- Photo illustration: Paul John Higgins; Photos: Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Last fall, there was a moment when it seemed all but impossible that the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series and Donald J. Trump would win the presidency. On October 30, after Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber silenced the bats of Joe Maddon's team to go up 3-1 in the World Series, Nate Silver's statistics-driven news website FiveThirtyEight published a post declaring "The Cubs Have A Smaller Chance Of Winning Than Trump Does," citing forecast models that gave the Cubs and Trump a 15 percent and 21 percent chance of victory, respectively.
But within the span of a single surreal week, the seemingly impossible came to pass. The Cubs made a historic comeback to take the franchise's first World Series in more than a century. Six days later, Trump won the electoral college vote to take the White House. In both of those unlikely triumphs one family figured prominently: the Rickettses. The clan of Nebraska natives who purchased the Cubs in 2009 and orchestrated the team's turnaround with key top-level hires were also major players in Future 45, a right-wing super PAC that raised $25 million in the effort to defeat Hillary Clinton. Todd Ricketts, who Trump selected on November 30 to serve in his cabinet as deputy commerce secretary, ran the super PAC, and his father, Joe Ricketts, donated $1 million to it.
Todd turned out to be prescient when, according to the Sun-Times, he told Trump at a campaign fund-raiser in the suburbs last September that "It's gonna be a great year because YOU are going to win the presidency AND THE CUBS ARE GOING TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES!" (Well, except for that debatable "great year" part.)
In addition to helping alter the course of American politics and the underachieving history of the Cubs, the Rickettses are in the midst of reshaping the team's historic home, Wrigley Field, and the surrounding neighborhood in their own image: both the stadium and the area around it are quickly becoming ever more bourgeois. "Overwhelmingly, the people I talk to say, 'Do what you have to do.' They really do," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told Chicago magazine in 2013. "Every fan puts winning over Wrigley." And he's right. But that lust for winning—for a long-awaited championship and perhaps more—has led Cubs fans to accept a Faustian bargain.
The trade-off felt worth it on the miracle of a night the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. Wrigley Field suddenly began to look even more like the kind of place that the romantic poets of professional sports have led us to believe it's been all along: hallowed ground, "baseball's version of Saint Patrick's Cathedral," as former Cubs general manager Ed Lynch once quipped. In the days following game seven, devotees journeyed to the Friendly Confines to bask in the team's reflected glory, a sense of joy and collective brotherhood that could be felt like a stiff Lake Michigan breeze after stepping off the Red Line onto Addison Street. Fans scrawled thousands of messages in colored chalk onto a section of the stadium wall beneath the right-field bleachers—dedications to deceased relatives, proclamations of long-abiding faith in the team. It was as if people were taking holy pilgrimages to baseball's Wailing Wall.
That period was fleeting. The Rickettses are perfectly happy to indulge Chicago's strong devotion to its civic religion until the point that it begins to interfere with profits. A little more than a week after the World Series victory, crews power-washed the chalk-drawn memorials off Wrigley's walls in order to continue the 1060 Project, the five-year, $750 million plan to remake both the stadium and surrounding neighborhood. Soon after the messages were scrubbed, chain-link fencing, concrete barriers, green tarps, and cranes appeared. Men in hard hats were hauling, drilling, hollowing out history. Another section on the Sheffield side had been leveled to allow construction vehicles inside. Through the gap, one could glimpse the sullied guts of the place. Where grass once lay, only concrete and rubble remained. A hulking bulldozer, a white "W" flag attached to its cab, sat in shallow center field next to a vacant area that was once bleacher seats. The lot where a McDonald's once stood was a hole in the ground, the site of what will eventually be the Ricketts-owned Hotel Zachary. From the vantage point of the intersection of Clark and Addison, it was construction as far as the eye could see—a skeleton of a building here, a foundation for another there. It was a strange feeling: this baseball stadium turned shrine had become a dissected corpse.
- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
- President Donald Trump selected Todd Ricketts to serve in his cabinet as deputy commerce secretary. Ricketts ran the pro-Trump super PAC Future 45 and his father, Joe Ricketts, donated $1 million to it.
But with opening day at Wrigley Field just around the corner on April 10, the finishing touches are almost complete on phase three of the 1060 Project. Over the last five months of the offseason, Wrigley Field has added a 30,000-square-foot clubhouse and additional corporate-branded luxury suites that promise to be even more luxurious than those that preceded them. There's a new 7,200-square-foot "VIP experience" dubbed the "American Airlines 1914 Club" under the seats between the dugouts behind home plate, a place where the wealthy can clink glasses in a private bar and use their own glistening bathrooms. Outside the stadium on Clark just north of Addison, an open-air plaza dubbed the Park at Wrigley Field is set to be accessible in time for the home opener. A drab six-story office building built at Waveland and Clark will house Cubs administrative offices and conference rooms and a Starbucks "Reserve" store selling $10 cups of coffee. During the final phase of the project over the 2017-2018 offseason, construction will be completed on a two-story shopping-mall-like annex on the north side of Addison at Sheffield that's designated for retail and restaurants; the aforementioned boutique hotel; and a seven-story mixed-use development adjacent to the ballpark on Addison containing rental apartments, more retail, a fitness club, a ten-screen movie theater, and 400 parking spaces.
RIP Wrigleyville. Welcome to Rickettsville.
Once the dust finally settles next year, what remains will be ever more estranged from the sepia-toned version of the neighborhood that's been grafted onto the collective imagination of Chicagoans and sports fans. For decades Wrigley Field has been canonized and fetishized and commercialized as the charming haunt where Ernie Banks wanted to play two, where Harry Caray serenaded, where PED-enhanced Slammin' Sammy Sosa cranked home runs. What has made the area surrounding Wrigley unique in recent history was that it wasn't a totally homogenous Cubbie Disneyland. Baseball fans mixed, sometimes uneasily, with Metro concertgoers, iO comedians, hippie academics at Bookworks, and rockers shopping at the Alley and hanging out at Punkin' Donuts. (The Metro has somehow managed to persist in the neighborhood as iO moved to a shiny new complex in Lincoln Park, Bookworks shuttered, the Alley moved, and Punkin' Donuts was razed to make room for a Target.) It appears small businesses not directly affiliated with the Cubs can no longer afford to exist in a neighborhood that, as Crane Kenney, the Cubs' president of business operations, said on an ESPN podcast last year, is being developed to cater to the scions of the corporate class.
"What's missing—and particularly for our professional clients, our corporate guys—is, 'Where do I take a client to dinner before the game? Where can I go afterward and have a cocktail but also a conversation and maybe not fight a large crowd?'" Kenney said. The Cubs want their tentacles in every part of the Wrigley experience—before, during, and after the game. And with the hotel, even while fans sleep.
In truth, Wrigley Field hasn't resembled the humble, pastoral park built by luncheonette-chain owner Charles Weeghman in 1914 for decades. As cultural critic and former Chicagoan Thomas Frank recently noted during a talk in Hyde Park, "Chicago [has] changed from a city of Nelson Algren to a playground for the 'creative class.' For the winners of the new economy"—overwhelmingly young, single, childless, white people with jobs in tech, finance, advertising, and marketing. In Lakeview, the transformation from a more diverse middle- and working-class neighborhood to a gentrified home for young professionals was well under way by the time lights were installed in Wrigley Field in August 1988. (Just ask Sox fans.) So, no, the white-collar drift of Wrigleyville isn't a new story. But what the Rickettses are achieving with the 1060 Project is a supercharged version of an old tale.
In 2012, when the city initially balked at giving the Cubs permission to go full-steam ahead with the project, the Rickettses threatened to move the team elsewhere, possibly Rosemont. But instead the family ended up moving the suburbs into Lakeview. Today Wrigley Field is aging brick affixed to contemporary construction, a Frankenstein's monster of fading flesh fused with the new. It's a theme-park simulacrum of its historic self—refurbished, scrubbed clean. The iconic red marquee remains outside the stadium. The famous ivy blankets the outfield walls once again. The big green scoreboard perched atop the back of the center-field bleachers continues to be operated by hand. All of it preys upon fans' craving for nostalgia and helps to disguise the conspicuous transformation of a charming dive bar of a landmark ballpark into an uber-gentrified tourist district and pricey playground for the moneyed class, be they baseball fans or not.
To accomplish this metamorphosis, the Rickettses have paid lip service to the franchise's history, traditions, and long-suffering fans as they raised ticket prices 19.5 percent just a few weeks after the Cubs won the World Series. The team now possesses the third-highest average ticket price in the league at $51.33, according to Team Marketing Report, a publisher of sports marketing and sponsorship information. It's a far cry from 40 years ago, when a bleacher bum could snag a ticket for 75 cents. These days, it's impossible for Anthony Rizzo to hit a home run into the cheap seats because, well, they no longer exist.
On March 29, alderman Ed Burke introduced a resolution warning that the Rickettses would "leave fans behind" by raising ticket prices and possibly—as has been rumored—by exiting WGN in 2019 to create their own regional sports network, potentially forcing fans to pony up for more expensive premium cable packages in order to view games from the comfort of their own homes. "[The Rickettses] should keep [in mind] the plight of the working women and men of Chicago who are fans," Burke said, "as they go ahead with this plan that's gonna make it tougher for fans watch the Cubs."
Any influence that Burke's resolution could have is too little, too late.
- Lee Hogan/For the Sun-Times
- Renovations continued last month in and around Wrigley Field as part of the third phase of the 1060 Project.
There is no place for economic losers in the gospel according to Joe Ricketts. The family patriarch, who earned his wealth as a former CEO and chairman of securities trading firm TD Ameritrade, isn't a sports fan and wasn't one when he purchased a 95 percent stake in the Cubs and Wrigley Field (as well as a 25 percent stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago) from the ailing Tribune Company in 2009 for $845 million. "It's no secret," Joe wrote in a post on his personal blog during last year's World Series, "that while my four children and wife are avid baseball fans who bleed Cubbie blue, I've never been a sports buff."
What Papa Ricketts does believe in—apparently more than anything else—is the singular power of monied entrepreneurs like himself to make the world a better place through the commodification of everything. Joe laid out some of this philosophy in a blog post written in September meant as an explanation of why he was spending $1 million of his own money to support Trump and Future 45.
"The people walking us down this path have lost sight of the fact that it is the free enterprise system that has produced the opportunity, jobs, and innovation that have made the United States the greatest country in the world," he wrote. "Higher taxes and government-orchestrated wealth distribution is a shortsighted and unsustainable strategy. New businesses started by entrepreneurs drive economic expansion, and economic expansion raises the standard of living for everyone in a lasting and meaningful way."
Cutting through the management speak, it's clear that Ricketts is proclaiming his belief in a kind of market supremacy known as neoliberalism. It's a faith not in god but in markets, with competition as the central life force and freedom and democracy finding their fullest expression in consumers' purchasing choices. In the neoliberal model, a perfect society would starve the government and grant billionaires, corporations, developers, and other elites unlimited power to remake society in pursuit of private profits in exchange for economic growth. Problems occur, according to Ricketts and other subscribers to this philosophy, when the state interferes with pure unadulterated capitalism and heavily taxes profits to redistribute wealth to the poor, and when it uses regulation to curb the power of entrepreneurs. And if you can't navigate the ever-choppy waters of fierce competition? Too bad, so sad. To take money from the people who thrive and give it to the poor is a sin against the market.
But this free-market orthodoxy when put forth by billionaires like Ricketts is hypocritical, as they're often putting their hands out asking for taxpayer money and accepting government handouts. For instance, while negotiating with the city over the Wrigley Field renovations back in 2012, the Cubs aimed to grab $200 million in public funds through a local amusement tax. That plan was yanked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the New York Times reported on a leaked proposal from Joe Ricketts's anti-Obama super PAC Character Matters to spend $10 million on an ad campaign that would attempt to link Obama, the "metrosexual, black Abraham Lincoln," to the controversial Chicago reverend Jeremiah Wright. Still, the Rickettses sought and landed $75 million in federal historic preservation tax credits to restore Wrigley Field after agreeing to satisfy the bare-minimum requirements from the National Park Service.
Call it what it is: corporate welfare. The Rickettses believe in the redistribution of wealth—just not to the poor. Leave their money relatively untouched and the benefits will trickle down to everyone else. How important is this belief? So much so that while the family's wealth keeps ballooning (it's currently at $5.3 billion, according to Forbes, up from $3.4 billion in 2014), they continue to spend money in national races to elect extreme political candidates—those that undertax the rich, starve the state, and underfinance public infrastructure and the safety net. It will be good for all of us, they believe, because the free market is inherently good.
It's telling that earlier in the presidential race Joe Ricketts donated $5 million to a pro-Scott Walker super PAC and nearly $6 million to Our Principles, a #NeverTrump super PAC. These donations prompted an angry tweet from Trump in February 2016: "I hear the Rickets [sic] family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!" Yet in the general election, faced with the choice of a misogynistic and xenophobic candidate looking to grow our military and security state and enact policies that would accelerate climate change and a candidate who might redistribute wealth a bit more, Joe went with the guy who promised deregulation and a lower minimum wage. That's an incredible commitment to the tenets of neoliberalism.
"If you let all of the airtime of Hillary Clinton go unanswered," longtime Ricketts political strategist Brian Baker said last September, "it could be a disaster for the cause of limited government."
Most of Joe's brood—Tom, Todd, Pete, and Laura—believe some version of this. Laura, the first openly gay owner of a major-league sports franchise, is the exception. She was a financial supporter of Hillary Clinton's campaign (and even hosted Clinton at a fund-raiser in her Wilmette home last July), while Tom, the Cubs' chairman, has made an effort to reflect an image of political neutrality. "Once you get invited [to the White House], you go," said Tom of accepting Obama's invitation for a ceremonial post-World Series visit to D.C. "I don't care where you live or who you voted for."
The rest of the clan can be characterized as staunch ultraconservative activists. The agenda of Pete Ricketts, the governor of Nebraska, is a mix of pro-corporate neoliberal economic policies combined with a right-wing social agenda (anti-immigration, anti-Planned Parenthood, etc) that isn't significantly different from that of the Trump administration, to which Pete has said he's given input. Todd, who aired Future 45-funded Clinton attack ads between late innings of game six of the National League Championship Series, is a Tea Party type who has called the Koch brothers "great heroes."
On January 21, while thousands of Chicagoans swarmed the Loop to voice their discontent with Trump, Todd and Pete were feting him in Washington, D.C. The Rickettses cohosted a private party the night of the inauguration in honor of the newly sworn-in 45th president. The black-tie gala embraced Trump's own casino-king aesthetic. According to a Politico report, they had an office near the White House decorated to resemble a Las Vegas lounge; televisions were framed in gold. The guest list was a who's who of plutocrats and politicians who've helped take the Republican party and Beltway politics further right and toward neoliberalism. Attendees included Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has funneled his immense wealth into super PACs such as Future 45.
Trump's foiled political opponent Bernie Sanders has repeatedly claimed that America has become a plutocracy masquerading as democracy. Perhaps the Rickettses' lavish Vegas-meets-K-Street gala of the super elite celebrating the political ascendance of a billionaire tycoon turned reality TV star is proof that while the president promised to "drain the swamp" of cronies and insiders, the proverbial swamp has simply become a moat designed to protect the wealthy. Sadly, this sort of profiteering has become as American as baseball and apple pie.
- Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times
- Alderman Tom Tunney, Alderman Patrick O’Connor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Tom Ricketts, Bud Selig, Laura Ricketts, Crane Kenney, Theo Epstein, and Kerry Wood break ground on the 1060 Project in 2014.
Behind the right-field bleachers of Wrigley Field, the Jumbotron that was added in 2015 is crowned by a 650-square-foot Budweiser logo. It's one of several corporate monoliths that now dominate the visual landscape of the park. Last May, I half expected that sign to switch to "America" after the nation's biggest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, announced that Budweiser would be rebranded as such on 12-ounce bottles and cans through Election Day. (A few other ostensibly patriotic cosmetic changes to the label included replacing "King of Beers" with "E Pluribus Unum.") It sounded like a cynical joke, as if an advertising executive had browsed a list of evocative imagery used to appeal to red-state types and realized Budweiser commercials had already exhausted sturdy workhorses, majestic scenes of mountainous wilderness, and sweaty laborers in dirty plaid shirts proudly enjoying their watered-down macrobrews.
Who would buy that kind of shameless pandering, you ask? Perhaps the 62 million voters who apparently swallowed the "America First" sloganeering of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. After all, what is a "Make America Great Again" hat but an "America"-branded beer in the form of headwear? Trump, asked by Fox News if he inspired the Bud ad, took credit: "I think so. They're so impressed with what our country will become that they decided to do this before the fact."
No matter if it's a lager with a questionable taste or a nation-state with a questionable history, there's a power to iconic brands and symbols from which none of us are completely immune. That's why a gilded New York City billionaire and a multinational corporation based in Belgium aren't the only ones exploiting a misty-eyed nostalgia for a past that either once existed or never did—for profit or power or both. Just look to the people who own the facility where the big Budweiser logo hangs.
With opening day at Wrigley Field imminent, fans are eager to line the Ricketts family's pockets with even more money for the privilege of watching the defending champs. After all, the owners made good on their promise to Make the Cubs Great Again. But now it is only winners—conquerors, really—that are allowed in the new Wrigley. The lovable losers of old—the ones on the field who couldn't excel and the bums who couldn't afford a seat beyond the bleachers—have been cast out forever. Flown high above the ballpark by the Ricketts clan, the "W" flag has never looked more like a symbol of conquest. v