Thursday, February 4, 2010

No silent defenders of that dump Wrigley Field

A friendly warning to those who might dare criticize that miserable, pathetic, dilapidated, decrepit, sorry excuse for a ballpark Wrigley Field: bring an umbrella. And old clothes. And be ready to duck the tomatoes.

That dump Wrigley Field certainly has its defenders who have made their feelings known to me, quite a few of whom are young Jewish women. "Charming." Of course it is. So is a park bench in a downpour. Nice to look at--not so nice to sit in and take in a game. Around the league, the only ballparks that approach Wrigley Field in terms of "worst ballpark experience" are Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (1966) and Fenway Park (1916). Alameda County's taxpayers built the Coliseum as a bipurpose facility for baseball and football. Apparently the Oakland Raiders' return in 1995 and the Coliseum's subsequent remodeling for football ruined it for baseball. Like that overcrowded bandbox Wrigley Field, Fenway Park looks nice on tv and is full of history, but it's a terrible place to watch a ballgame.

Part of the blame for the sad state of Wrigley Field, which should have been imploded years ago, falls directly on the Cubs' miserable ownership. Decades of neglect from the Wrigley family and then Tribune Co. contributed to the Cubs remaining in a ballpark best suited for baseball in the 1930's and 1940's, when it was just a few decades old and still on the cutting edge of ballpark technology and architecture. If Chicago had followed the lead of major National League cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati in the 1960's, it would have built a bipurpose baseball-football facility for the Cubs and Bears. Instead, the Bears moved from Wrigley Field to a college athletic stadium--Soldier Field--and the Cubs stayed put. P.K. Wrigley never bothered to install lights despite all his fellow owners doing so. Why didn't Major League Baseball force the Cubs to start playing home games at night? So sad that they are now stuck in a serious competitive disadvantage due to playing 45 percent fewer night games than their rival clubs.

So neither the Wrigley family nor Tribune Co. followed their fellow owners in friendly blackmail with their civic hosts: threaten to leave if the taxpayers don't come up with a new ballpark. The Wrigleys sat quietly by (never having enough money to run the team well after the 1930's, anyway) while their colleagues built new stadiums in the 1950's and 1960's. The Tribune Co. enjoyed the revenue from the renewed popularity of "retro" Wrigley Field in the 1990's and 2000's (while fielding truly awful Cubs teams) while other cities indulged their baseball teams again with new ballparks.

Now the Cubs are doubly cursed: they aren't allowed to play enough night games in an aging, decrepit ballpark the city is ready to condemn. An urban legend says the Wrigleys bought lighting equipment in 1941, and then the U.S. went to war, so the Wrigleys donated the equipment to the war effort. And they did nothing about lights from 1945 until they sold the club in 1981! To make matters worse, the new owners at that time, the Tribune Co., compromised with the city and the Cubs' neighbors, agreeing to very strict, untenable night game limits: 18 night games per season beginning in 1989, and 30 night games per season beginning in 2004 and continuing today. Other teams play 55 home games at night. The Cubs wear themselves out in the summer sun every season, meaning they need to be much stronger than their rivals to reach the playoffs. It's not a coincidence they haven't won the pennant since 1945, when most teams were still playing no night games or very few night games. It's a severe competitive disadvantage.

New owner Tom Ricketts announced very modest plans to renovate his ballpark, but he isn't even replacing the troughs in the men's restrooms. He wants the Cubs to host the All-Star Game in 2014, but he isn't planning any serious upgrades, and he isn't interested in changing the night-game schedule. I guess he isn't serious about a world championship, either.

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