at hand at the ballpark.

In addition to their overall sour mood, expressed in innumerable on-line posts, Cubs fans have also voted with their feet. As of this writing, the Cubs Convention has not sold out, nearly four weeks after passes went on sale. Normally, the Convention sells out within a few hours. The sluggish pace of sales is totally unprecedented in the 25-year history of the Convention.

The sum total of events show the Cubs are not an automatic "sell" anymore. Perhaps the Ricketts family did not realize they'd have to go on the hustings to promote their philosophies and the team itself. No acquisition of a middle-level first baseman or former Cy Young Award winner is going to do it for them.  It appears that the four owner-siblings, all well-educated types, are going to have to go back to school and take Public Relations 101.