Jon Lester hollered a greeting as he peered through a bank of television cameras surrounding Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
“Hi Tony!” Lester said.
“Hi Jon,” Rizzo said. “Love you.”
“Love you back,” Lester replied.
It was a brief, bright moment during a gloomy start to the spring at Sloan Park. Remember the Cubs? Remember the budding homegrown dynasty? Remember the cuddly bunch that ended a 108-year championship drought and danced across the stage on “Saturday Night Live”?
The autumn of 2016 feels like a distant memory in the spring of 2019.
After the Cubs lost in the National League wild-card game last fall, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein predicted that 2019 would be a “reckoning.” Baseball Prospectus projects the Cubs to finish last in the National League Central. Last week, after a winter of austerity, the Cubs welcomed back infielder Addison Russell from his suspension for violating baseball’s domestic violence policy. On Monday, chairman Tom Ricketts apologized to the team for the racist, Islamophobic emails of his father.
A subsequent 30-minute news conference overshadowed the team’s first official workout. Chairman Ricketts referred to Joe Ricketts’ emails as “unacceptable,” stressed that his father has “no direct role or economic interest in the team” and praised him for his charity work “in Islamic East Africa.”
When asked why the team spent so little money this winter, Ricketts replied, “That’s a pretty easy question to answer — we don’t have any more.” He said the impending launch of a regional sports network with Sinclair Broadcast Group would not compel the team to jump into the pool of high-priced free agents.
“As much as I would love to have a great, new, exciting player every year,” Ricketts said, “it just can’t happen every year.”
“It’s beating a dead horse talking about last season,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “I don’t really care to talk about it. I know we won 95 games, and this and that, but it’s time to move on. We’ve got a new season ahead of us.”
Bryant spoke Monday morning, before Ricketts met with the team. The owner outlined three points to the players, he said: respect the Cubs by acting “well on and off the field,” respect the fans and contact the team if interested in doing charity work.
Then he spoke about his father’s emails.
On Feb. 4, the website Splinter News published emails sent by and forwarded to Joe Ricketts, founder and former CEO of TD Ameritrade, whose children purchased the Cubs in 2009. The emails were dated from 2009 to 2013. They included conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama. Ricketts laughed at jokes featuring slurs. He spread fear-mongering toward Muslims. “We must all recognize the Islam is a dangerous element in our society due to its radical aspects,” Joe Ricketts wrote in one email from 2012.
In the wake of the story, Tom Ricketts and Cubs vice president of communications Julian Green met with local Muslim leaders in Chicago. Joe Ricketts apologized. His son furthered that message Monday.
“I have to be honest: I was surprised to see the emails,” Tom Ricketts said. “Our family was never raised that way. I’ve never heard my father say anything that was even remotely racist. It just isn’t our family values.
“He’s done all the right things. I just think he probably could have been more careful about the emails he brought in. And a couple he sent.”
Ricketts said he encouraged Cubs players to speak up if they felt the organization had upset them. He was less apologetic in his comments about the team’s spending, after a winter in which the Cubs added infielder Daniel Descalso, reliever Brad Brach and little else.
The Cubs’ opening day payroll projects to $208 million, an increase from their $182 million payroll to start 2018. Ricketts mentioned the raises accrued by Bryant and infielder Javier Baez in arbitration, plus the team’s decision to pick up a $20-million option on pitcher Cole Hamels.
“Those contracts put us well above what we’ve ever spent before,” Ricketts said.
The Cubs have shown little interest in either outfielder Bryce Harper or infielder Manny Machado, the two unsigned stars on the market. Rather than pursue Machado, the team elected to bring back Russell, who will serve a 40-game suspension into May.
Major League Baseball suspended Russell last September after allegations from his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy. The Cubs tendered him a $3.4 million contract for 2019. Russell apologized for his actions Friday.
“On that whole topic, I think I owe a little shoutout to everybody in the Cubs organization,” Ricketts said. “We from the very beginning reached out to Melisa, and tried to figure out what is the best possible answer for all the individuals involved, and came to the conclusion that the better path forward was to support Addison and give him the best chance as a Cub. To get this behind him, and become a better person.”
During his remarks to the media, Ricketts bundled the issues swirling around the team — his father’s emails, Russell’s suspension, the lack of spending — into the category of “distractions.” He spoke as if the joys of 2016 were right around the corner, rather than far away.
“We continue to do everything we can to be the best organization in sports,” Ricketts said. “The distractions that occur off the field don’t deter from that. And we continue to move forward. I don’t see these things changing us in any way.”