Commentary

Keep Wrigley the people's park

Changes are needed, but Cubs have to be mindful of Friendly Confines' evolution

Updated: April 23, 2014, 9:47 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Wrigley RenderingsCourtesy of the Chicago CubsA lack of distractions, like a giant videoboard that is coming soon, is not always better for the fans at Wrigley Field.
Moe: Oh, everybody is going to family restaurants these days. Seems nobody wants to hang out in a dank pit no more.

Carl: You ain't thinking of getting rid of the dank, are you, Moe?

Moe: Ehh, maybe I am.

Carl: Oh, but Moe: the dank. The dank!

-- The Simpsons, "Bart Sells His Soul."

CHICAGO -- The marquee, the scoreboard and "the generally uninterrupted sweep and contour of the grandstand and bleachers" aren't going anywhere. They're protected.

The ivy will always grow back, a rite of summer in Chicago like street sweeping tickets, and the beer and hot dogs will always be delivered to your seats by union men.

The grass will be green and plentiful, except after concerts, and the Cubs will always, well, sometimes win.

Tom Ricketts
Raymond Boyd/Getty ImagesWith 37 percent of the Wrigley attendees coming from out of state, Tom Ricketts is never going to move the Cubs out of the iconic park.
Wrigley Field, the little ballpark at Clark and Addison, 100 years old and still gorgeous, is here to stay.

But you should swing by and see the old gal for her birthday, because changes are coming.

The dank corridors, the lousy concession stands, the netting holding back concrete, the unused space and the remnants of obvious maintenance to a century-old ballpark, those can go.

The view and the ambience, those will stay.

For better or worse -- mostly better we hope -- the ageless charm of Wrigley Field, which celebrates its 100th "birthday" Wednesday, will give way to progress in the coming seasons, as the organization prepares for a four- to five-year renovation of the Friendly Confines. It should start this offseason.

The renovations -- $300 million for the ballpark, $200 million for the surrounding area -- were approved by the city council last year and still await that first shovel.

The Cubs blame the delay on uncertain threat of litigation from the rooftop owners arguing that the planned videoboard in left-center field will block their contractually-protected views.

The videoboard couldn't have been ready this season anyway, which lends credence to the belief the Cubs will start the more expensive renovation when that money-making addition is nearly ready.

New Wrigley will include that videoboard, more club seats, more club space, more suites, tens of thousands of square feet of advertising signage, a nearby boutique hotel, a "town square," restaurants, patios, etc. and so on. The players will get enclosed bullpens, nicer clubhouses and facilities. Modern 20th century amenities and state-of-the art additions.

Essentially, the Cubs are emulating the Boston Red Sox. Which is par for the course.

The Cubs are selling these changes as providing additional revenue that will help increase the baseball budget from its current small market reality.

But how will it affect the Wrigley experience?

Don't laugh. It's not a joke about losing, bathroom troughs and concrete netting.

The evolution of Wrigley is something that the Cubs have to be concerned about, or at least cognizant of. While there are very few baseball players who are ticket draws, the allure of classic Wrigley will always keep the turnstiles moving.

A few years ago, when the Cubs were trying to pry public money from the city and county to finance the renovations, they paid for a study that estimated 37 percent of Wrigley attendees were from out of state, i.e. tourists.

That number is why no one in their right mind ever seriously entertained moving to the suburbs. Without the tourists, a bad Cubs team would draw like a mediocre White Sox team.

The tourists, and Wrigley fans in general, don't just buy tickets from the team. They help underwrite season ticket holders' wildly expensive packages through the secondary market.

The secondary market, and the allure of holding a seat if the Cubs ever make the World Series, give this hapless franchise a very strong base of season-ticket holders, who in turn fill the Cubs' coffers before a beer is poured for the season.

Even when the big TV money makes it rain inside RickettsLand, fans in the seats are a major part of the calculus. After all, they sell the park to the tourists watching on TV. A full house creates more demand and all.

For all the complaints about Wrigley, mostly from those within the team, the ballpark is the lifeblood of the franchise. The Cubs can't risk spoiling that relationship, and judging by the drawings I've seen over the past few years, the changes won't do that. But of course, we won't know what New Wrigley will look like until it's actually finished. Or even started.

It's been noted that the drawing appeal has probably hurt the club, because the bean counters knew they could field mediocre teams with strong results.

But that's not totally true. The Cubs started drawing 3 million fans after the wildly exciting, horribly ending 2003 season, and they didn't stop until the money dried up and Ricketts stopped spending on major league payroll.

Still, no team that has lost like the Cubs the past two years has drawn so well.

So, no one wants another New Soldier Field experience, a spaceship landing on Clark and Addison.

The most important things to protect are the view from the seats and the intimacy of the seating bowl.

[+] EnlargeWrigley Field
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPlenty of modern changes are on the way but many Wrigley Field signatures, like the ivy-covered outfield walls, will remain.
Everyone talks about the bricks and the ivy and the scoreboard and the sun-and-beer splashed days, but Wrigley's seduction of fans is how close they are to the action. You might not even recognize that power, but it's why Wrigley feels so welcoming. Even the shaded terrace seats and upper deck cheap seats feel close enough.

And when the Cubs are winning, like in 2003, 2007 and 2008, it feels like an entire city is shaking the old building down to its studs.

Even Wrigley itself feels smaller because it's ensconced in a real neighborhood. How many modern ballparks have actual neighbors? The vitality of a city permeates throughout the park, from the passing trains to yes, the rooftop clubs.

Like most teams, the Cubs have snuck in some high-priced "premium" seating closer to the field over the last decade as their popularity has boomed, and one would hope they don't completely price out the "upper middle class" fans when the additions are complete.

I'm less worried about the effect of a videoboard, commonly and incorrectly referred to as a "jumbotron." While I enjoy the relative quiet of a Cubs game free of commercials and overwhelming music, after a big play, I reflexively look up for a replay. I'm sure I'm not alone. A lack of distractions makes Wrigley unique, but not always better for the fans.

The same goes for the mostly united seating bowl. There are sparse luxury suites and clubs at Wrigley and the ones that exist are so out of the way, it's easy to miss them entirely. That will change, naturally.

Premium is everything in this day and age. Such is life. Let's hope it doesn't dominate the new park.

Wrigley has been the people's park for a century now. Let's hope it stays that way for another 100 years.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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