Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts got up from his desk chair, reached up to the top shelf of his dusty bookcase and pulled down a replica of the famous 1948 Norman Rockwell painting The Dugout.
This was the painting designed to symbolize the Cubs’ Lovable Loser image that became ingrained into America’s consciousness. If the Cubs had lost Game 7 of the World Series instead of winning it, TheNew York Times was planning to display an illustration of the painting, Ricketts says, only with the faces of manager Joe Maddon, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and second baseman Javy Baez transposed over the original.
“It was just so important for this organization,’’ Ricketts told USA TODAY Sports, “to put this lovable loser crap to bed.
“Despite all of the successes of the year, had that game gotten away from us, the next morning’s stories were going to be all about the Cubs losing again. Despite the fact it was Game 7 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, a really good team, after coming back from a 3-1 deficit, they were still going to write the story, “The Cubs didn’t win again.’ It just goes to show you the unfair narrative the media was ready to go back to.
“That’s why it’s so important to get this behind us. We had to get past that and put that in the history of the Cubs, and not the future. We changed that dialogue, and now, it’s all a thing in the past.’’
Indeed, just one day before the start of the Major League Baseball’s owners’ meetings in Chicago on Wednesday, Ricketts and his siblings were part of a Cubs board meeting, discussing a subject never believed broached in the franchise’s history.
World Series rings.
“We haven’t figured out all of the symbolism yet,’’ says Ricketts, in his first in-depth interview since the Cubs’ World Series championship, “but there will be plenty of it. We’ll have a lot of player input and let them decide what they want.’’
Well, actually, the players have already spoken. The first thing they have requested, Ricketts says, is an authentic Cubs trophy case.
Yes, after 108 years, it would be nice to actually display a World Series trophy.
The only World Series trophy they now have is sitting on a bookshelf on the second floor of their temporary office building on Clark Street. Then again, it’s actually a cup instead of a trophy. It’s from 1907, made by the defunct Chicago Examiner newspaper. When the Cubs won the World Series for the last time in 1908, legend has it, Ricketts says the newspaper told them to just use the same honorary Cup.
“Honestly, we were talking the night after winning the pennant,’’ Ricketts says, “and someone made the comment, ‘Here’s something for your trophy case.’
“I said, “Well, we don’t have a trophy case. We’re the Cubs.’’’
That will change; Ricketts vows to display the World Series trophy for maximum exposure.
The baseball from the last out, which Rizzo presented to Ricketts on stage at Grant Park after the largest parade in U.S. history, estimated at 5 million people, will also be taken out of the office safe deposit and put on display.
And the Cubs’ wondrous 2017 plans will include outreach to Steve Bartman, the infamous fan blamed for extending their curse by reaching for a foul ball in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series.
“I’m sure we’ll reach out to him at the right time,’’ Ricketts revealed, “and I’m sure we’ll figure something out that provides closure for everybody. Hopefully, we can make it work.
“But you know, I never focused on ghosts or curses or Bartmans or any of that stuff. It’s always been about needing a better team on the field. We wanted to eventually get to that point where we can pick out rings, like we did (Tuesday), and here we are.’’
And Ricketts says his playoff focus did not waver, anyway, from the generations of fans that have waited so long for this moment. He thought about Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, who weren’t alive to see it, but he carried pins from their funerals on his sports jacket.
Ricketts got emotional when he saw the tears in Hall of Famer Billy Williams’ eyes after winning the National League pennant over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And he thought of Marilyn Kuebler, the Cubs’ 80-year-old usher, who he hugged before every single home game, until she died two weeks before the regular season ended. She was buried in her usher uniform, and on the back of her prayer card was not a Bible verse, but the words to their victory song, Go, Cubs, Go.
“I kept that prayer card in my pocket during every playoff game,’’ Ricketts says. “This just meant so much to so many people. I remember when our bus pulled down Clark Street, and turned on Addison, there were fans hundreds deep on that route, but I got choked up when I saw this little girl, maybe 3 or 4, sitting on her mom’s shoulders.
“She had this homemade sign that read, ‘We Did It Grandpa!’ You imagine that Grandpa was not with them anymore, but he was a big Cubs fan. It was a simple thing, but it drives home just how much it meant to generations of fans who supported us all of these years.”
Ricketts, who flew the Cubs’ front office and guests to the four World Series games in Cleveland, accommodating 460 people, says there have been days he can’t believe the Cubs actually won. It still seems like a blur. He recalls the shock of watching Indians outfielder Rajai Davis’ game-tying homer in the eighth inning of Game 7, and the deafening noise at Progressive Field, with an Indians’ fan even hugging him.
And, then, sitting next to his two brothers, Todd and Pete, with his sister, Laura, and his wife and kids and nieces and nephews all nearby, all sharing the sheer euphoria when third baseman Kris Bryant flipped the ball to Rizzo for the final out.
“Frankly,’’ Ricketts says softly, “I feel like I’m still not sure it ever happened. It’s still sinking in. Still, slowly sinking in.’’
It has been precisely two weeks since winning the World Series, but it’s now time for the Cubs to get back to business. There’s a new budget for president Theo Epstein and his staff, which Ricketts says will be slightly higher in 2017. Yes, there soon will be the announcement of ticket-price increases, you know, to watch a World Series champion. They are trying to complete their new office building at Wrigley by opening day. The bullpen mounds, for the first time, will now be moved underneath the bleachers. Construction will begin for a new Home Plate Club that will seat about 1,200. A new hotel is going up across the street. Even changes, perhaps ever so slight, to the cramped visiting clubhouse at Wrigley.
“We still want to keep the historical feel to it,’’ Ricketts said, breaking into an expansive grin. “Hey, our visiting clubhouse is the real deal. It was good enough for Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig got dressed in there. It’s historical. So we’re going to preserve it.’’
The Cubs will do the same with the 2016 season, preserving those memories forever, never again ashamed of their past.
“We’ve changed the dialogue forever,’’ Ricketts says. “It’s all of a thing in the past. Hopefully what people are talking about now is having the youngest lineup in World Sere history, and that we have a good chance to have a good team for a long time.
“Who knows, maybe we can go out and win another one?’’
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale