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Friday, May 31, 2013
Make the Friendly Confines friendlier!

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. That it took until 1988 for the Cubs to finally install lights at Wrigley Field might help explain the slow pace of the team's proposed renovations to the 99-year-old Friendly Confines.

Partly due to restrictions involving the park's landmark status and plans for increased night games, the long negotiations with the city have been … well, involved. The owners of the neighboring rooftops oppose the plans because one of the proposals includes a view-obstructing scoreboard and signage. And when the plans still weren't approved last month, Cubs CEO Tom Ricketts threatened to move the team to the suburb of Rosemont. (Yeah, right.)

Wrigley Field renovations
An artist rendering provided by the Cubs shows some of the proposed renovations.

In other words, business as usual for the Cubs.

Cubs president Theo Epstein went through this before when he was with the Red Sox, who renovated Fenway both beautifully and seamlessly in the past decade. Every year when I visited Fenway, there would be something different. Yet aside from the Monster seats, the renovations were so carefully done that it was hard to tell what was new and what was not.

"They were designed to look like they had been there since 1912," Epstein said of the Fenway renovations. "That's the same goal here. Anything you do to Wrigley, you want to make look like it's been here forever and fits right in. We're not trying to change the aesthetics and feel of Wrigley -- we're just trying to bring it into the 21st century."

Indeed. I love Wrigley. It is one of my favorite ballparks. But it desperately needs renovations. And as far as I can tell, the proposed changes will only improve the overall experience while they preserve the historic integrity and beauty.

"The first thing you'll notice is when you walk up the stairs to come into the ballpark, virtually everything is staying the same," said Cubs spokesperson Julian Green. "The views that people have come to know and love, the bricks and ivy, the scoreboard and the field will be virtually the same.

"At the same time, people will notice an improved ballpark, one that has improved fan amenities, that there will be new decks in left and right field. There will be more concessions, more restrooms."

Those changes are both welcome and necessary. Wrigley currently has neither an adequate number of concession stands, a sufficient variety of food offerings, nor enough restrooms, particularly in the upper deck. Eating is part of the ballpark experience, and what happens after you eat also is an important consideration for fans. The shorter the line for anything, the more you watch the game.

The proposed changes include two other major differences fans will notice. The first is the exterior, where iron grillwork and ornamentation will be added to improve the look. Green said this will resemble the way the park looked in the 1930s, when it was still relatively new (and the Cubs still occasionally played in the World Series).

The other is the additions of a 6,000-square-foot video scoreboard in left-center that will show replays (heaven forbid!), and a large sign for advertising in right field. The video board may offend purists who consider Wrigley a time machine to the past, but virtually every fan I spoke with during a trip there a month ago enthusiastically welcomed the plan for it. Hey, it's 2013. People want to see replays.

Of course, the rooftop owners have another take.

Beth Murphy
Beth Murphy's view: The rooftop owners aren't stealing the Cubs' product.

I have long considered the rooftop owners to be squatters who were pirating the Cubs' product by selling seats atop their buildings for $100 or more. But after speaking with several of them, I've come to see their argument.

After all, they signed a 20-year deal with the Cubs a decade ago that allows them to continue selling seats in exchange for 17 percent of their revenue. Depending on the year, that can account for roughly $4 million of revenue for the team.

"We have a contract," said Beth Murphy, owner of Murphy's Bleachers across the street from the center-field entrance. "I keep telling people, 'What don't you understand about a contract?' I've heard people say we paid Carlos Zambrano too much and we were still paying him when he went to the Marlins and didn't get his services. The same thing with Milton Bradley. Alfonso Soriano. I've never heard people call in and say, 'I've got an idea! Let's not pay them. Let's not honor their contract.'

"And yet, I hear it all the time with us. 'They're stealing their product.' I'm like, 'We have a contract!' We're not stealing their product."

When the Cubs agreed to that contract, the rooftop owners invested millions of dollars into improving their product. We're talking substantial construction that included extensive seat structures and plush dining and drinking areas that created the overall feel of the world's greatest sports bars.

"I talked to [Ricketts] a year ago and I was kind of assured that he was not going to block my view, and now it looks now, whelp, it may be blocked," said Mark Schlenker, who owns two of the rooftop buildings -- Brixen Ivy and the Lakeview Baseball Club (which has the famous CAMUS sign). He paid $4.8 million for the latter.

"How would you feel? I had all my life savings in that building. I double-downed and took all the equity and put it into this. ... And then all of a sudden you see plans to put a big sign in front of your place that's going to destroy your business. You'll be out $4 million. How would you feel?"

Green said the Cubs want to extend the bleacher section on Waveland Avenue by 16 feet and the Sheffield section by 8 feet. This would allow for a deck concourse behind the existing bleachers. It also would move the proposed scoreboard and sign farther back, which would lessen the amount of the views blocked due to the angle of vision.

Wrigley Field fan
Aaron Johnson II wants the sort of improvements that will keep Wrigley viable for fans of the future.

The rooftops add to the Wrigley atmosphere. The solution is for the Cubs and the rooftop people to work out a fair compromise. Wrigley needs another scoreboard. The Cubs need to honor their contract. The rooftop owners need to appreciate who holds the hammer. Make it work so everyone is happy.

The Cubs also need to stop framing the renovations as part of a source of revenue necessary to reach the World Series. Revenue helps, but spending it wisely is vastly more important. The Cubs are already one of baseball's wealthiest teams. They don't "need" any more money to win.

Furthermore, Wrigley, the way it is, already generates enormous amounts of revenue. Just wandering past the merchandise stores and stalls, you see nearly as many shirts and caps with "Wrigley Field" printed on them as you do with the Cubs' name and logo. The park itself is often as big a draw as the team.

Wrigley, however, needs work. That is what the Cubs should focus on: making Wrigley Field an even better experience for the fans, with the same sort of improvements Fenway made.

"You have to allow Wrigley to be improved, because we want it to be here another hundred years," devoted fan Aaron Johnson II said from the upper deck one afternoon. "I want my grandkids' grandkids be able to come to Wrigley and see the history and the greatness of this field and this neighborhood."

Fresh Cut Grass

Evidently, The House That Ruth Built Had Different Contractors. Wrigley isn't the only venue dealing with resistance to renovations. I'm currently covering the French Open, where plans to update Roland Garros with a retractable roof over the main court have been delayed until at least 2018.

Bullring in Seville
That's Jim Caple, fresh from a triumphant session fighting bulls (or maybe it was lunch) at Seville.

And when it comes to old stadiums, Wrigley has nothing on Seville's bullring, which I had the pleasure of visiting in between covering the X Games in Barcelona and the French Open. Construction began in 1749, before there was a Washington, D.C., let alone the Washington Nationals (or Senators). The stadium wasn't completed, however, until 1881, or just before the Cubs last won a World Series. (And if you're wondering what all those tables are for in the photo, they were holding a wedding there the day after I visited. Baseball fans aren't the only ones who find ballparks fitting places to trade vows.)

By the way, the Barcelona X Games were held at the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. It's reassuring that the baseball stadium where Hideo Nomo pitched and Jason Giambi batted is still in use by local teams.

No, David Wells Did Not Compile This List. Beer and baseball are as familiar a combination as beer and high prices. So where are the best stadiums to get a good cup of beer?

The DailyMeal.com took a look at this subject, ranking stadiums on the wide range of craft beers available and the quality of those beers. And I'm happy to report that the stadium ranked No. 1 is the ballpark in my own backyard: Seattle's Safeco Field. According to DailyMeal.com drink editor Marcy Franklin, Seattle topped the list by offering 21 craft beers, including some from several local breweries, such as Elysian Fields and Fremont.

The top 10:

10. Coors Field, Colorado
9. Miller Park, Milwaukee
8. Citi Field, New York
7. Comerica Park, Detroit
6. Camden Yards, Baltimore
5. Petco Park, San Diego
4, PNC Park, Pittsburgh
3. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia
2. AT&T Park, San Francisco
1. Safeco Field, Seattle

"It's not easy to find a craft beer at a baseball stadium (after all, two of the 10 stadiums are named after Coors and Miller)," Franklin said in an email. "But at least these stadiums prove that a good beer and ball game isn't impossible to find."

Eric Radovich, an old friend who is the executive director of the Washington State Beer Commission AND an official scorer for the Mariners, was delighted to hear Seattle topped the rankings. "Seems that baseball and beer have always gone together,'' he said. "The game has certainly evolved over the years, and it's exciting to see the stadium's beer selections evolving as well. I'm thrilled to see so many of our state's local craft brews available at our beautiful ballpark. It's really a credit to our brewers who make some of the best beer in the world.''