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May 12, 2011

Span and Sain and Pray for Rain

Wrigley Field Forever?

by Emma Span

Last Friday I was lucky to attend part of the American Statistical Association Conference in Chicago, and Saturday I was luckier still to go to Wrigley Field for the first time. One of Friday’s speakers was Allen Sanderson, a professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics. In between making a number of intelligent points about things like the fiscal reality of hosting the Olympics, he said one thing that seriously jarred me: that it made no sense for the owners of the Cubs to put “another penny” into Wrigley, and that instead they should tear it down and move the team to the suburbs.

Well.

Even though at that point I had never been to Wrigley, my initial reaction to this statement was sharp, and one that most BP readers will no doubt find familiar from years of listening to irate TV announcers and older sports columnists: It’s not just about the numbers! In other words, my internal monologue turned into Joe Morgan’s. That’s disconcerting.

While I have not changed my mind on the point that tearing down Wrigley and moving it to the suburbs would be a nightmarish mistake—a thing which, I should point out, is not in any immediate danger of happening—I’ve also learned over the years that when you catch yourself having gut reactions to new suggestions, it’s good to check yourself. My initial responses don’t exactly have a perfect track record. (You should have seen me the first time I read, somewhere back in 2002 or 2003 when I was new to both blogs and legal drinking, that Derek Jeter’s defense wasn’t good. I had grown up a Yankees fan and dismissed this out of hand as ludicrous, if not downright offensive. Everyone knew Derek Jeter was a good shortstop! I may have actually snorted. It was only after I eventually read similar conclusions a second and third time, from different writers, that I eventually started paying real attention to Jeter’s defense during games, and comparing him to other shortstops, and realized: holy shit they’re right. It was a painful but enduring lesson.)

I loved Wrigley. Not for any strikingly original reasons, just the same ones most people have: the history, the no-frills all-baseball focus, the low-key quirkiness of the ivy and scoreboard (as opposed to the high-strung quirkiness of right field at Citi Field). I was most struck by how small it was. I’m used to Yankee Stadium (new and old) and Shea/Citi, and most recently visited Miller Park and Target Field—all big, imposing structures that you can spend a long time wandering around, and that tower over the field. Wrigley, of course, is just two modest tiers, with low outfield walls, past which fans pack into the “rooftop seating” on three-story buildings across the street. There’s not much to see as you walk around, and it’s not built to be awe-inspiring. It reminded me a bit of spring training parks, if more serious-minded. The lack of a gigantic scoreboard screeching at me throughout the game was also a pleasant change.

Sure, the food is lousy (unless perhaps you are up to the Nachos In A Helmet—which I was not, but which I respect as I respect all food items served in helmets). The beer selection is, as a Czech man once put it to me years ago, like sex in a canoe—it’s fucking close to water. Getting out and to the subway is a slow, frustrating, poorly planned mess. And I certainly could have done without the man outside selling T-shirts that said “Albert Pujols Mows My Lawn” and “Green Gay Fudge Packers”—hateful, but of course hardly sentiments that are confined to Chicago. (I’ve seen equally homophobic shirt slogans at Yankees-Sox games, but have yet to spot anyone quite stupid enough to wear a “[Latino baseball star] Mows My Lawn" T-shirt in the South Bronx).

There is nothing particularly pure about the Cubs’ stadium: it’s old, not holy. There is on-field advertising—though far less obtrusive than other ballparks I’ve been to, I admit—and overpriced everything, and it was named after a chewing gum company. The Cubs franchise is plenty profitable, and that’s their focus, not being the guardian of baseball’s past. But it’s also pleasant and unpretentious, and it has a significance and history that newer structures simply can’t. If you want to see major league baseball in a truly old stadium, you can see the Red Sox or the Cubs—and that’s it. That makes it special. Right? Unless I'm talking about Wrigley like Joe Morgan talked about David Eckstein: for such a small building it has such a big heart!

One thing I particularly enjoyed about Chicago, and Wrigley, was the chance to soak up some Bill Veeck-related sights. Veeck, as I’ve written before, is one of my baseball heroes. (Okay, so his views on female fans could have been a bit more enlightened… no one’s perfect). The son of the Cubs president, at 13 he famously had the idea to plant ivy at Wrigley, or at least always claimed to have had it, which is good enough for me. If there’s one thing Veeck hated, it was the pompous inclinations of so many calcifying baseball writers and officials, and their stubborn clinging to tradition and terror of perceived vulgarity or change. I am often reminded of these lines from the beginning of Veeck as in Wreck:

It happened that 1951 was the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American League, an event the league was exploiting with its usual burst of inspiration by sewing special emblems on the uniforms of all the players.

As true today as ever, and also, following the famous Eddie Gaedel incident:

It's fine to be appreciated for a day; I recommend it highly for the soul. It's better for the box office, though, to be attacked for a full week. I was counting on the deacons to turn Gaedel into a full week's story by attacking me for spitting on their Cathedral. They didn't let me down, although I did feel the words "cheap and tawdry" and "travesty" and "mockery" were badly overworked. The spirit was willing, but I'm afraid the rhetoric was weak.

I wonder what Veeck would have made of the new ballparks. I suspect he would have liked just about anything, short of maybe your less reputable felonies, that puts asses in seats. If tearing down Wrigley and moving the Cubs to the suburbs drew more fans—which I would argue is a big “if”, but for argument’s sake let’s grant it—would Veeck really disapprove? I don’t imagine him having much patience for talk of history and tradition and baseball stadiums as cathedrals. Time and change come to us all, beautiful old buildings are lost to colder new ones every day, and you can either let it make you crazy and fight tooth and nail, or you can accept it and lead an easier if less aesthetically pleasing life. I tend to do the latter and then feel guilty about it, which of course is helpful to exactly no one.

But the point is, if the Cubs owners had good reason to think they could make more off their investment by building a new stadium in the burbs, would they be so wrong to do so? Could you blame them? And as a the Platoon Advantage mused a few weeks back, at least for people with small children, the newer “mallparks” can offer real benefits. Is that so bad? At this point, pieces of the building are falling off. That’s… not good.

I am still ticked off about the new Yankee Stadium—partly because New Yorkers and, particularly, South Bronx residents got screwed over in the financing and construction (they are still waiting for those parks—any decade now, fellas), partly because of good old nostalgia, but mostly because the sense of history isn’t quite the same for me now. “This is the spot where Babe Ruth played” just isn’t the same as “Babe Ruth played across the street.” The longer Wrigley sticks around, the more impossible it would be to ever replace.

And yet: every other team, except the Red Sox, is playing in a building built after 1960, and except for the Dodgers, decades after. So it goes. Is it really fair for us to expect the Cubs to bend over backwards, forever, to preserve their piece of history? I’m still not sure. But I do suggest that if you haven’t yet, you go see it while you have the chance.

Emma Span is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Emma's other articles. You can contact Emma by clicking here

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