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From Crain's Chicago Business June 2003 25th Anniversary Issue
A day in the life
Wrigley Field, as in years past, is a beehive of activity on Opening Day 2003.
Photos: John R. Boehm

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FUN AT THE OL

BALLPARK



The Cubs are winning for now and
a seat at Wrigley Field is a hot ticket.
But then, this park is packed, win or lose.


By JEREMY MULLMAN

When he ponders trying to put together a winning team, Chicago Cubs President Andy MacPhail longs for the Houston Astrodome.

Yes, he knows all about how Wrigley Field's time-capsule charm and well-worn intimacy have lured millions of Cubs fans to the ballpark despite the team's perennial-loser status.

He knows his team is one of pro sports' only profitable losers and that despite not having won a pennant since 1945 it recently got PepsiCo Inc. to pay more for the rights to pour beverages at Wrigley than the crosstown Chicago White Sox were able to garner from U.S. Cellular Corp. for the rights to rename all of Comiskey Park.

But these are the Cubs, the team associated with the billy goat's curse, Brant Brown's botch, the 1969 collapse and 14 consecutive losses to open the 1997 season. And, as accustomed as they are to feeling cursed, they can see almost anything as a cross to bear, even their charming venue.

Mr. MacPhail, who toiled in the notoriously unaesthetic Astrodome and Minnesota's Metrodome, sounds suspiciously nostalgic when he reflects on home games played in architectural albatrosses.

"In a dome, you've got the same conditions all the time. You can build a team weighted toward your own facility, with lots of speed (because of the faster Astroturf surface found at many indoor venues). You can't do that (at Wrigley) because the conditions are so variable. The game temperatures go from 32 to 102. The wind blows in, it blows out. It's like two different parks.

"Plus, opposing teams don't like playing indoors," he says with evident distaste. "Teams can't wait to play here. . . . Last year, the (Texas) Rangers" who were making their first trip to Wrigley as part of baseball's interleague schedule, which started in 1997 "were like kids in a candy store. They showed up for batting practice early. They were having the time of their lives."

But while the giddy Rangers and their dreadful pitching staff took two out of three games from the Cubs, it's apparent that Mr. MacPhail and his employer, Chicago-based Tribune Co., aren't about to shave the ivy off the outfield walls, turn the hand-operated scoreboard digital or convert the cherished park into the Wrigleydome anytime soon.

The team is trying, however, to expand the bleachers by 2,000 seats, a move that's sparked a city effort to slap a landmark designation on the park that would give the city power to veto major renovations.

That political brawl has already drawn power players ranging from Mayor Richard M. Daley to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Mr. MacPhail says the team's fight to stop the landmarking is fueled by a desire to maintain the ballpark, not to overhaul it. He says he knows that Wrigley's charm is his team's greatest asset.

"The Cubs do not win," jokes Cubs broadcaster Pat Hughes. "But, if you do have to suffer, Wrigley Field is the place to do it."

Weeghman's Whales

In 1910, restaurateur Charles Weeghman needed a new home for his Chicago Feds baseball team. He hired architect Zachary Taylor Davis, who'd just built Comiskey Park, to build an "edifice of beauty" on land vacated by the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary.

Four years and $250,000 later, Mr. Weeghman got what he'd asked for. Weeghman Park was immediately heralded as a masterpiece, the best ballpark in the Federal League.

It seated 16,000, including 2,000 right-field bleacher seats, tickets for which cost a dime apiece. Fans who couldn't afford tickets watched from the el platform or nearby rooftops. Inside, the park was the first to put food vending stalls behind the stands, so fans wouldn't constantly have their views blocked by roving vendors during the game. The park's management was also the first to allow fans to keep balls batted into the stands.

Fans flocked in such numbers that Mr. Weeghman quickly renamed the team the Chicago Whales because, as sports author Peter Golenbock writes in "Wrigleyville," an oral history of the Chicago Cubs: "He wanted to convey the idea that his team was big."

Or, at least the idea that his ballpark was big.

Weeks after the Federal League was dissolved in December 1915, Mr. Weeghman purchased a controlling interest in the Chicago Cubs along with Sinclair Oil owner Harry Sinclair. Mr. Weeghman repeatedly heard warnings that Cubs fans accustomed to taking in games at the dingy West Side Grounds would not be willing to travel to the North Side.

He wisely ignored them.

While Weeghman Park was renamed Cubs Park, and later Wrigley Field, after chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley took over the team in 1920, it's every bit the draw today that it was when it opened. Strangely, the aspects of the park that were most heralded at the time of its construction the proximity of the seats to the field, the neighborhood setting and the clean sight lines were among the least-imitated features in ballparks built later.

"Once they started building the cookie-cutters of the 1960s, people started realizing that what (the Cubs) had was unique," says Jerome Holtzman, the former Chicago Tribune columnist who was named Major League Baseball's first official historian in 1999. "All of the new parks were the same Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati. If you've been to one, you've been to them all."

The last of these concrete palaces was the "new" Comiskey Park, built in 1991. The upper deck at the South Side park now U.S. Cellular Field is so steep that security guards there are trained to deal with patrons who suffer vertigo.

After the new Comiskey a horseshoe that opens to an unsavory view of the Stateway Gardens public housing complex instead of the Chicago skyline the next wave of stadiums, from the Milwaukee Brewers' Miller Park (opened in 2001) to the Texas Rangers' Ballpark in Arlington (opened in 1994), aimed to be more like the old Wrigley Field.

Designers of these retro venues, best exemplified by two waterfront parks, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco, went to great lengths to make them resemble ballparks built 80 years earlier, with brick fašades, seats close to the action, natural grass and even, in some cases, manually operated scoreboards.

The stands at Pac Bell Park hug the baselines so closely that errant throws by infielders need only one bounce to end up in the third row. Equally evocative of Wrigley is a smaller seating capacity around 40,000 showing that, after three decades of building mammoth, impersonal venues, stadium architects again value intimacy.

Those ballparks immediately became nearly impossible tickets to get in their respective cities, in part because they were drawing fans from all over the country, as Wrigley still does.

"Wrigley Field and Fenway and Yankee Stadium these parks are tourist attractions," says Mr. Holtzman. "I remember when the Cubs front office used to count the out-of-town license plates. People would come from Wisconsin and Missouri and Iowa just to see the games.

"It wasn't because of the ball club."

Aesthetics, not athletics

No one, of course, understands that better than the Cubs, who have seen the same packed houses in this year's division-leading start as they did when they posted miserable records in two of the previous three seasons.

"It certainly can be said that there's no place more aesthetically pleasing than Wrigley Field," says Mr. MacPhail. "And that's very appealing, obviously, to the fans who stuck with us despite what happened in 2000 and in 2002."

When a team can lose and still sell out, as the Cubs have, there's obvious value in the object that makes that happen. Winning consistently in today's baseball universe is expensive.

The New York Yankees' payroll next year will reportedly top $150 million, which could be four times what clubs in Kansas City, Montreal and Pittsburgh wind up paying. The Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves all have payrolls pushing $100 million, while the Cubs' payroll sits somewhere in the low-$70-million range. That's more than the world champion Anaheim Angels paid last year, but it's still a comfortable tab for a team with a lucrative television contract in a large market.


Let there be light: Wrigley was a day-game-only venue for decades. But that all changed on Aug. 8, 1988, the date of the park's first night game. Photo: Mary Herlehy

Playing in a Wrigley Field that remains appealing to fans is obviously in the team's interest, and that makes the city's ongoing attempt to landmark the ballpark a particularly sensitive issue for the club.

"The most pleasant thing that can be said about it is that it adds a level of bureaucracy and complication to keeping the ballpark viable," says Mr. MacPhail.

Updating a classic

But proponents of a landmarking designation such as the owners of rooftops adjacent to Wrigley on Sheffield and Waveland avenues say the designation will ensure that the ballpark retains its time-capsule charm.

"Fenway Park (in Boston) is about to undergo a huge renovation, which will leave Wrigley as the only link to our past," says Ken Jakubowski, a consultant to the Wrigley Field Rooftop Owners Assn. "We support landmarking because it is a landmark."

The rooftop owners contend that the 2,000-seat expansion sought by the ball club will change more than the size and slope of the bleachers.

"If they get the expansion they want," says Mr. Jakubowski, "it won't be Wrigley Field anymore. It'll be just like any other ballpark in America."

To Mr. MacPhail, Wrigley Field's current vitality is owed to the updates and upgrades it has undergone over time.

Over the years, the ballpark's seating capacity has been more than doubled, its mezzanine revamped, its inner concourses expanded and all of its seats replaced. Bleachers were added in center field and then removed. And, in 1988, after a nasty, years-long tussle with the City Council, lights were added more than 50 years after they were introduced in major league parks.

"Go look at the pictures of the ballpark through the years, and you'll see some beauties," says Mr. MacPhail. "My favorite is the square bleachers."

Of course, the argument that Wrigley has been continually modified over the decades is convenient for Mr. MacPhail's bosses at Tribune.

The company's hefty investment in the suddenly profitable WB Network has made the Cubs far less central to Tribune's WGN television network. Because the company acquired the Cubs in 1981 essentially as programming, a sale of the team and ballpark would make sense at a time when the company acknowledges being on the verge of a major television-station buying spree.

The other team-owning U.S. media conglomerates have their teams on the block (and one just sold). And the amount of cash that the Cubs valued recently at around $290 million would fetch could vary wildly depending on whether Wrigley Field was landmarked.

"Ever since I've been here, people have speculated that (Tribune will) sell," says Mr. MacPhail. "One of these days, someone will be right."

Until then, broadcaster Mr. Hughes treasures the view. "The best thing about my job," he says, "is the walk to the press box. On the way up there, I like to stop and just look out at the players taking batting practice. You can actually look over the neighborhood and see the lake. All the boats are out.

"It's really something."