Double Play

A total transformation is underway at Wrigley Field, and it’s not just on the diamond—the front office has an important role to play in pursuit of a drought-ending championship

Ipso facto, actus, reus, and … eamus catuli? Like all lawyers, Lydia Wahlke is familiar with Latin legalese. Before accepting a position with the Chicago Cubs in 2010, she spent four years as an associate at Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis, and before that, she worked for Miramax as an editor and field producer.

Despite her experience in intellectual property and litigation, that last phrase was a new one for her: eamus catuli.

But right outside of Wahlke’s Wrigleyville office, you’re likely to find a passerby who knows the meaning of the “eamus catuli” sign, which adorns the front of a greystone apartment building on Sheffield Avenue. Loosely translated, the bold white letters on a simple blue background mean “Let’s go Cubs!”

When Wahlke joined the historic National League baseball club, the team was at the start of an ambitious rebuilding phase sparked by a change in ownership. In January 2009, Tribune Company agreed to sell a controlling interest in the Cubs to the Ricketts family for an estimated $845 million in a deal finalized in October of the same year. Tom Ricketts, team chairman and family spokesman, said his family has “the goal of Cubs fans everywhere: to win a World Series and build the consistent championship
tradition that the fans deserve.”

It’s a lofty goal. Anyone who reads the “eamus catuli” sign finds a series of numbers to its immediate right. Those numbers represent the number of years since the team won its division, a league championship, and a World Series. When the Ricketts family took over, the Cubs had just failed to win the National League Central division, which they had done in each of the previous two years. So the numbers changed to 01, 63, and 100.

One Hundred Long Years
But a change in ownership—the team’s first in nearly three decades—ushered in a fresh era, and with it, new hope. “It was an exciting time and a great opportunity to rebuild one of the most famous brands in sports,” says Wahlke. “It was like working at a start-up with a hundred years of history.”

Today, the Cubs’ legal team is small, but larger than when Wahlke started. In 2010, she and the executive vice president worked as a team of two, handling a variety of matters from vendor contracts, to marketing and promotion deals, to stadium employment matters, to litigation. Wahlke’s strategy to take this all on effectively was to earn trust with long-tenured employees by getting in the trenches with them: proving dedication, answering questions, and listening to concerns. “We had employees who had worked here longer than I had been alive,” she says. “There were decades of institutional knowledge and inertia. We wanted to keep all the wonderful parts but play a role in creating a more modern and competitive sports franchise.”

To accomplish that ideal, Wahlke helped align her department to the Ricketts family’s three formalized goals: First, owners intend to reward Cubs fans with a World Series championship. Next, they plan to preserve and protect Wrigley Field. Third, they want to be known as good neighbors to the community.

Since the mandate trickles down to all departments, Wahlke and her partners measure all ideas, projects, and initiatives as they build toward accomplishing those benchmarks. “Every dollar spent is justified by how well it meets these three simple goals,” she explains.

For the plan to work, each person in every department had to be willing to step outside of normal job descriptions. “We called ourselves the smallest front office in baseball, and it was a badge of honor,” Wahlke recalls. Things were happening at a dizzying pace—but the plan kept everything in check.

In addition to the new, rapid pace, legal faced a mountain of challenges, including an aging stadium that made headlines for its falling concrete and a staff weary from bankruptcy. Wahlke estimates she spent the better part of a year convincing people to come to the legal department, and she credits a supportive business operations president with easing the transition. He is a former lawyer and included attorneys in business decisions from the beginning.

With a seat at the table, legal participated in a complete—and brutally honest—analysis of the organization. The exercise helped Wahlke realize that Wrigley Field was the organization’s strength, opportunity, and weakness. Its age, structure, limitations, and litigation cause headaches for team attorneys—but the “Friendly Confines” attract sold-out crowds throughout the summer and represents potential beyond games.

The renaissance project got a jump start in fall 2011, when the Cubs hired Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox. Epstein, a general manager in Beantown at age 28, led his team to a World Series just two years later.

Chicago was in a frenzy. Epstein became the team’s president of baseball operations, and Jed Hoyer stepped in as general manager. The duo brought with them their belief in sabermetrics, a system that relies on objective statistics, as well as knowledge of traditional baseball. They handed out copies of a baseball philosophy called “the Cubs way”  that instructed players on every detail of the game. It’s rumored to include information as specific as which part of the foot to use while stepping on specific corners of each base.

In speaking to reporters, Epstein described the manual’s contents: “Playing hard is a big part of it; playing the game the right way and teaching it consistently is important.” He added, “The Cubs way really boils down to the people—the players, obviously, but everyone: all the scouts and all the people in uniform in the minor leagues and the big leagues. For us to teach the game the right way, it’s more than words on the page. It comes down to how deep we dig to get connected to players to teach the game the right way, how much we care, how committed we are, how hard we work. There’s a lot that goes into this and building an organization.”

Hidden Talents

Wahlke says the time she spent working in Hollywood helps her interact with the Cubs’ marketing department. She reviews content with the eye of both an attorney and a video editor. After realizing the franchise had no official digital photo archive, Wahlke spearheaded the creation of an online image database that became the foundation for the team’s 100th anniversary retrospective in 2014. Today, those images are used on the team’s videoboard system, unveiled at the start of the 2015 season.

The Cubs way has deeply influenced all team departments, including legal. “We’ve restructured how we communicate with our fans, how we market, and certain other processes,” Wahlke says. “We never would have done those things without the Ricketts’s leadership and without Epstein and Hoyer’s baseball philosophies. Baseball and business are on a parallel path in coordination.”

For example, the front office started soliciting more input from season ticket holders and fans, hiring fan advocates in the stadium—Tom Ricketts is known to walk the concourse and actively engage fans—and hosting season ticket holder meetings at a large Chicago theater. Wahlke compares the event to an annual stakeholder meeting, saying Epstein and Hoyer participate in a question-and-answer session and share baseball insight and expectations. Since implementing the event in 2012, the Cubs have seen a noticeable spike in season ticket renewal rates.

Wahlke and her colleagues spend time on workers’ compensation issues, compliance issues, contracts, litigation, and problems that attorneys would face in any medium-sized business. The department helps the team stay competitive by addressing the legal, compliance, contract, and insurance aspects of training facilities (the team opened Cubs Park, a new Spring Training complex in 2014), scouting facilities (they launched a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic in 2013), and the restoration of Wrigley Field (the Cubs started a multiyear project in late 2014).

Five years in, the strategic plan is on track. Last season, the team opened the restored left- and right-field Budweiser bleachers, completed structural work in the left-field concourse, and began foundational work for the new home-team clubhouse and office building. The Ricketts family will build a new office building and pedestrian plaza over the next four years.

To make it work, legal and other departments are working together and breaking traditional silos, sharing tools, and adopting one another’s processes to make communication and other business activities better and faster.

On the field, things are progressing, as well. In less than five years, the organization’s minor league and scouting systems have gone from some of the worst to some of the most well-respected. The team has three of Baseball America’s top 50 prospects, in addition to three (Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell) who were recently promoted to the big leagues. Their two “veteran” infielders, all-stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, are each just 25 years old, and a pitching staff anchored by Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Jason Hammel is turning heads.

The Cubs are poised to shed their lovable loser moniker and reinvent themselves as perennial contenders. There is a growing hope on Chicago’s North Side that “next year” is finally here.