David Hoppe

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:: Even Cubs fans have their limits

Joe Ricketts’s political adventures

By David Hoppe

I don't know who the joker was that invented the idea of “human progress.” But I can tell you this: She wasn't a Cubs fan.

Readers of this column will recall that about once a year I turn my attention to the trials and tribulations of a certain hapless baseball team located on Chicago's northside. In this, I am not unlike a couple of other ink-stained wretches here in Indianapolis. Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Tully, I salute (and commiserate with) you.

As I write this, the Cubs are firmly ensconced in last place in the National League's Central Division. While the season is still relatively young, the team shows every sign of making the cellar its permanent address. Things have gotten so bad, sports writers are paying less attention to whether the Cubs win or lose than to those fleeting moments when the team manages, however briefly, to eke out a lead over one or another of their opponents.

Cubs fans are used to this sort of thing. This is a team that hasn't won a championship in over 100 years — which is shorthand for saying that this is a team with fans who, for generations, have shown more loyalty than sense.

We've put up with such occult shenanigans as the curse of the Billy Goat and the College of Coaches. We've suffered through Carmen Fanzone's broken-noted trumpet playing, Joe Pepitone's mutton chop sideburns and the butter-fingered defense of the infelicitously named Pete LaCock. You'd think it could never be worse than this.

But you'd be wrong.

Earlier this month, The New York Times revealed that Joe Ricketts, patriarch of the family that bought the Cubs in 2009, was prepared to spend $10 million on an ad campaign aimed at smearing President Obama's character.

Ten million dollars may seem like a lot of money to you and me, but it's chickenfeed to a billionaire like Ricketts, who has made a fortune on Wall Street through his brokerage firm, TD Ameritrade. His family pays left fielder Alfonso Soriano almost twice that much every summer to strike out with men on base.

It seems Mr. Ricketts has never gotten over those grainy videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that were trotted out by rightwing mudslingers during the 2008 presidential campaign. The Rev. Wright is a fiery orator, with a hard- core take on how power has been used in the United States to maintain what he considers a racist status quo. The Obama family attended Wright's church; some pundits hoped the videos would instill a fear among voters that Obama secretly hated white people.

But John McCain, Obama's 2008 opponent, didn't want to go there. He considered using the videos racially divisive, not to mention beside the point, since Wright never claimed to speak on behalf of, or for, Obama. McCain vetoed a proposal to use the Wright material in his ads.

This wasn't Joe Ricketts' take. When he was shown an ad McCain had squelched exploiting Rev. Wright, he reportedly said: “If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama.”

Ricketts paid a political advertising strategist to come up with a proposal for an ad campaign aimed at dredging up the Rev. Wright story all over again. That proposal, titled, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,” became an instant sensation on cable news programs of the “OMG, what was he thinking?” variety.

Not only did the proposal indicate that Joe Ricketts was interested in trying to reinforce the most bigoted side of people already predisposed to vote against the nation's first black president, it also betrayed an almost pathological cluelessness.

It turns out that while Joe Ricketts says he is incensed by the way the government spends money, his family was in the midst of negotiations with the City of Chicago to obtain $300 million of taxpayer funding for renovations to Wrigley Field, the ballpark where the Cubs ply their misbegotten trade.

Apparently, no one — not even Ricketts' daughter Laura, who is one of Obama's biggest financial contributors — thought to remind the old man that Chicago's mayor is Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former Chief of Staff. It seems the mayor has suddenly stopped taking the Ricketts' phone calls.

Joe Ricketts has a right to his political views, no matter how cracked they might be. But when you own a professional sports team — particularly a team whose following is based on the oddly quixotic loyalty inspired by the Cubs — you also take on a kind of public trust. It's bad enough that the Cubs are in last place. It's unspeakably worse to think that supporting them in any way endorses the paranoid arrogance of a family of insanely rich dopes who have decided to make baseball their hobby.

On the weekend following the revelations about Joe Ricketts' political adventures, the Cubs played their crosstown rivals, the White Sox. This series is usually one of the hottest tickets in town; people with experience of such things say the games have a playoff atmosphere. This time, though, there were empty seats in the bleachers. Neither team is playing well this year. But maybe even Cubs fans have their limits.