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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

Related Content:  Wrigley Field

40 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

rcrary

Is the building falling apart? If it's dangerous, then it might be worth moving. If it's in good shape, then it's worth keeping and maintaining. It takes ideas like those propagated for decades by the likes of economists from the University of Chicago to make us think otherwise.

May 12, 2011 06:40 AM
rating: 1
 
CRP13

I doubt those panels are structural, but I sure wouldn't want to be a passer-by during high winds.

May 12, 2011 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
Noel Steere
(965)

Absolutely. Emma, I wouldn't worry about ignoring a statistical argument from a University of Chicago economist; they have a lousy track record of disregarding externalities, or anything else that doesn't fit their preconceived theories. Statistically, you're likely to be right just by ignoring them; God knows the world's economies would be.

BTW, you must have missed the stand selling Victoria (and Pacifico, I believe), and food-wise, the buffalo burgers are pretty good.

May 12, 2011 20:49 PM
rating: 0
 
Mike Cuccaro

Nice calling out of unacceptable home-made t-shirts, Ms. Span! I am always embarrassed when I take out-of-town visitors to the Pittsburgh knock-off vendors. Much of the stuff is actually funny, often ironic, but some of it just makes me cringe. Seeing those ones you referenced would have given me a lousy feeling at the ballpark.

May 12, 2011 06:48 AM
rating: 2
 
Emma Span

Yes, I had a great time at Wrigley but some of my initial excitement was dampened when I passed that vendor on the way to the gate. Blech.

May 12, 2011 08:43 AM
rating: 1
 
Jivas
(649)

There were similarly offensive shirts and headbands that related to Kosuke Fukudome being Japanese. That's right, Cubs fans made racist jokes about their *own* players as some sort of a tribute to them.

I always tell people that I'm a "fan of the Cubs", because I don't want to be associated with "Cubs fans" as a group.

By the way Emma, nice article.

May 12, 2011 14:07 PM
rating: 1
 
Shawn Doyle

I couldn't believe it when I saw people wearing the Fukudome shirts a month into his contract. I believe he even voiced his displeasure in the media, to no avail.

May 13, 2011 07:46 AM
rating: 0
 
lmarighi

The Oakland Coliseum (now called the Overstock.com Coliseum) opened in 1966, and should be listed as an "exception" along with the Dodgers.

May 12, 2011 07:17 AM
rating: 2
 
Emma Span

True! Although no one's going there to experience a slice of baseball history.

May 12, 2011 08:44 AM
rating: 1
 
Bill Parker

I had my first Big Slugger Nachos experience at Wrigley last night. My friend and I combined to eat less than half of it, and yet I'm still feeling it today, like maybe I accidentally swallowed the helmet itself. Or a heavy shoe.

I really enjoyed this. I have roughly the same sort of conflicted feelings on it. But then, the Cubs have been doing *so* well at the gate, regardless of the product that they put on the field and how much they charge for tickets, that it's hard to see them being motivated to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars, several obnoxious years and community goodwill that it would cost them to build a new stadium, even if it makes sense financially.

May 12, 2011 08:14 AM
rating: 0
 
Emma Span

You're a braver man than I.

May 12, 2011 08:44 AM
rating: 1
 
Peter7899

Well, at least you got to see the Cubs walk off win. I was at that game too.

I love Wrigley, for all the reasons you mentioned. I think Wrigley is a park for true baseball fans. You know, the ones who actually spend the majority of the game with their butts in their seat instead of on the concourse for souveniers. Wrigley is old, and it wasn't built with the thought of entertaining fans. The game was supposed to do that. I like that, and if they moved the team to the suburb, to build some "amusement park" like most other teams in baseball, it would break my heart.

May 12, 2011 09:05 AM
rating: 1
 
Emma Span

Sounds kind of strange but Wrigley actually reminded me of Shea in that way - although obviously about 1,000 times prettier. That was another place where you were there to watch baseball, and nothing else. Wrigley has a historical/tourist attraction aspect that Shea didn't, but it's certainly no-frills.

May 12, 2011 09:19 AM
rating: 0
 
perhaps

The thing is if you wanted some frills, you can just head to the south side. You don't get a lot, but you do get fireworks, a shower in the outfield, and some strange area where I think kids can hit BP (or something). Also, of course, a jumbo-tron, kiss cam, and staff dancing on top of the dugouts.

Well, also much better food and beer selections, but let's not get into that--I'm still bitter.

But at least you get drunks punching each other during Cubs-Sox games in either park.

May 12, 2011 12:33 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

May be a park for true baseball fans, but my hometeam's park is air-conditioned, which more than makes up for the difference.

May 12, 2011 14:05 PM
rating: 0
 
HonusCobb

Great piece. I had my chance to go to Wrigley when I was in high school. At the time, I was a Cardinals fan and refused to go though it would have been really cool because the Cubs were hosting the Blue Jays (though I despise interleague play).

I can't sit here and judge Cubs ownership if they want to move to a new stadium. But just because we're a capitalist country, does that mean we have to do everything to make more money?

Time is creating more and more of a cynic out of me. The NFL wants to add more games to their regular season. Why? The answer is money. Now all the 16 game season records will be shattered and that doesn't mean a thing to those that run the NFL.

Major League Baseball keeps adding more and more teams to the playoffs. Why? The answer is money, even though the playoffs continue to move in the direction where the best team is not recognized more and more often.

What's refreshing about Wrigley and Fenway is that as long as they're running, they maintain a sentimental value uncomparable to the rest of the stadiums in the league. The fact that they remain in use leaves me hope in a world that I am becoming increasingly cynical of.

May 12, 2011 09:18 AM
rating: 4
 
jhardman

Amen.

May 12, 2011 10:05 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

When the Cubs and the Blue Jays get together you can throw out the rule book. Ah, inter-league, you pointless monster, is there anything you can't make essentially unchanged?

May 12, 2011 11:58 AM
rating: 1
 
Swingingbunts

Babe Ruth played in Wrigely field

May 12, 2011 09:21 AM
rating: 2
 
Jivas
(649)

I've been going to games in Wrigley for about 25 years, and every time I go there with someone who's going for the first time, that's *exactly* what I tell them.

May 12, 2011 14:10 PM
rating: 0
 
cachhubguy

I have been going to Wrigley for 50 years. I love it. But I have loved many things that have changed with the times. Wrigley is crumbling. It probably needs around $500 million in renovations. Chicago and the state have said "no" to helping finance any renovation. If I were the Ricketts I would move the team anywhere that gave me the best deal and the best chance of winning. The Cubs haven't won a WS in Wrigley. There have always been arguments about the additional day games being a factor. I don't know. But I know what I would do if I owned the team.

May 12, 2011 09:22 AM
rating: 0
 
fantasyking

Wrigley, like Fenway, is a great place to watch a game because it was built on a "human" scale. Both parks are cozy and accessible. There's nothing wrong with wringing more nickels out of the park by building up the ancillary entertainment & concessions, but new ballparks are typically built on a skyscraper or shopping mall scale. That is inherently less cozy and less accessible. For me, this is the intangible value that Fenway and Wrigley will always have over the newer parks.

May 12, 2011 10:45 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Exactly my response whenever I go to a game at Wrigley. I've often described it as watching an American Legion game being played by the best players in the world. It's that sense of intimacy which I cherish about the place.

May 12, 2011 11:59 AM
 
Ironhorse

You put the churls in their places with your "sex in a canoe" reference, Emma, which by the way is a great comment on many AMerican lagers.

May 12, 2011 11:15 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

I think the first place I heard that line wasn't from a Czech friend, but from Eric Idle playing one of the Aussie "Bruces" in "Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl".

May 12, 2011 12:01 PM
 
Matt Kory

I knew I'd heard that somewhere! Good memory, Ken.

May 12, 2011 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
deep64blue

Wrigley is great to watch on TV but awful to actually be there.

May 12, 2011 11:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Emma Span

I really enjoyed it, but you're certainly not the only person I've heard that from.

May 12, 2011 12:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Peter7899

Why's it awful to be there? I bet a dollar you're a Sox fan, amiright!?

May 12, 2011 13:07 PM
rating: -1
 
CRP13

Nah. Air conditioning. I'm telling you, it's the wave of the future.

May 12, 2011 14:07 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

The one time I went there with my brother-in-law (a Cubs fan), he unwittingly got tickets deep in the bottom tier. Any ball higher than a line drive was out of sight. Also, there was a huge vertical beam slicing the infield in half. I get his comment. I'm sure it's an awesome experience sitting closer, or up top, but certain swathes of seats are well below par.
Otherwise, wonderful article!

May 12, 2011 15:15 PM
rating: 0
 
wes1212

If you ever go again, look for tickets in the front half of the upper deck. The upper deck at Wrigley is closer than the lower deck in a lot of other parks, and the view from there is great. It's different than most of the new parks where the upper decks do not overhang the lower ones and lower deck seats are closer and better.

May 12, 2011 19:29 PM
rating: 1
 
misterjohnny
(925)

No "mows my lawn" T-Shirts in the South Bronx because there are no lawns in the South Bronx!

May 12, 2011 11:43 AM
rating: 1
 
JoshT

Minor Nit: Wrigley Field is named after William Wrigley Jr., who also founded the Chewing gum company. He didn't name the park after the company, he named both the park and the company after himself.

Of course, it was William Wrigley Jr. who hired the sportswriter William Veeck Sr. as club president. Unfortunately, both Wrigley and Veeck died within a year of each other in 1932-33. PK Wrigley took over the team and the Cubs started their long downward slide.

May 12, 2011 11:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Emma Span

I thought the gum company came first, though? So that Wrigley field was named after the product, which was named after the man? I guess it's sort of six of one, half-dozen of the other, but I'll look into it a bit further. Thanks!

May 12, 2011 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
wes1212

The park needs a major renovation. The food's bad. The lower deck sight lines are bad. There's not a lot of family friendly amenities as a lot of parks. But the experience of watching the game is great. They just need to build the Triangle building next door they've been talking about forever and close off the streets behind the bleachers during the games and use it as a concourse like most new stadiums have. No one lives on those streets anyway so they could make it work.

May 12, 2011 19:35 PM
rating: 0
 
DandyDan

I'm surprised no one called her out for calling The El a subway. And that isn't even the worst T-shirt involving Albert Pujols they sell outside Wrigley Field either.

May 13, 2011 02:44 AM
rating: 1
 
Emma Span

Oops, right, the El. I kept doing that while I was there, too - a lifetime on NYC mass transit is hard to shake.

May 15, 2011 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
Shawn Doyle

As a Cubs fan, I think one compelling argument for tearing down Wrigley is the historical lack of homefield advantage. I remember a series of articles a couple years ago on BP about home games, I believe by Matt Swartz. The Rockies had by far the biggest advantage and the Cubs seemed to have no advantage at all. Not sure if that's due to the afternoon games, but it would be nice to get that fixed.

May 13, 2011 07:54 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

I've had to go to Wrigley dozens of times for work-related functions. I've also been to about 20 of the other major league ballparks, all of them the modern variety.

Wrigley Field is a dump - a giant urinal with a baseball field in the middle. And swaying at the stalls are thousands of half-drunken nitwits who know nothing about baseball.

Wrigley Field has been the only constant in over 100 years of Cub futility. That's no coincidence.

May 13, 2011 13:19 PM
rating: 1
 
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