by Neil deMause
You've got to hand it to the Chicago Cubs, they really know how to throw a party in the most Cubs way possible. In this, the 100th anniversary season of Wrigley Field, the team so far has introduced one of sports' most disturbing mascots, painted a mural on the Wrigley wall of a photo that was actually taken at Comiskey Park and ordered a 400-pound Wrigley-shaped birthday cake, which they then threw unceremoniously in a dumpster. All while engaging in a fierce, public war over whether they'll be allowed to remodel the Friendly Confines in a fairly dramatic way, without which club officials say they might choose to move out of Chicago.
Laugh all you want, but the Wrigley war is serious business. After decades of minor tweaks, Ameritrade heir Tom Ricketts, who purchased the Cubs in 2009 for $900 million, has proposed a series of sweeping changes to one of only two prewar ballparks left in baseball. The to-do list ranges from installation of a new underground clubhouse to a 4,000-square-foot screen in left field -- plus another 5,000 square feet of ad boards and video screens elsewhere in the outfield -- to accompany the much-loved if low-bandwidth, hand-operated scoreboard in center field, originally erected by a young Bill Veeck. The overhaul has been in the works for years, but now it's suddenly in limbo, following a complicated three-way battle between Ricketts, the owners of neighboring rooftop clubs and Rahm Emanuel, Chicago's famously combative mayor.
The Cubs expanded Wrigley's bleacher seating after the 2005 season, after years of negotiating a 2001 proposal with the city. Further renovation discussions date back to 2007, when then-owner Sam Zell and then-governor Rod Blagojevich cooked up a scheme to shift ownership of the ballpark to the state, which would then pay for upgrades while absolving Zell of his annual property-tax burden. (Blagojevich, naturally, tried to demand positive editorial coverage from Zell's Tribune as part of the deal, or as the governor put it shortly before being arrested for selling political favors: "fire all those [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support.")
Following Blagojevich's ouster and the Cubs' sale, new owner Ricketts promised to scale back renovation plans to something more along the lines of Fenway Park's recent rehabbing. "We can look at more washrooms, we can look at some of the congestion on the concourses, we can look at a few other things that will make it a little easier for fans in the short run," said Ricketts. "One of the nice things about Wrigley, we have great corporate sponsors, but it's not really a corporate place. It's not a corporate experience. It's not like sky boxes are driving the revenue here. And that's just fine with us."
By last year, the list of "things that will make it a little easier for fans" had expanded to include not just a new video board and a new building alongside Wrigley to host expanded concession facilities, but also extending the bleachers 25 feet into Waveland and Sheffield Streets and allowing additional night games. To pay for all this (and maybe a bit more), pretty much everything in sight would be slathered with advertising signage, including the outside facing of the ballpark and a "gateway arch" over nearby Clark Street.
Wrigley is a city landmark, a status that was approved in 2004 specifically to head off an earlier bleacher expansion, so the Chicago landmarks commission needs to sign off on changes like these. Because this is Chicago, though, the commission is effectively under the iron grip of the mayor. Emanuel initially had a temper tantrum when Tom Ricketts' father Joe funded an attack ad on Emanuel's old boss, Barack Obama. Eventually, though, Emanuel did ask the commission to sign off on the proposed changes.
That left only one small problem: The new video screen and accompanying ad boards on the back of the bleachers would obstruct the view of fans sitting on rooftops across the street, which have become lucrative party decks in recent years. So lucrative, in fact, that the Cubs owners demanded -- and got -- a deal several years ago, in which rooftop owners pay the team 17 percent of their gross receipts. The rooftop clubs, in turn, were promised that the Cubs would not block their views, for example, wth thousands of square feet of advertising signage.
So the battle over Wrigley Field quickly turned into a legal battle, between the incredibly rich guy who owns the team and the less-rich guys and gals who own the neighboring buildings, a conflict sure to interest anyone who gets excited by nuances of contract law. It dragged on into the beginning of this baseball season, until ... The Video.
Ricketts posted the above video to the Cubs website on May 21, announcing that he was fed up with having to compromise with the rooftop owners and henceforth would just demand the "master plan" that he really wanted: seven video boards instead of three, bigger party decks in the bleachers and new bullpens chopped into Wrigley's ivy-covered wall. Unfortunately, Ricketts neglected to inform the mayor before releasing his missive to People of Earth. Thus, when the landmarks commission met earlier this month, it was instructed not to take up the new Wrigley plan. "This recent submission is not ready," declared Emanuel. "They have work to do."
This is now where we stand. A guy who spent $900 million to buy a team that is the eighth-most profitable in baseball demands that the city bend its landmark laws, so that he can sell ad space on every available surface. The only obstacles standing in his way are some neighboring businesses concerned about their own profits and a mayor who gets pissy when he's left out of the loop.
Frankly, this is no way to run a railroad. Yes, Wrigley is Ricketts' place of business (though baseball owners since the 19th century have insisted that baseball is not "just a business"). Yes, he's not trying to tear down Wrigley and build a modern stadium (though team president Crane Kenney has not been shy about threatening to move to the suburbs). And yes, after Ricketts' initial plans to get city ticket taxes kicked back to him to pay for renovations fell through, he's promised to carry out the changes without direct city cash (though both the blocking of some city streets and the erection of ad arches over others represent valuable giveaways from the city to the Cubs).
Regardless, Wrigley is an important landmark not just to Chicagoans, but to baseball fans everywhere. It's one of the last places one can experience baseball as it was before the latest round of mallparks, which have made food courts, luxury suites, and cupholders de rigueur. Ricketts has bundled a pile of changes, some fan-friendly and some not, and he's asking Chicago to swallow it whole.
In all likelihood, Emanuel eventually will cool down, and the rooftop squabbles will be resolved through some cash changing hands. For now, though, we're left with the sight of a well heeled owner of one of the most lucrative franchises in baseball, trying to make more money off a stadium that people still flock to despite 106 years of futility, alienating everyone he possibly can in the process.
That's so Cubs.
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.