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Ricketts points to plan during Cougars visit

Published: Monday, July 28, 2014 10:21 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 6:49 a.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner - sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts listens as Kane County Cougars majority owner Bob Froehlich discusses the role of minor league baseball Monday at the Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva. The event was hosted by the Executives' Club of Chicago.

GENEVA – Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts loosened his collar and tie and watched most of Monday's Cougars matinee after a morning speaking engagement at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark.

Will he be in position for a repeat when West Michigan makes its next visit to Geneva in 2016? Although he can't be certain, Cougars owner Bob Froehlich would like to think so.

With Ricketts deferring discussion of the extension of the Cubs' soon-to-expire two-year player development contract with the Cougars to the club's baseball executives, Froehlich offered optimism about a deal as someone more familiar with negotiations.

"It's one of those things where we're pretty confident it's going to happen, and they sound like it's going to happen," Froehlich said. "But I'm one of those old-school guys. Until I have that contract in my hand, I'm not quite as confident. It would have been nice if he had announced it here today. That would have made my day for that."

Ricketts traveled to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark for the first time armed with no such good news. However, he lauded his surroundings after addressing The Executives Club of Chicago for nearly 45 minutes as part of the organization's luncheon speakers series, calling the Cougars' home "a top-notch facility, particularly for [Class-A] ball."

Froehlich serves on The Executive Club's board of directors and introduced Ricketts as "my good friend and boss" during the program in the Cougars' super suite.

That aside, any announcement of their working relationship continuing beyond the 2014 season will have to wait. Ricketts called that the domain of Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod and general manager Jed Hoyer.

"We've had a great experience with Kane County. I like Dr. Bob a lot. We like the facilities, we like the organization," Ricketts said. "It's really not my decision. I'll leave that up to Theo and Jason and Jed, what they want to do, but it's been a good relationship."

Ricketts addressed the Cubs' organizational plan in greater depth during his talk, which included a slideshow that began with this up-front headline: "Cubs Have Historically Underperformed."

Addressing a group with varying degrees of baseball savvy, he explained the organization's approach to player development, free agency and a handful of other strategies bent on delivering the Cubs their first World Series title since 1908.

Per one slide, the Cubs had baseball's 23rd-best farm system in 2011 – the final season before Epstein took over – and zero consensus Top 50 prospects. These days, the organization rates through the roof. In its recent midseason updates, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus both listed three Cubs prospects among their top 15, a distinction shared by no other organization.

While those plaudits offer promise and excite the fans Ricketts meets on the concourses of Wrigley Field and Fifth Third Bank Ballpark – where he walked for parts of the game Monday – they also come with a caveat.

"What does it mean to have the best farm system in baseball? The answer is absolutely nothing until you win at the major league level," Ricketts told the luncheon crowd. "So we don't look at this as some kind of accomplishment that we think that there's anything to be related. This is not done. This is just showing that what we're doing is building toward having a capability of having sustained success at the major league level."

Cougars manager Mark Johnson, who met with Ricketts before the game, didn't need to eat a burger or slurp Diet Pepsi with him in the super suite to feel strongly about the way the organization is moving.

"He's wonderful. Couldn't ask for a better owner or boss to work for," Johnson said. "He gives us all the means necessary, and he wants to do the right things. It's just been a pleasure since he's been here."

The Ricketts family took ownership of the Cubs in 2009, and questions about ending the club's famed world championship drought immediately followed each member.

Tom Ricketts said his is the rare occupation in which strangers tell him their age before their name, often conveying their decades of loyalty to the team.

A question-and-answer session at the end of his remarks invited more of the same from attendees and Cougars season ticket holders. When asked whether he might venture out on a limb and hazard a prediction of when the Cubs might finally end their championship futility, Ricketts quipped: "I don't go out on limbs anymore. I mean, this whole thing is one, giant limb."

Ricketts said 19 out of every 20 Cubs fans he meets at Wrigley offers support for the club's approach of building through the minors while absorbing lumps at the big league level. The Cougars hope he'll have the chance to address that hopeful progression in Geneva in years to come.

"Here's how I would frame it: I think we know what we bring to the table for the Cubs. I think they know they're one of the most iconic brands in sports, so they know what they bring to the table," Froehlich said. "So when both parties know what they bring to the table and feel they have a winning hand, sometimes it just plays out on its own."

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