Long line of potential Cubs buyers expected

David Greising
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - For sale: Charter franchise of Major League Baseball located in major Midwestern city. Fixer-upper has not won World Series in 99 years. Landmark ballpark may not be included.

On Opening Day of the 2007 baseball season, Tribune Co. announced that it is putting the Cubs on the block as part of its $8.2 billion sale to investor Sam Zell. Tribune's 25 percent interest in broadcast partner Comcast SportsNet also will be sold.

But there is a catch that might elicit frowns from some potential bidders: the "Friendly Confines" of Wrigley Field might not be for sale. The Tribune press release announcing the sale made no mention of Wrigley, and company officials Monday declined to comment on whether the ballpark - which is as much a part of Cubs lore as the team itself - is on the market.

Even without Wrigley, the Cubs could fetch "anywhere from $500 million to $600 million," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who specializes in baseball economics. If included, Wrigley would add as much as $90 million to the asking price.

With or without Wrigley, a long line of potential buyers for the Cubs is expected to form quickly. It is expected include well-known sports figures such as Jerry Colangelo and Mark Cuban. Yet Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, in a visit to U.S. Cellular Field on Monday, indicated he would prefer to find a local buyer.

"Whenever you can find viable local ownership, that's a good thing. A very good thing," Selig said. The Comcast investment "will probably get sold right along with the ball club," Selig added.

The ball club has a unique cachet, with a national reputation as "lovable losers" that current Tribune management has struggled to overcome. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, and last appeared in one against Detroit during World War II, yet retain a loyal national following.

One such fan is Cliff Zeider, a 75-year-old resident of Port St. Lucie, Fla., who grew up watching the Cubs in LaPorte, Ind. Zeider has lived and sometimes nearly died with the Cubs, from the time Phil Cavaretta was snagging errant throws at first base in the 1930s to the broken-down pitching arms of Mark Grace and Kerry Wood today.

These days, Zeider says, sometimes he thinks the Cubs "should just move to Japan. I am sick of this bunch of losers."

Yet he doesn't entirely blame Tribune Co. for the long drought. "Tribune has nothing to do with it," he said. "They don't know enough about baseball to hurt anything."

Tribune chief executive Dennis FitzSimons made reference to the Cubs' long drought while talking about the Zell sale to Tribune employees Monday. "We have one more chance in our 25 years of ownership," FitzSimons said. "Maybe the 25th time will be the charm."

Zell has an interest in baseball. For years, he has owned a minority interest in the White Sox. But as he negotiated the deal to buy Tribune Co., the Cubs emerged as a part of the company that easily could be sold to raise cash.

"It made sense to sell what is a really valuable asset, and use the proceeds to pay down debt," FitzSimons said in an interview.

FitzSimons declined to talk about Wrigley. But Cubs President John McDonough at least acknowledged that the future of Wrigley is an open question. "There's a lot of things, going forward. We're doing everything we can to go through this process and gather as much information as we can," he said.

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