In the wake of Peter Gammons’ recent comments about Wrigley’s purported dumptitude, I had to give the matter some thought. I came to the grudging conclusion long ago that while I may not have a rooting interest in the Cubs (or the White Sox), as a Chicagoan for most of my life, if my love of baseball has to have a home, it’s at Wrigley Field. So when someone starts talking about Wrigley as “a dump,” it’s perhaps too easy for me to respond to that statement with the parochial Second City instinct that thinks East Coasters ought to stick to their own local conceits. But the rational response asks and deliberates the root question -- whether or not Wrigley Field is a dump.
In the sportswriting racket, it is perhaps too easy to get dissociated from the consumer experience. These days, it’s easy for me to grump about how the heavy frame of the windows of the Wrigley press box windows produce obstructions, but that’s hardly the sort of thing that flat-out spoils the experience. The visiting clubhouse is minuscule, and the visiting managers’ office is little better than a broom closet. The home team’s setup, while better, isn’t nearly as swank as, say, the lavish setup afforded Evil Imperials in NuYankee. The media room for post-game statements is similarly cramped as media work spaces go.
But how much of that matters for the paying customer? As the Pirates like to say about PNC Park, they built it for the fan experience, and it shows; the press box may as well be in geosynchronous orbit, but if you’re an entertainment industry, keeping the people paying to be entertained happy seems like a reasonable plan of action. So when I learned that my favorite former intern at Baseball Prospectus would be visiting Chicago in time to coincide with the Yankees-Cubs series -- Steph’s lone flaw being her Yankee fandom -- I had the opportunity to not just go sit in the stands and take in a game as a baseball fan, but also to enjoy the game in the company of someone enjoying their first-ever Wrigley Field experience.
Parking a few blocks away in front of St. Mary of the Lake Parish Church up on Sheridan gave us a chance to stretch our legs, while also giving Steph a sense of the neighborhood aspect of a neighborhood park. We joined the southbound flow of fans that thickened up as we went, voices animated with low chatter about the game, while passing restaurants and bars advertising their loyalty, love and cheap fare. The El rumbled overhead as we drew near, and then we emerged from below the trees and apartment buildings onto the corner of Waveland and Sheffield, and voilà, there it is: the backside of the manual scoreboard towering overhead. The crowds pressed into any one of several points of ingress -- into the bleachers or the bars (the distinction blurs for more than a few folks by the fifth inning), or towards the rooftop venues. We walked under the bleachers that overhang the sidewalk, but paused at the field-level access gate in right to look through the open, outfield wall-side gate. There, we saw that BP was just finishing up, and a few players were milling around or chatting just a few dozen yards away. It’s a simple pleasure, but Steph hasn’t seen anything like it at a major league park, not in California or New York.
We made our way around to the southwest corner of the block to pick up our tickets at ‘will call’ and headed into Wrigley’s guts. Looking around, the wear and tear of long service doesn’t seem especially grimy, certainly not relative to years past. Where a decade ago you might run afoul of the stench of stale beer and urine as soon as temps top 80, things on the Ricketts’ watch seem much tidier. We didn’t have all that far to go -- our seats are in section 224, just a little to the right of home plate. The sun hadn’t quite settled into that space between the upper and lower deck, when dusk goes gold and the sun bathes right field and the rooftops beyond in warm light. But it will, and it does, because this cold spring gives us a perfect night for baseball.
From our vantage, only a few square feet of the right-field corner were out of view, so the sightlines were exquisite. Steph was a bit stunned by the view, saying she’d never been so close to home plate before. We settled in for the standard rituals: I broke out my Wirkmaa scorebook, turning to the last two unused pages of this one, well worth saving for the occasion. And we sang the anthem -- a low-key instrumental version, so we got the unusual pleasure of hearing the voices of the thousands of people around us, all singing. There’s something a lot more inspiring about this than being drowned out by the speakers. In general, Wrigley’s not as noisy as most parks, thanks to the absence of a Jumbotron, meaning that the ambient noise of the game and of the crowd has more opportunity to register -- but also more opportunity to actually have a conversation or two during the course of the ballgame, about the game itself.
Brett Gardner hit a homer on an 0-2 count to lead off the action, and we’re off. While I wish I could make a comparison to the way things were in the '80s or '90s or the Aughties, I can’t have the hot dog smothered in onions and mustard that I’d kill for -- a late-onset gluten allergy took that off my menu. But to my surprise, we found out that the Cubs offer a list of their gluten-free munchables, an additional bit of thoughtfulness that sounds like another reminder the Ricketts are running a 21st century business in a well-maintained early-20th century venue.
Steph’s not a noisy Yankees fan, but we were sitting next to a pair of them. They’re good-natured, even as they trash-talk. A couple of groups of serious-minded Cubs fans razzed them early, but this night’s bullpen implosion wound up sucking the energy out of that good-natured debate. One of the Yankee rooters went on about how Randy Wells needs to go back to St. Louis -- he’s mistaken him for Kip Wells, which would be cruel if it weren’t simply the product of blissful ignorance. However, the pinstriped triumphalism never got all that blue, and never tipped over into anything unpleasant. It was simply too nice a night.
After the game we ended up walking all the way to the furthest left-field corner, just to check out the view from all around the ballpark. Steph busily snapped pics throughout the evening, and walked away saying it had to be one of the best ballparks on the planet. I asked if she thought the place was a dump, and she responded that L.A. would be lucky to have a park this nice.
So where does dumping on Wrigley come from? From the people who work there, and who are used to something better these days. Certainly, those are the people most likely to say something about working in Wrigley and have it become “news.” Maybe the Ricketts can punch up the amenities for the players or the press by adding a building on the northwest corner of their block, up on the corner of Clark and Waveland, an idea that has been discussed in the past.
But coming out of Wrigley Field on Sunday night, I left with the expectation that I’ll have to get Steph back out to see Wrigley again to bring her around to my point of view -- that is, to trim away the “one of” aspect of her first impression about best ballparks. But I also came out of the night thinking there’s nothing about Wrigley that merits dumping on it, certainly not from a spot in the stands.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.