Rozner: Cubs, Ricketts have reason to smile

It was quite the star-studded affair Monday afternoon when the Cubs introduced Jon Lester at an upscale Michigan Avenue restaurant.

On the dais were Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, an expensive front-office team joining the pitcher with the richest multiyear contract in the history of Chicago sports.

In the stylish room were executives from every branch of the Cubs' operation. Lester's family and agents were there. There were national writers and broadcasters, a strong Boston media contingent and a huge turnout of the Chicago press.

This was a big moment for the Cubs.

And sitting in the last of about 20 rows behind all the media was the owner of the team.

Tom Ricketts rarely feels the need to be out front, but on this day he was content to be nothing more than a passenger.

Grinning from ear to ear, Ricketts has come a long way since early July, when progress on Wrigley Field renovations were mired in quicksand and Epstein had just moved his two best pitchers - Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel - for another package of prospects.

The optics had never been worse - and Ricketts had never felt better.

"Last summer was a turning point," Ricketts said Monday after the news conference. "We finally feel like we're playing offense, and that's fun."

While a segment of Cubs fans saw another deal of established players as a wasted opportunity, Ricketts was immersed in the baseball plan. At the same time, he was about to get good news on the stadium front.

"I think you'll always look back on July of last season," Ricketts said. "As sad as it was to make those final trades, it was kind of the last shoe to drop on the players that were going to leave the organization.

"Jeff and Jason were doing so well and that was pretty hard to see, but we also knew what we were getting in return and why it had to be done.

"Ten days later, we got our final approvals (on renovations) from the city, and that was really an inflection point in the history of the field itself. It was a big summer."

It has not at all been a flawless five years since Ricketts purchased the team, and you have to believe there were days when Ricketts second-guessed his decision to wade into the quagmire that was the North Side franchise, on the field, off the field and in the neighborhood.

He says not true, though he conceded there have been difficult periods.

"The hardest days were at the very beginning when it was obvious that there were going to be some changes to get us going in the right direction," Ricketts admitted. "But once we brought in new baseball leadership, it's all been about just following the process and being patient and doing the right stuff and thinking long term.

"I never lost any sleep after that."

Ricketts gave Epstein a wide berth, even when it became clear three years ago that this was no small rehab project.

"I didn't know what moves he was going to make, specifically, but we had an old team, we had a lot of committed payroll, and we didn't have much of a farm system," Ricketts said. "So if you're going to really be committed to winning long term, you're going to have to make moves to set you up that way, and it doesn't happen overnight."

Still, this was a teardown that would require time, heavy lifting and understanding. It also meant commitment to seeing it through rough seas and significant pain. There were rumors all along that Ricketts didn't have the stomach for it, rumors that never proved true.

"Tom has been as patient and supportive as an owner can be," Epstein said with no small volume of appreciation. "He wants to own the Cubs for generations, and it shows with the sound, long-term perspective he has.

"That said, he is competitive and understands when it's appropriate to be aggressive. Everyone on the baseball side feels empowered and supported. That really helps us do our job with confidence and a free mind."

The Cubs aren't suddenly a favorite to win the World Series next year. As the roster is currently constructed, third place in the Central and a .500 record would be big steps forward. That could change as more players are added, including the bats belonging to players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

Regardless of 2015 forecasts, the Cubs are pointed the correct way on the field and stadium renovations are in full swing. The luxury liner has done a slow, measured 180, and it's palpable among those who work for, or own, the Cubs.

"I feel really good," Ricketts said. "We're headed in the right direction. I don't think there's anyone in our organization that isn't completely excited about our future.

"I think the fans are seeing it, too, and we're really excited about getting the season started. We'd like to start tomorrow."

All together now, it's been a long time since words resembling those were uttered near Wrigley Field.

• Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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