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Cubs' plans starting to come to fruition

(MCT) — MESA, Ariz. — During the Cubs Convention last month, Tom Ricketts told fans a story of an interesting conversation he had over the summer with a Chicago taxi driver.

Listening to a Cubs game in St. Louis on the radio, the driver recognized it was the team's chairman sitting in the back seat of his cab.

"Mr. Ricketts, I am from Russia," Ricketts said relating the conversation. "And what you are doing is like writing a great novel. Do not win too soon. I want to read every chapter."

After waiting for the laughter to recede, Ricketts added the kicker:

"I said, 'Brother, you are the only person who ever has said that to me.' "

How long the wait will be for Ricketts to win remains to be seen. The team is coming off a 101-loss season, added little offense in the offseason and is expected to struggle through another playoff-free year.

But with spring training about to begin in the Valley of the Sun, this could be considered the high point of the Ricketts era:

• Construction of the team's new spring complex is under way on the other side of Phoenix, where the Cubs will begin Cactus League play in 2014. This will be their final spring training at HoHoKam Park.

• A new academy in the Dominican Republic is nearly complete and is expected to open in May or June, giving the Cubs a better foothold in the baseball-crazed country. The 50-acre facility will be the largest in the Dominican.

• The team reached an agreement with Northwestern to play five home football games in November at Wrigley Field, probably beginning in 2014, while other Wildcats teams will begin using the ballpark some this year.

• Momentum for the long-awaited Wrigley Field renovation appears to be growing after Ricketts proposed the Cubs would finance the $300 million project — granted the city relaxes regulations concerning signage and increases the number of night games allowable.

• Despite a .426 winning percentage in the first three years of the Ricketts family's ownership, the general consensus among fans is the team is headed in the right direction under second-year President Theo Epstein's game plan.

Ricketts allowed Epstein to sign Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million deal, the biggest contract under the new ownership, which had complained of a lack of payroll "flexibility" from the end of the Tribune Co. era.

No matter what the team's outlook is for 2013, it's obvious Ricketts has found a comfort zone in his fourth year at the helm.

He wants to be considered a "steward" of the historic ballpark, not just someone who will sell every nook and cranny for added revenue streams. Associates close to Ricketts say he desperately wants to be considered someone with whom the average fan can relate, not just a rich owner focused on profit margins.

Laura Ricketts, one of the four siblings who own the team, said at the Cubs Convention that her brother likes to walk around the entire ballpark before games at Wrigley, talking and listening to fans.

"He does that so he doesn't have to work," cracked Todd, his younger brother.

"Well," Tom replied, "It's better than a real job."

Job No. 1 for Tom Ricketts is to get the renovation started. But many questions remain about his plans, including where the Cubs hope to install lucrative signage that can be seen on telecasts for maximum exposure. Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the Cubs and the rooftop owners to work things out between themselves before the city gets involved.

During the announcement of the Northwestern deal on Tuesday, Ricketts declined to answer whether he has been able to talk to the mayor since his latest proposal.

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said. "Everything is moving forward and we're making progress I think. We'll let you know when we have something that works for everybody."

Eventually, a renovation deal seems likely to be reached. The Cubs will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley next year with pomp and circumstance, following the blueprint of the Red Sox as they marked the 100th year of Fenway Park last season.

Off the field, things finally are looking up for Ricketts.

Now all he needs to do is write the perfect ending of his novel.

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