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Ricketts celebrates 'incredible day' at Wrigley

Cubs chairman is all smiles during ballpark's 100th anniversary party @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- When Tom Ricketts walked into Wrigley Field on Wednesday, fans were lined up from the home-plate gate a long way up Clark Street, almost to Waveland Avenue, beyond the left-field foul pole.

Out in center field, the order of the flags atop the hand-operated scoreboard found the blue Cubs banner flying below the other four teams in the NL Central. That has generally been the case since he bought the team.

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Yet the love affair that remains between Chicago and its North Side team has never been heavily based on the standings, as fans demonstrated by storming the gates to get their replica Chicago Federals jerseys and cupcakes.

Ricketts, the Cubs chairman, was enjoying the 100th birthday celebration for his ballpark in his perpetually cheerful style.

"I'm over the moon," he said before the 7-5 loss to the D-backs.

Things could be better, for sure. That's always the way it is in life. But for a few hours, before winding up on the wrong side of a tense finish, Ricketts had a chance to step away from the daily anguish over the slow rebuilding process and stalled stadium renovation and revisit the emotions that led him to push his family to pursue purchase of the team in 2009.

"This is an incredible day for our city and for everybody who loves Wrigley,'' Ricketts said. "We've looked forward to it for a long time and it's here. What a great day."

No matter the ending.

Legendary players from the Cubs and the Bears took the field before the game, with Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers back in the stadium where Sayers scored six touchdowns in a 1965 game, and later Harry Caray's widow, Dutchie, joined Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams and Butkus in leading the crowd in the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

There was more singing too. The 32,323 fans, all but a few wearing heavy coats on a 40-degree day, sang "Happy Birthday" to Wrigley after the top of the fifth, when it became officially the 7,883rd regular-season game at Charles Weegham's stadium, which opened as home of the Chicago Federals in 1914. Late in the game fans chanted "Let's go, Federals ... Let's go, Federals," in a tribute to the retro uniforms.

For Ricketts, who came to Chicago from Omaha in 1984 to study at the University of Chicago, this was everything good about the franchise he has vowed to lead to its first World Series championship since 1908.

"It's just incredibly exciting to know we're part of the history of Wrigley Field," Ricketts said. "It's been a part of my life for a long time -- coming here, watching games. I met my wife here."

Ricketts was sitting in the front row of the center-field bleachers, on a Sunday afternoon. "I was going to a lot of games, every weekend game," he said, "and I always sat in the same place with some friends."

A woman caught his eye, a med student named Cecelia, and now the couple has five children. "Her friends had cajoled her to come to a Cub game," he said. "A girl like that, smart and who is also smart enough to come to a baseball game on a nice weekend day, seemed pretty interesting to me. The rest, as they say, is history."

Friends sometimes tell Ricketts that he should mark the seat he was sitting in when he met his future wife, like the Red Sox do with Fenway Park's red seat, where a 502-foot homer by Ted Williams landed. "They say we should put a little heart or something there," he said, laughing.

He might do it too, even as a little family joke, except that changes to the center-field bleachers, when the Tribune Co. erected the Batter's Eye Restaurant, altered seating in that part of the park. Things do change in Wrigley Field, although seldom at the same pace as in other stadiums.

The slow pace of renovations at Wrigley Field has frustrated fans and Ricketts. The owner sees revenue-producing additions like a video replay board and more advertising signage as essential in maintaining the viability of the stadium where the Cubs have played since 1916, moving from the West Side Grounds after the Federal League folded.

Locked in a dispute with the owners of nearby rooftops, the Cubs have delayed construction even though the city of Chicago gave its approval last year. Ricketts has hinted that he could explore stadium options elsewhere if he isn't allowed to execute his plans but it's heart-breaking to some for the Cubs to even consider leaving Wrigley Field.

Ricketts is in that camp.

"Think about the history here," Ricketts said. "It's pretty amazing. I feel it every time I walk in here. It has been preserved for three or four generations. People watch games from the same seats their grandparents watched games from. That's why it's important to preserve it for another three or four generations.''

Commissioner Bud Selig, who attended his first Wrigley Field game in 1944, foresees Ricketts succeeding in his attempts to save Wrigley Field, as John Henry's ownership group has done with Fenway Park.

"First of all, I give the Ricketts [family] a lot of credit," Selig told reporters during the game. "I'm not just saying that because I'm Commissioner. Look, they know the right thing to do for this franchise and for the sport is to preserve this. Just like the Red Sox preserved Fenway. These are our cathedrals."

Selig has little sympathy for the rooftop operators, who are claiming that a video screen and signage will limit their sight lines and damage the businesses they have built in the last three decades. Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg remembers first seeing fans appear on rooftops during the Cubs' run to a division title in 1984, and it turned into a commercial venture for some in the ensuing seasons.

Selig pledged to stand alongside Ricketts if the battle against the rooftoppers cannot be resolved without lawsuits.

"I'll do whatever I can do and whatever is legally possible," he said. "That's how strongly I feel about preserving Wrigley Field. You can't ask a team to be competitive and [do things to win] and then tie their hands under their legs. It's just wrong. Somebody has to say it, so I'm happy to say it."

For Ricketts, this wasn't a perfect day, no. But it was another good one. And the centennial billed as "The Party of the Century" will continue after the summer weather has arrived and the ivy has turned green.

"For five years we've looked forward to this season, to the chance to really celebrate Wrigley Field," Ricketts said. "It's not just today. It's all season. We're going to be doing special things at every homestand. The whole season is about celebrating this place."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago Cubs