I often feel like a baseball season hasn't really started until I've had a chance to get to Wrigley. Even this Cardinals fan -- a Cardinals fan raised in the section of Illinois where Cardinals-Cubs is basically Yankees-Mets, or Alabama-Auburn -- can't deny the eternal charms of Wrigley. It is my favorite place to see a baseball game. Just thinking about the place makes me smile.
Of course, I don't have to play there.
I always forget that baseball players absolutely hate playing at Wrigley Field. Lance Berkman made headlines yesterday when he went off on the place:
"If they're looking for a guy to push the button when they blow the place up, I'll do it. … It's one of the worst places in baseball for, well, just about anything … There is a tremendous history associated with it and there is something special about playing on the same field that guys like Babe Ruth did. But really, what kind of history is there? It's not like there has been one championship after another. It's mainly been a place for people to go and drink beer."
While this Cardinals fan recites that "It's not like there has been one championship after another" line over and over to himself, let's go over the typical complaints:
- The clubhouses are too small and don't have televisions.
- The field surface is choppy and unpredictable.
- It's cold.
- There's no visiting weight room.
- There are rats.
These are things that fans, of course, never see and couldn't care less about, which is why fans continue to love the place, despite the small seats, cramped concourses and torture-chamber bathrooms. Wrigley Field feels like what a baseball game is supposed to feel like. And I better get out there and experience it while I can, because it's about to change.
Monday, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts announced his "demands" for a renovated Wrigley Field, and I have to say, I'm proud that the Chicago Tribune used the word "demands:" The Cubs ownership is basically treating Wrigley and the fanbase like The Joker threatening Gotham with peril unless Batman reveals his identity. Here's the key paragraph:
Ricketts wants a property tax break reserved for those who renovate historic landmarks. He doesn't want to pay the city for expanding the ballpark onto public sidewalks and streets. He plans to push for as much electronic advertising inside and outside the stadium as possible. And he'd like the city to crack down on street peddlers and performers, neighborhood billboards that conflict with the team's sponsors and rooftop attendance.
In other words, he wants everything, and now that the team and the city have come to an agreement, he's probably going to get it. These renovations are going to make the facilities better for both the Cubs and visiting teams, they're going to modernize the park in several ways and they're probably going to put a ton of money in Ricketts' pocket. (He sells this as "if this plan is approved, we will win the World Series for our fans and our city," which is both a ridiculous presumption and also has a bit of a "nice team you got here, shame if something bad happened to it" vibe.) The question is how much they will change Wrigley for us, the fans, the people who, you know, pay for all this.
On one hand, you don't want to be too much of a stickler about this stuff. Everyone was convinced that Fenway Park was some sacred place that couldn't be futzed with, and not only did the additions to that park not take away any of its charm, the closing of the streets nearby actually improved the whole experience. (Turns out, they made the area around Fenway feel a lot more like the area around Wrigley.) This is, in many ways, the same group of guys, from Theo Epstein and his team, who made that tricky situation work, so they've probably earned some benefit of the doubt. And the small adjustments they've made to Wrigley already, including the LED board in right field, haven't been all that obtrusive or sacrosanct.
On the other: They sure are throwing some elbows in these negotiations, and some of the things they're throwing out sound scary to me. Ricketts is planning an "adjacent hotel" to Wrigley, along with office property. Wrigleyville is of course about much more than a ballpark; it has been a desirable destination for young people for decades. (It is a vital cog in the suburbs-to-Wrigleyville-back-to-suburbs Illinois shuttle bus.) It is a place, as Lance Berkman said, for drinking beer, for being young, for being stupid. There are few places like that in the world, and they tend not to be improved by big corporate hotels and office space. Also, the way Ricketts is treating the rooftop owners and other surrounding businesses doesn't bode well either. The rooftop owners currently have a contract until 2023 that gives 17 percent of their revenue to the team, but some of Ricketts' plans (many of which have still not been revealed) involve completely ignoring those deals through new signage and advertising. That's a violation of the contract, but Ricketts is betting that he can outlast those rooftop owners in court. He's probably right.
And then there is the impending left-field scoreboard. Some estimates - and the Cubs are refusing to confirm anything or even put together any mockups -- have said the board will be roughly 6,000 square feet, which would be the seventh-largest board in baseball. Al Yellon at excellent Cubs blog Bleed Cubbie Blue put together a photoshop of what that would look like, and it's pretty stunning.
Are we ready for Wrigley Field to look like that? I know that a baseball stadium, even one as revered as Wrigley, can't be a museum -- it has to be a living, breathing, usable thing. I know that changes are coming, and I can accept that. But that's really all right? We're cool with that? The renovations will be taking place over the next five years, so it will be a gradual change, but it will be a definitive one; it's possible all you'll recognize in five years is the ivy.
Maybe this will help the Cubs win that World Series their fans want so desperately, though that's far from the certainty Ricketts pretends it is. But no matter how much the changes may be needed, no matter how much happier they make Lance Berkman, it's impossible to deny that when/if these changes go through, we'll be losing something palpable. I know it has to happen. But I don't want it to. I'm gonna make sure to make it to Wrigley this summer, the Wrigley I know, the Wrigley I love. I'm sure I'll learn to enjoy the new place. But I won't pretend it's the old one.