At 41 years old, I still get a thrill when I wind through the dimly lit, chill of the ancient concourse and ascend the concrete stairs to emerge in the warm sunlight, welcomed by blue skies, green grass, red brick and emerald ivy. The majestic scoreboard perched atop the center field bleachers towers over the cathedral, keeping watch like the bridge of a sailing ship about to take us for a voyage where time dissolves and timelessness envelopes me along with the smell of fresh peanuts and stale beer. I can’t help but smile. I am at once 41, 24, 16, 10, and 4 years old. I have grown up with her, and over the past few decades, we’ve both changed some, but at heart, we are both the same – for now.
My dad would take me to games when I was small. It was the late 1970’s. He worked security there and, with a single bleacher ticket for me, he would escort me to the far left corner of the back row of the right field bleachers and sit me there. If I needed anything, I was to see the women who ran the concession stand directly behind me. (They usually slipped me free gum – Wrigley’s of course) I sat there alone, surrounded by the Bleacher Bums, the ones Lee Elia would lash out at a couple of years later. Dad would check on me and bring me a pop and a hot dog. I was in heaven. Wrigley Field would become my favorite place to go.
After a few years, I was grouped with other boys and released into the upper deck, where there were plenty of empty seats. We yelled, we booed, we undoubtedly annoyed anyone near us, and we had a blast.
Soon I was able to hop the bus and buy my own ticket with grass cutting money. Big Gulps and hot dogs were cheaper at 7-11, so my friend and I would stop there, load up, and find a slab riser in center field to claim as our own. We’d stretch out and take in the game. I got my first whiff of marijuana sitting there.
At 16, I got my first real job there.
She’s seen me from boyhood, through my teens, into adulthood, and eventually fatherhood. I have made friends, found romance, learned how the real world works, how the Chicago-way works, been thrilled and had my heart broken in and around that ballpark, and have shared its joy with each of my three kids. Wrigley Field has been special to me. It is with a heavy-heart that I now must say farewell to that grand old lady. She’s not being torn down, but the changes that will made this off-season is enough to alter the very soul of her in a way that I’m afraid will never be undone.
Time marches on they tell me and the only constant is change. Well that’s what’s made her so special, even with superficial changes over the years, they’ve never quite dissolved her charm and timelessness. This time, we aren’t so lucky
They’re putting a jumbotron in her. Why not some Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa as well? They claim it is the only way the Cubs and their loyal fans will ever see a World Series. I say their bologna has a first name and it’s J-U-M-B-O. Here’s why…
I would take the Congress-Douglas from Jeff Park to Addison then transfer to the 151 Addison bus. The Congress-Douglas line is now known as the Blue Line and it originates, or terminates however you wish to view it, at O’Hare Airport. Travelers flying into O’Hare can ride the rails into the neighborhoods and downtown. One day on my way to work, I got off the ‘L’ and walked across to the bus stop when a man approached me. “How do I get back to O’Hare?” he asked. “You get back on the same train you just got off of but going in the opposite direction,” I told him. Seemed logical and obvious to me. “I just flew in from San Francisco,” he went on to say which explained why the logical and obvious evaded him. “I flew in to see Wrigley Field and I’m flying right back out again after the game.” Think about that for a second. He didn’t fly from California to Chicago because he’s a Cub fan, or to see a great ballgame. The Cubs were not playing the Giants that day either so it wasn’t to see his team play. He “flew in to see Wrigley Field”. Those were his exact words. How many people do you think have flown across the country to see Miller Park or Camden Yards or U.S. Cellular Field? Few I’m sure. Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, old Tigers Stadium, and Wrigley Field. That’s about it.
I know, I know. Yankee Stadium has been rebuilt, Tiger Stadium is no more, and yes Fenway has a Jumbo-Tron and has for a while. And that only bolsters my point. Even those other iconic ballparks aren’t what they once were, what baseball once was. That makes Wrigley Field that much more unique.
People have flocked to Wrigley Field to see a baseball game for the past two decades because it’s Wrigley Field. Because it is a bridge to the past, a link from son to father to grandfather to great-grandfather. To experience Wrigley Field is to catch a glimpse of what previous generations experienced when going to a game. It’s not a stadium, it’s not complex, it’s a ballpark. It looks like a ballpark, it sounds like a ballpark, it smells like a ballpark, but most importantly it feels like a ballpark.
It is listed among Frank Lloyd Wright houses as must-sees when visiting the city. On any given afternoon, even in the dead of winter, you will see someone standing at the corner of Clark and Addison snapping pictures of Wrigley Field. They aren’t doing that at the United Center. They aren’t doing that at Soldier Field (and they weren’t even before the spacecraft landed in it). They aren’t doing that at the Cell. And they aren’t doing it at Wrigley Field because they’re Cub fans. At least not all of them.
If the ballpark has been the draw more so than the team that plays there, how does it follow that to have a good team play there, you have to change the ballpark?
The reality is though, they’re going to go ahead with the plans. They’re going to turn the area around Wrigley Field, commonly known as Wrigleyville (a term I have hated since the yuppies deemed it so in the late 1980’s) into a mall. They will take away that neighborhood feel that exists outside the ballpark and inside they will remove that link, that bridge to the past. Wrigley Field will, starting next season, be just another baseball stadium. It will be indistinguishable to Camden Yards or Citi Field or Busch Stadium. Bricks and ivy will still be on the outfield wall, sure, but that is already starting to look more like a replication than an original. The hand-operated scoreboard will still sit in center field, but it will lose its majesty, after being dwarfed by the big screen TV in left field.
It’s been a slow death. It started in 1988 with the necessary addition of lights. I was against it at the time, but I will admit I had an awful lot of fun nights at Wrigley Field, some I can remember, others I cannot.
That first season I worked there was the first full season with night games. As I rolled empty beer kegs down the upper deck ramps, the saxophone player serenaded from the sidewalk below and the city was alive, a living breathing thing, and that bridge opened up. Close your eyes, breath in deep, and listen. It could be 1989 or it could be 1945. Not much different than it would have been like had Mr. Wrigley installed the lights he’d sacrificed for the war effort. And so, I accepted them.
Then came the skyboxes and that ugly freaking press box in the upper deck behind home plate. The Tribune Company couldn’t have designed a more out of place looking addition to the park if they had hired a blind monkey with a seizure disorder to draw up the plans. The skyboxes themselves though, fit in nicely; hanging where the old press box used to be.
In the following years, little changes here and there occurred, but nothing outrageous. I’m not unrealistic about change. Change has been necessary over the years. Change is why Wrigley Field is still here for us to enjoy after 100 years of existence. If money hadn’t been spent and renovations been done over the years, it would’ve been knocked down long ago. But there is a way to make changes, to update the park while remaining true to the structure.
Do the Cubs need a new clubhouse? Definitely. Is there desperate need for more restrooms? By God YES! Should they include some advertising in the park? By all means, yes. It’s been done before, and if done well, could be made to fit in while still standing out. Do they need a new, larger press box? Indeed, fix what was never right to begin with. But do they need a Jumbo-Tron? Absolutely not.
There are necessary changes that can be done while retaining the charm and the heart of the place. And then there is that awfulness. A giant flashing light-show on a flatscreen. The death knell. The nail in the coffin of baseball’s last vestige of a time gone-by. The bridge to baseball’s hey-day (or Hey Hey day if I may) will be closed. No orange cones and barricades, just a big flashing sign that says, “Guess which virtual running hot dog will win the race.” Because, according to the ownership, this is what has kept us from winning a World Series, no Big-Screen hot dog races between innings.
We didn’t have one in 1984 when we came so close. Nor in 1989, 1998, 2003, 2008. We’ve had more opportunities in this modern age with this ballpark than in the 39 years between 1945 and 1984. We’ve come close. Have had good teams. Have been in contention. Have had the talent. Someone has to lose; unfortunately that someone has been the Cubs. It was not for a lack of spending money though. Money was spent and revenue came in without a Jumbo-Tron. I know, this family doesn’t have the resources the Tribune Company had, nor is it as wealthy as the Wrigley family was. But is the answer to destroy your most valuable asset?
Ballplayers come and go, and no team ever really has a dynasty. The Yankees didn’t make the playoffs last year despite all the money they bring in and put out. The closest team to dynasty status is the St. Louis Cardinals, a small market team whose spending, according to CBSsports.com, was less in 2013 than nine other teams including the White Sox, Red Sox, Phillies, and Toronto. As of September 23, 2014, Boston and Philadelphia are last in their respective divisions, while the White Sox are below .500 and in fourth place, and the Blue Jays two games above .500, third in their division. In 2014, the Cardinals spent less than twelve other teams including the Texas Rangers who are dead last in their division, the Arizona Diamondbacks who are dead last in their division, and the Cincinnati Reds who are only 3.5 games ahead of the Cubs in the NL Central. Spending big doesn’t always result in winning as we have so brutally learned over the years.
In 2009 and 2010, the Cubs spent more on salaries than every team in baseball except the Yankees and the Red Sox. They finished ’09 second in their division, but with a very average record of .516 and couldn’t secure a playoff spot. The results in 2010 were dismal. They finished fifth in their division with a .463 average, but drew over 3 million fans, 7th in all of baseball, ahead of Texas, Tampa, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta, all playoff teams that season. So what did the Cubs have that those teams didn’t? Wrigley Field. Many of those 3 million were there to see baseball at Wrigley Field, to cross that bridge to baseball past. To soak up the history, the tradition, the endangered aura that exists nowhere else but there, in that cathedral.
It seems to me the key to winning is more about spending wisely than spending big. The Cubs have been doing that in recent years with young acquisitions and the development of their farm system. Gone are the days of dropping millions on the Milton Bradleys of the game. It also seems to me that to make it through the lean years between good teams, it’s nice to have something besides the product on the field to bring in revenue. The Cubs have that in Wrigley Field. It draws fans even when the team stinks. When there is no star slugger whose jerseys fans clamor to buy, you still have merchandise (t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, hats, signs, flags, posters, postcards) featuring the star that never leaves, never retires, never gets injured, and never corks a bat – Wrigley Field. As evidenced this past season when the major attention and marketing was given to her 100th Anniversary as there was very little to market on the field. She not only bridges past to present, but present to future by alone bringing in revenue while the team rebuilds the roster. With the right custodians, she’ll continue to do so for several years to come.
This is not the right custodian. He doesn’t get it. He is not a Chicagoan. He found the team when all the other transplants found the team. When the white-flighters returned from the ‘burbs to revisit the team and the city they’d forsaken when both needed them most. When the Superstation brought the beauty of Wrigley Field to the farm fields of Central Illinois and Iowa and Indiana and Nebraska and Colorado before there was a team in Denver. After one winning season brought the Cubs national attention and TV and movie stars made being a Cub fan cool. That’s when this owner found the Cubs, when the bandwagon was already crowded. After the other yuppies had jumped on board with the out-of-towners. In the time when the blue collar Cub fans were being pushed out with the old ladies and the kids to make room for pink polo collared men with mobile phones and feathered hair, their siliconed lady friends, and the frat boys with their sorority girls. When that so very non-Chicago accent could be heard declaring into cell phones across the park, “Oh my gawd, guess where I am … Wreglay.”
He came with them.
When they took over the park and the neighborhood. When the suburban raised children of the white-flighters demanded their first grown-up apartment be in ‘Wreglayville’. Post-skyboxes, post-bleacher expansion, post-box seat expansion, post-rooftop monetizing.
He is one of them.
It’s no surprise he would be at the helm when Old Style beer is booted from the park and a Jumbo-tron is to rise above it.
He is one of them.
The outsiders who make me feel I have a better connection with those others from the numbered streets wearing black and white than I do with those adorning red, white, and Cubbie blue.
I think he is their leader.
“I want to be able to see replays,” they cry.
“Then stay home,” I answer.
“It’s the only way we can have a World Series,” they demand.
“Bullshit!” I reply.
“Any other owner would do the same thing,” some lament.
“That doesn’t make it right,” I declare.
“They have to move into the twenty-first century,” they assert.
“What does that have to do with a Jumbo-Tron?” I ask.
What we generically call jumbotrons today have been a part of baseball since 1980. Wrigley Field is the only professional sports arena to not have one. You can either view that as a child would, “everyone else has one why not us?” or as a person of intelligence and forethought who realizes that that is what makes the place so special. That is what you’ve been marketing when the team is bad.
The last time Wrigley was the ‘only one without’ was during the 1980’s fight over lights. That issue affected not only the Cubs, but all of baseball and the networks that covered them. The team couldn’t avoid installing lights any longer. The jumbotron affects only them, and with the proper business acumen, it wouldn’t be an issue. It is the easy way out. A child’s perception and solution.
And so it has come to pass. The view from the grandstands of the old girl will be forever changed, and with it, so will the notion of what it is to be a Cub fan. What I grew up with will breathe its last breath tomorrow and then silently slip into the past. In 2015, when fans ascend the stairs and transition from shadow to light, they’ll not be overcome by the natural colors of blue sky, green grass and red brick, but rather by the flashing LED colors of a two-story television screen, and odds are, a still mediocre team on the field.
My prediction for the future of Cubs baseball is that they will finally win a World Series Championship when I no longer care.
Rest in peace old girl and thank you for the memories.
Me as Pirates batboy 1986 with Tony Pena
The old Bleachers
Bob Denier chasing a fly ball. No lights, no skyboxes, no ugly press box in the upper deck.
This view will be gone.
First Night Game 8/8/88 Before the rain began
Harry Carey and me