Sam Zell, the owner of the Tribune Company, is fast becoming Public Enemy Number One.
The publishing and real estate magnate also owns the Chicago Cubs, and he's been alienating fans, the media and legislators with his arrogant talk about auctioning off the naming rights to Wrigley Field and cutting a deal which would dump landmarking requirements on the building before selling the ballpark to the state.
Cub fans are outraged at the possible desecration of their holy shrine. White Sox and Cardinals fans - who tend to despise Cub fans for their puppy love of a dilapidated stadium - are incensed that the state would dare do anything on behalf of the Cubs. Taxpayers are furious. Legislators are freaking out.
"Excuse me for being sarcastic," Zell told a cable TV interviewer who asked about the uproar over selling the naming rights, "but the idea of a debate occurring over what I should do with my asset leaves me somewhat questioning the integrity of the debate."
Zell is a tough-talking, no nonsense, hugely successful businessman. But good baseball owners are stewards of beloved institutions that will outlive us all. For Cub fans, that park is everything. Relaxing the landmarking requirements - which, among other things, prohibit changing the signage outside the stadium - is a horrifying thought to many. If the naming rights are sold, fans could be welcomed by a giant neon "Waste Management Field" sign or some such atrocity out front.
And being a billionaire doesn't necessarily prepare oneself for passing a hugely controversial piece of legislation. Zell, who came up with the idea of selling the park to the state, is obviously hurting his own cause.
"Over my dead body," declared one powerful Democratic state Senator last week when asked whether the state purchase would be approved. His sentiments were echoed throughout the Capitol.
Some legislators who have had meetings with Zell's people say Zell is merely attempting to strong-arm the Wrigley Company into paying for the advertising that it's received gratis for decades. But if the Wrigley Co. folks don't cave and buy the naming rights, it will be almost impossible for any legislator with Cub fans in his or her district to vote for a state takeover of Zell's ballpark because the bill would essentially codify a name change. Even if Wrigley does give in, the rest of the state is not going to go easy into the night.
Former Gov. Jim Thompson is in charge of crafting the sale. Gov. Rod Blagojevich asked Thompson to get this done, and he's doing his best, but he admitted last week that he was "presenting this idea at the worst possible time."
Still, Thompson said, "Everybody should calm down about Zell or destroying Wrigley Field or putting up some sort of name."
Thompson said he wouldn't do anything to "destroy the charm" of Wrigley Field if the state buys the park and leases it to the new Cub owners. "I love the Cubs," he said.
But what about all that talk of relaxing or even abandoning the stadium's landmark status? Thompson vowed to "keep those elements of Wrigley which are landmarked and which the city won't agree to change," like the signage out front. However, he said, he needed to make sure the park was "habitable" for the teams. Plus, luxury suites need to be added to produce revenues. "We need to retain the charm and ambiance which brings a full house every game day and make it a decent, inhabitable revenue producing stadium."
Even without Zell's remarks, Thompson would have a tough time. Illinois politics is an absolute mess right now. The Democrats are fighting each other and nothing is getting done. The budget is deeply in the red. The governor's advisor Tony Rezko is about to go on trial for corruption. It couldn't get much worse.
Thompson knows the future is perilous. He has to first craft a deal that "lets us acquire and restore Wrigley at no cost to the taxpayers." Then, he said, he could "at least make the argument with a straight face" to all the parties involved. And then he has to pass the bill.
All I know is Thompson's game this spring will surely be more entertaining than anything played at Wrigley.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.