Commentary

Wrigley is still the star

A massive new video board won't change the experience of the Friendly Confines

Updated: July 13, 2013, 11:48 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Democracy, like baseball, doesn't have a clock.

I think I came up with that gem around the third hour of a five-hour landmark committee meeting at City Hall on Thursday. A meeting in which one Commission on Chicago Landmarks member asked who would own the signs the Cubs were begging, I mean proposing, they put up at Wrigley Field.

Who would own the signs? Was this a trick question? I felt like I was back in Hyde Park discussing Hegel.

"Well, they could lease the sign out," the commission member said.

I think she just discovered advertising, or the leasing of space for money. No wonder this process was so arduous.

[+] EnlargeAlfonso Soriano
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThere will be a lot more neon signage in the renovated Wrigley Field.

In any event, the commission unanimously approved a massive left-field LED scoreboard and a large neon right-field sign, the two key revenue drivers in Tom Ricketts' group's $300 million plan to renovate Wrigley Field. The commission also approved a "master sign plan" that will guide future advertising as the Cubs feverishly try to take in revenue.

Yes, they will own the signs. And yes, there will be a lot of them, 18,530 square feet of new signage, though not all will be advertising.

Commission member Jim Houlihan kept referring to the signage list as a buffet. "Most of us have some restraint and don't take everything from the buffet," he said.

Somewhere, Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney was tucking a napkin into his shirt.

This meeting followed a specially called June session where the commission gabbed and gabbed and unanimously approved the rest of the Cubs' plans to enhance and transform the still-quaint ballpark, most notably their plans to move several outfield walls out onto the sidewalks.

The process isn't over -- there are still planning and zoning boards to meet with, and some alterations on the plan have to be formally made -- but it's pretty clear the Cubs are going to get the concessions they desire in order to start a five-year renovation process of Wrigley Field, probably by August.

The approval of the scoreboards was expected even if someone hadn't leaked the approval to friendly reporters the night before. In fact, The Associated Press sent out a news story about the decision during the meeting.

Ah, Chicago politics.

During the past year, I've written on this subject a number of times and wasted valuable parenting hours debating fans and reporters on Twitter on the merits of the rooftop owners, alderman Tom Tunney and Wrigleyville.

My basic beliefs stand: The Cubs should have, and did get, the permission to add a video board and basic signage to the ballpark. The Cubs should pay for everything themselves. The city should monitor the changes, as it pertains to landmark status and being good neighbors in a residential area. The rooftop owners should get their views, as promised in their contract. I don't believe they have the right to sue because I don't think their business will be harmed.

If someone is dumb enough to pay $150 for hot dogs, burgers and beer and a "ticket" to "watch" a game from a rooftop, well, the hint of a sign in their "view" isn't going to deter him or her for wanting to be a part of the "experience."

That's the key here. While everyone goes crazy over the details, we forget why people come to Wrigley Field. It isn't the baseball. Oh, for some it is, but the Cubs draw so well for being a historically awful baseball team because of the allure of Wrigley Field. It's the experience, telling people you were there, feeling like you're a part of something bigger than yourself.

I don't think a scoreboard or a neon sign will change that.

I think new concessions will benefit fans. The new luxury clubs and outdoor plaza and boutique hotel, well, I can take or leave them. But I understand their purpose.

Wrigley will remain and hopefully be better. But it's Wrigley that's the star of the show.

Which reminds me: Remember when people were seriously discussing Rosemont as a potential location for Hudson News Park presented by Target? The talk of moving was great fodder for talk radio and columns, but it was never serious. Anyone with half a brain realized that. When people started mentioning DuPage County, I knew it was time to get this thing done.

No, the Cubs were never moving. They knew this deal would get done and that they would get pretty much everything they wanted. Because this is Chicago, and that's how it works.

But it wouldn't be done with a snap of some Cubs executive's manicured nails. This is Chicago. That's not how it works. Everyone gets to talk in a democracy, but no one really has to listen.

[+] EnlargeWrigley Field renovations
AP Photo/Chicago CubsAn artist rendering provided by the Cubs shows some of the proposed renovations.

This is Chicago, where all the important decisions get made in backrooms and late-night deals. I guess that's not really a Chicago exclusive. That's politics in general. We are a representative democracy, after all.

This public sham of a meeting put the rubber stamp on a 5,672-square-foot video board/sign (slightly shrunk from the Cubs' asking size) in left field and a 650-square-foot neon sign in right field and went over some details about the master sign plan.

The LED board will be 4,560 square feet, 48 feet by 95 feet, along with two 12-foot-by-17-foot light standards on each upper corner of the overall sign. It will also have a 7-foot-by-66-foot neon script sign atop the board. The sign will be built on a new structure addition that will jut out from the wall.

Both the signs and the Cubs increasing their building onto the sidewalk were major sticking points for Tunney.

Tunney is the alderman for the 44th ward who has earned the enmity of fans (and reporters) desperate to dream that all this new revenue will wind up financing a World Series team.

In a quavering voice, Tunney gave a speech disagreeing with the size of the proposed signage, specifically the video board, and demanding the Cubs pay the city for the stadium encroaching city property on the sidewalks.

"Although I understand and appreciate the Cubs' need to monetize the proposed improvements and that the plan comes with an enormous price tag, I cannot support a proposal that so dramatically affects the quality of life of my residents," Tunney said.

Fair points. Dramatically is stretching it, though. The Cubs' architect Charles Izzo said the quality of the LED board won't present a major glare problem to neighbors.

Tunney also said, "The beauty of this setting is the integration of the field within our neighborhoods. The Cubs often point to large signs at Fenway or U.S. Cellular. Those signs back up to expressways, not people's homes."

Wrigley Field is protected by landmark status, and any major changes to protected parts of the stadium have to be approved by this city council committee. Don't get on your high horse about big government either because the Cubs are also applying for federal and local tax benefits to "restore" Wrigley Field to 1938 aesthetics, which require them to meet federal historical requirements.

(In related news, the Cubs will now have to say their injured pitchers are "restoring," not "rehabbing." Someone call Mark Prior!)

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency approved the new signs because they are compatible in design to the ballpark, do not require any demolition of property and are reversible.

In a letter presented to the committee, the IHPA noted "a long tradition of visible signage" in baseball.

And that's really it. Wrigley Field's dearth of signage, ambient commercials and video nonsense was seen by purists as a positive. And it was.

But times change, and the Cubs have been chasing the future longer than most of us have been alive.

Time to live in the present.

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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