Cubs owner facing his first 'next year'

CHICAGO -- Tom Ricketts had three years to prepare to be the owner of the Cubs.

But nothing could groom the young financial whiz for the bitter realities of "Year 1" of his family's reign atop the city's most luckless franchise.

If Ricketts thought the process to purchase the Cubs was onerous, watching 2010 unfold from his front-row seats probably made dueling with Sam Zell seem enjoyable.

OK, not really. But it was a pretty lousy season.

As the home portion of the season came to a long-awaited close, Ricketts held a 12-minute talk with reporters in the home dugout Sunday afternoon, calling the season an obvious "disappointment" while praising the minor league system and the recent play under manager Mike Quade.

"I don't think I would've done anything differently," he said of his early decisions.

With his neatly parted hair, perfectly pressed business casual wardrobe and handshake-and-a-smile demeanor, Tom Ricketts does not cut a Steinbrennerian, or even Reinsdorfian, presence. He wears an ID badge around the park, and as he noted, a bracelet when he drank in the bleachers recently.

But don't mistake affability for lack of authority.

Ricketts may have bought the team with family Ameritrade money (and a lot of financing), but he made his own name in the financial world in Chicago in the past decade. It's my opinion the Cubs are in good hands, at least at the top.

Ricketts may share the board of directors with his three siblings, but his fingerprint will soon change from the guy who fixed up the bathrooms to the guy responsible for signing off on the next manager and paving a path for the future of the storied franchise, which, in case you didn't know, hasn't won a World Series since 1908.

While he didn't say much in the way of specifics in his conversation, Ricketts did touch upon a few issues.

Most notably, he said the payroll will likely be lower than it was this season, a fact that he's hinted at a few times in the past.

"We haven't made a decision where payroll goes next year," he said. "I think it will probably be slightly lower than this year."

It's not a surprise. The Cubs opened the season with a bloated $144 million payroll. The Cubs already have more than $103 million in guaranteed contracts for next year, along with a handful of arbitration-eligible players, including Geovany Soto, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol, all of whom should see nice raises. The team will likely add some veteran free agents, but don't expect a repeat of the 2006 offseason, when general manager Jim Hendry doled out Monopoly money under the orders of John McDonough and the Tribune Co.

I don't have a problem with that. Spending their way out of a century-long drought hasn't worked. Smart buys should be the priority.

When it comes to adding pieces to fit in around the young core of the team, Ricketts ceded responsibility to Hendry.

"I'll leave that up to Jim," Ricketts said. "It's his responsibility to have a team on the field that will be the most competitive. That's kind of his call."

Ricketts We haven't made a decision where payroll goes next year. I think it will probably be slightly lower than this year.

-- Cubs owner Tom Ricketts

The managerial search is also being led by Hendry, though Ricketts will obviously have final approval. He said there's no rush to get a new manager before the World Series is over. Two potential candidates, Bob Brenly and Fredi Gonzalez, have renounced any interest.

Ricketts is focusing his attention on upcoming organizational meetings and a November vote in Mesa, Ariz., that will determine the team's spring training future. The passage of Proposition 420 will give the city the right to use public funds to build the team a new spring site.

"Things are going very well down there and generally people are very, very supportive," he said.

Ricketts also wouldn't commit on potentially lowering prices on tickets, given the team's decreased attendance of late, though he did say the team is studying how it prices tickets. (A White Sox executive told ESPNChicago.com that they will
likely institute a small increase in ticket prices for 2011.)

In an annual survey of ticket prices that I put together for Team Marketing Report, the Cubs had the highest average for nonpremium tickets at $52.36.

The number is pretty representative. For example, bleacher seats this season averaged more than $50 (the Cubs slot tickets in four different categories, with the two most expensive taking up 56 of 81 games), as did the upper deck box seats
(averaging between $50 and $59) and the terrace box seats ($50 and $60).

"In terms of ticket pricing, we haven't made any final decisions," Ricketts said. "What we are doing is a really thorough study of what we're charging for which sections, and trying to understand the value proposition we're offering people. We'll do that study and come up with a ticket pricing strategy, always keeping in mind it's a tough economy and ultimately our goal to get more families in the park."

The Cubs' average attendance was down almost 2,000 fans a game, but the team still drew more than 3 million this season. Empty seats were noticeable through the past month or so as the team foundered, key players were traded away and manager Lou Piniella retired.

"The key to filling the park is putting a great product on the field," Ricketts said.

The Ricketts family poured more than $10 million into improvements at Wrigley Field this season, from sprucing up the bathrooms to renovating the area under the bleachers.

The Cubs also hired a director of fan experience this season and added a roving group of "fan ambassadors" charged with the duties of enhancing fans' experiences, but in reality, a main part of their work was actually polling fans about what they like and how much they consume.

"We've surveyed fans all year long," said Ricketts, who tries to talk to fans every game. "One thing we've stressed with the whole organization is to really listen and try to be more responsive to the fans, which are the greatest fans on earth. But we have to give them the greatest experience."

After the session officially ended, Ricketts chatted with reporters for a few minutes. I asked him if he could name half of the current roster, given the influx of minor league players. He pointed out that his visits to the minor league affiliates kept him abreast of the likes of Darwin Barney and Brad Snyder.

Someone brought up disgruntled White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's self-proclaimed potential availability for the open manager's job on the North Side. I asked Ricketts if Guillen is a potential candidate, tampering be damned.

In a season full of disappointments and crooked numbers, Ricketts couldn't hold back his laughter at the idea. After all, Guillen loves ripping on Wrigley's facilities and fan base.

"I'm staying so far away from that one!" Ricketts said.

A fifth-place finish in the NL Central is one thing. Some notions are just too crazy to believe.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.