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Funny money

The Cubs are spending lots of cash; will it matter?

Posted: Tuesday November 21, 2006 1:07PM; Updated: Tuesday November 21, 2006 1:23PM
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Alfonso Soriano signed a $136 million deal with the Cubs, but will the Tribune Company be the one paying it next season?
Alfonso Soriano signed a $136 million deal with the Cubs, but will the Tribune Company be the one paying it next season?
John Iacono/SI
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Leave it to the Tribune Company to finally start throwing around cash when it knows somebody else is eventually going to have to foot the bill.

We refer, of course, to the funny-money contracts inked in the last month by Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who this week signed free-agent Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million deal, the fifth-largest in baseball history. This on the heels of the five-year, $73 million signing of third baseman Aramis Ramirez, and the three-year, $13 million contract given to second baseman Mark DeRosa, a career utility man who made $675,000 last season for the Texas Rangers.

And did we mention the three-year, $10 million contract given to manager Lou Piniella? After all that, the two-year, $5.25 million deal for backup catcher Henry Blanco and the $1.75 million re-signing of unproductive (38-37 since 2002) oft-injured Kerry Wood, must have looked like chump change to the suits at the Tribune Company.

This is the same Tribune Company that has put itself up for sale to the highest bidder. It's the same Tribune Company that owns the Los Angeles Times, and fired publisher Jeff Johnson and managing editor Dean Baquet for refusing to initiate further layoffs in an already bare-bones newsroom. (In a particularly underhanded move, Baquet was fired on Nov. 7, which was Election Day, so the treachery was largely lost in the national news cycle.)

The Tribune Company has owned the Cubs since 1981, when it bought the team from the Wrigley family for $20.5 million -- about $3.5 million more than Soriano will make next season. In the ensuing 24 seasons, the Cubs finished under .500 17 times. They made the playoffs three times. They never made it to the World Series, a championship last won by the Cubs in 1908.

This from a team owned by a media conglomerate whose holdings include WGN, a superstation. What other team is owned by a media conglomerate whose holdings include a superstation? Why, the Atlanta Braves (now owned by Time Warner, of which Sports Illustrated is a part). Ted Turner bought the Braves in 1976, floundered with them in the early years, then figured out that by hiring good baseball people, not meddling, building a team around pitching and defense, and paying to keep talent, the Braves' flagstation, TBS, would have months of cheap, original programming and would attract a national audience. It worked out pretty well for both parties. Between 1991-2005, the Braves won 14 straight division titles, five NL pennants and one World Series. In 1995, Turner, sold his Turner Broadcasting empire to Time Warner for some $7.5 billion.

So what excuse does the Tribune Company have? The curse of a billy goat. Of course these latest moves by Hendry, overpriced though they may be, have again lit the fires of hope in Cubs nation, which were reduced to faint embers this season after the team finished in last place in the weak NL Central (behind the Pirates!), winning just 66 games. Empty seats were seen in Wrigley Field throughout September, despite announced ticket sales of 3.1 million for the year, second most in team history. This was cause for alarm at the Tribune Company, because Cubs fans are stupidly loyal.

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