Cubs, Toyota working on sponsor deal

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs owe much of their identity to two things -- their 101-year drought without a World Series title and Wrigley Field.

The team's new owners are working with automaker Toyota on a sponsorship deal that could put the company's logo on a sign hoisted high above the left field bleachers in time for the home opener next month.

It's a way to increase revenue for the Cubs. It could also make baseball purists cringe.

"I've been here four months. I've been a lifelong Cubs fan and anytime you do anything here at Wrigley Field, it gets attention," said Wally Hayward, who took over in November as the Cubs' vice president and chief sales and marketing officer.

The red-colored 16-by-22-foot Toyota sign would rise above the bleachers and, according to a rendition provided by the Cubs, would partially block a sign for a casino on a roof across the street.

"It doesn't impact the fans' experience. It's a way for us to generate additional revenue and preserve the history," Hayward said.

Built in 1914 and home to the Cubs since 1916, Wrigley Field is the second-oldest major league stadium, trailing only Boston's Fenway Park (1912). Fans in Chicago still flock to see the ivy-covered walls and keep alive Harry Caray's tradition of singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during every seventh-inning stretch.

The park has undergone changes over the years, some more subtle than others. Lights were finally added in 1988, there was a bleacher expansion after the 2005 season and signs have popped on the outfield walls and on a board behind home plate. The Cubs once battled rooftop owners over the right to watch their games and under struck an agreement in 2004 with most of them to get some money out of it.

Toyota has been drawing negative headlines in recent weeks amid recalls and concern over gas pedals and accelerators that stick. Hayward said the Cubs have great respect for the difficult situation Toyota has been though and how the company handled it "with utmost integrity."

Toyota spokesman Curt McAllister said the deal had been in the works since the fourth quarter of last year, but it has not been completed and legal teams were going over the details.

"This isn't a recent development. This is something that has been in the works now for the better part of four or five months," McAllister said.

Tom Tunney, a Chicago alderman whose ward includes the neighborhood around Wrigley Field, did not return a phone call.

When he took over the Cubs last October, new owner Tom Ricketts stressed that the work ahead for him and his family at Wrigley would be daunting. But he promised the changes would not tread on the atmosphere that exists at the neighborhood park. He and his two brothers and sister, who form the team's board of directors, are longtime Cubs fans. Tom Ricketts once lived across the street from the park and met his wife in the bleachers.

"We can't mess with that special feeling," he said.

But running the team and preparing for the future is also a business. The Cubs are considering numerous additional changes, including the construction of a building west of the park with retail outlets and a restaurant.

They are also planning to build a new spring training complex in Arizona. Some of the funding for the $84 million project would come from a surcharge on Cactus League tickets, a tax that is opposed by owners of other teams.

The Cubs would like to have the Toyota sign in place by their home opener on April 12.

Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the city's Department of Zoning and Land-Use Planning, said there is no timetable for the permit application filed by the Cubs to be approved. He said because Wrigley Field has landmark status, staff must make sure that the sign does not affect the nature of the park.