If you haven't heard, the new caretaker of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field, a fellow named Sam Zell, has ruffled the feathers of baseball fans, especially those in the Cubs Cult, by suggesting he'd sell the naming rights to the hallowed brick pile on the North Side.
Full disclosure -- I work for the Tribune Company that Zell runs and is actually newly owned by an employee stock option program that's too complicated to be explained here. And more full disclosure -- I freely admit that the circumstances regarding the new ownership and all its implications has a fair amount to do with how I feel about this so if you have any complaints about how my opinion is influenced by self-interest, you can save the keystrokes. It's already admitted.
Zell, who made a fortune in real estate and is a Chicago guy himself, makes the point that the gum people have been getting a free ride on the ballpark's name for years and perhaps it's time that they pony up the cash like every other corporation that gets to have its name on a sports building.
In addition, right from the get-go when Zell put together this deal to buy the then publicly-held Tribune Company, it was a business in distress and he made it clear that to help pay back all the loans taken out to make the deal happen that the Cubs and the ballpark had to go. That was a good idea for a ton of reasons, not the least of which is that the Chicago Tribune can stop being viewed with suspicion for having a conflict of interest regarding its coverage of the Cubs -- but I digress.
More to MY point, which is that Zell's main responsibility here is to the Tribune company as a whole, its employees and customers, in making a tough business deal work. Like newspapers all over the country, Tribune properties have been downsizing -- and not just reporters and editors but advertising, circulation and business-side people. White-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs, in big cities, medium-sized cities and small towns, are on the line.
The responsibility is not Zell's or that of Tribune employees across the country to preserve Chicago baseball tradition. The Wrigley company, which is based in Chicago, has been getting that free ride for a long time. When I checked this morning, the gum company's stock seemed to be up about 40 percent over the last five years and it has a market cap of more than $16.7 billion. And if the gum guys don't feel having their name on the building is worth it to them, then perhaps a public-interest consortium in the Windy City can be the civic hero (there's certainly enough celebrities who are happy to put on their blue caps and profess to be true-believers). And finally, if the Cubs Cult feels so strong about the ballpark's name, they can pass the hat and buy the naming rights themselves.