It is not very often that a baseball stadium, or any sports venue for that matter can become almost as big as the franchise itself. Yet, with its ivy-covered walls, historically raucous left field bleachers of fans, the seventh inning stretch sing-a-long of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and the rooftop seating that looms beyond the fence of the stadium, Chicago’s Wrigley Field is as big as the Cubs themselves. However, possible renovations to the famed stadium could strip part of the iconic history that has made Wrigley the Holy Grail of ballparks.
Alongside Boston’s Fenway Park, no other ballpark in MLB has the allure like Wrigley Field, and in an age when flashing billboards and firework displays overshadow the action that happens on the field and in the stands, Wrigley remains the quintessential baseball stadium. Very few venues in the sports world are able to boast such sentimental and old-school charm that dates back more than 100 years. Despite the Cubs’ struggles on the field, fans continue to flock to the north side of Chicago, more on a pilgrimage to the great Wrigley Field than on a journey to simply see a game of baseball. Legends are told and stories are heard throughout the country about the rollicking, Old Style drinking rowdies that fill the stands, while the ghost of Harry Carray is almost expected to thunder down from the clouds, yelling “Holy cow, Cubs win, Cubs win!” It is unquestionably one of the most legendary sports venues in the entire world, and before long, it will go through a series of renovations that could be viewed as a good thing, or bad thing, depending on the individual.
Rooftop bleachers that loom beyond the outfield stands are part of what makes Wrigley Field so iconic. Although the average price of a ticket to sit well beyond the stadium walls has risen in years past, reaching as high as $200 per game, it still gives off the aura of a day and age when young kids climbed hillsides, or sneaked into a corner of a stadium to have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of their baseball heroes. It is baseball’s equivalence to the speakeasy, and when the upcoming renovations are completed, Chicago’s speakeasy, rooftop bleachers may have its view blocked, which could rob some baseball fans from a part of baseball’s history.
Upgrades to old stadiums are necessary, but to strip away a piece of a stadium’s history that has made it so legendary may be taking a step in the wrong direction. As much as MLB and owners of sports franchises would like to believe that fans flock to games to see the product on the field, they must remember that thousands are simply drawn to the overall atmosphere. It is like going to a restaurant—the food may be good, but for the most part it is expensive, food is mediocre, but people look for venues where they can gather with friends and strangers, spend some quality time out in their city and soak up a day of fun. People may love the Chicago Cubs, but it is Wrigley Field and its history that people are in love with.
Adding large flashing signs, more seats, and moving the bullpen are all plans of the Cubs ownership to upgrade the stadium. Moving the bullpen alone would mean ripping out part of the ivy-covered walls, and relocating it underneath the bleachers, while the large electronic signs will no doubt cause obstructed views from the rooftops. Strong contention between the Ricketts family, the owners of the Cubs and rooftop owners is beginning to reach a boiling point. The back and forth bickering is kicking into high gear, with threats of lawsuits now appearing to be more likely to settle the issues. In the end, what is to be gained from more flashing signs and so-called “upgrades?” Besides more money in the pockets of owners, the continued sterilization of baseball stadiums into amusement parks seems to be the largest effect.
The best outcome would be for both sides to reach an agreement that would include some of the upgrades, but not to completely eliminate the rooftop bleachers. It is part of the appeal for visiting fans, and part of what makes Wrigley Field one of the greatest destinations in baseball. Slowly stripping iconic features from stadiums means stripping away such a rich history that made it so infamous in the first place. Even Yankee Stadium, the “House that Ruth built,” was not iconic enough to be saved, so before Cubs ownership makes any drastic changes, they must be cognizant enough not to destroy part of the reason why Wrigley has become such a popular destination. Otherwise, Wrigley will become just another ballpark filled with glitz and glamour, with flashing signs and a sensory overload that distracts from the laid back, fun in the sun atmosphere.
Commentary by Johnny Caito