Rating Wrigley: Good, bad and ugly
As the Friendly Confines turn 100, we look at what still works and what doesn't
Happy 100th birthday, Wrigley Field. You don't look a day over . . . well, let's say 87.
Wrigley Field opened as Weeghman Park for the Chicago Federals of the Federal League 100 years ago today. It not only remains one of the most beloved stadiums in all of sports, it is as much a national architectural treasure as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument.
Alas, those latter three structures have been home to just as many World Series champions during their lifetimes as Wrigley.
Although beloved, the Friendly Confines are like any aging celebrity: in desperate need of a face-lift. Fenway Park faced the same challenges a little more than a decade ago (the old Red Sox owners threatened to tear it down), but the current ownership in Boston dramatically updated the ballpark while maintaining its history, look and charm. The Cubs are looking to do the same for Wrigley with a $500 million remodeling effort, though the neighboring rooftop tenants are not making that process smooth.
How does Wrigley, in its current state, rate as a major league stadium at age 100? Let's take a look at the 10 most important aspects of a big league ballpark:
1. Architecture: The brick walls, the bleachers, the surrounding buildings all give Wrigley Field a wonderful, distinctive feel, but my favorite part of the design is the ramp/stairwells leading from the lower congress to the seats. Walking up there and seeing the field open before your eyes is like driving through the tunnel that opens up to Yosemite Park. It's simply gorgeous, even when the Cubs are in last place. Score: 10.
2. History: Sure, no World Series has been played at Wrigley for nearly 70 years, and the home team has never won a World Series there. But only Fenway can match the history of Wrigley, the only remaining ballpark where both Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson played. So did Red Grange, Michael Jordan (in an exhibition game) and Eddie Vedder, not to mention some very illustrious Cubs. (Although for now, fans will have to settle for the likes of Darwin Barney and Justin Ruggiano.) Score: 10
3. Iconic landmarks: Where to start? With the red marquee out front, a sign so special it's regularly shown in Chicago-based movies and TV shows, and where a good friend of mine proposed to his wife? The towering green scoreboard featuring the team pennants? The ivy on the outfield wall? The Cubs fans with their heads hung low after another losing season? Score: 10.
4. Concessions: The food and drink options might have improved a little lately, but for a city with as many fine restaurants as Chicago can boast, the offerings at the ballpark are still bland and disappointing. Not even Oprah would eat here. Comiskey Park (that's what I'll always call it) offers much better concessions -- and if those South Side food options don't get Cubs fans drooling, the relatively recent (2005) world championship banner should. Score: 5.
5. Restrooms: Yeah, the men's restrooms aren't wonderful, but at least they're efficient. The old trough-style urinals might not be as hygienic as the World Health Organization would have them, but they do allow a lot more fans inside to relieve themselves of several innings' worth of Old Style. Of course, this is not an option for female fans, who are in need of far more restrooms. Put it this way: Be sure you go before you go to Wrigley. Score: 3.
6. Scoreboard: Every ballpark, no matter how new, should salute the past with a nostalgic, hand-operated scoreboard like Wrigley has -- and its green tower might be the best of them all. It so sublimely takes you into the past that you almost expect to see the Cubs regularly outscoring their opponents.
Unfortunately, every ballpark, no matter how old, needs a large screen where fans can see replays, videos, stats, Instagram fan photos and, yes, even scoreboard races. The surrounding rooftop owners are squawking about the Cubs' planned JumboTron addition, but they're wrong. Their view isn't nearly as important as the experience for the 40,000 fans who pay money to sit inside Wrigley rather than on a roof outside.
I love the old scoreboard and give it a 10. But the lack of a video board knocks the overall score down. There is the narrow LED board in right, and a friend notes that if you're sitting in a certain area ("under the netting that prevents falling concrete from concussing you," he says) you can catch a replay on a 19-inch Zenith. Score: 6.5
7. Seats: Seats at old stadiums usually are more cramped because they were built when Americans didn't consume 4,000 calories a day (before dinner). That's certainly true at Wrigley. And some of the views are obscured by structural support poles, though the Cubs sell those seats anyway. But those poles also allow thousands of upper-deck fans to be much closer to the field than they can be in modern cantilevered stadiums, which more than makes up for the relatively few view obstructed seats. Despite the drawbacks, Wrigley's seating puts fans close enough to the action that they can smell Anthony Rizzo's sweat.
Warning: Feel free to try to snag a foul ball at a meaningless April game when you're cutting class, but don't lean over to grab a foul and interfere with the Cubs' left fielder during a possibly pennant-clinching game. Score: 6.
8. Roaming: And I don't mean cellphone coverage. Rather, we're talking about the ability to wander easily around the inside of the stadium while being able to see the field at all times. You can do this at most new parks. At Wrigley, though, not only can't you do it, you can't even wander around the outfield bleachers unless you have tickets to that section. Plus, the concourse underneath the grandstands are as cramped as the Cubs' clubhouse after the September call-ups. Score: 3.
9. Surroundings: So the Cubs lost again? Don't worry. You can drown your sorrows at any of Wrigleyville's many welcoming bars. Wrigleyville is so important and such a special neighborhood that those damned Cardinals are actually copying it with their Ballpark Village outside the new Busch Stadium. Which is quite possibly the only time the Cardinals have ever copied an idea from the Cubs. For good reason. Score: 9.
10. Access: The good news is you can step off the Red Line L at Addison and be right outside the ballpark. The bad news is if you want to drive, there is nowhere to park and the traffic flow is terrible. And while the L can be convenient, it can also be so packed and cramped that even the most die-hard Cubs fan might almost wish he or she was headed to Comiskey. (Not that they'd ever admit to it.) Score: 5.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, Wrigley scores extremely high in the important historic categories, but very low in the modern amenities. The good news is that those historic categories are irreplaceable, while the modern amenities will be added when the Cubs actually finish the face-lift.
At age 100, Wrigley Field is one of this country's landmarks. I expect it to remain so on its 200th birthday. And hopefully, it will have added at least one new World Series pennant by then.
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