COMMENTARY | Chicago Cubs fans are proud of the venerable ballpark that stands at the corner of Clark and Addison. Wrigley Field has endured the passing of time while fabled parks from yesteryear have met their date with the wrecking ball. Comiskey Park, Ebbets Field, Connie Mack Stadium, even the heralded Yankee Stadium are only distant memories.
For nearly one century, Wrigley Field has maintained a rich baseball history and has provided a colorful backdrop for a multitude of the game's legendary moments. Babe Ruth slugged his alleged "called shot" off Charlie Root during the 1932 World Series. Gabby Harnett led the Cubs to a National League pennant in 1938 with his "Homer in Gloamin'" over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The American League won all three All-Star games held there in 1947, 1962 and 1990. Pete Rose matched Ty Cobb's all-time hits mark there in 1985.
While Wrigley Field can proudly claim these historic moments as its own, it has never been able to call its tenants World Series champions.
Originally constructed for the Chicago Whales of the short-lived Federal League in 1914, Wrigley Field (then named Weeghman Park) became the home of the Cubs two years later. The ballpark hosted its first World Series in 1929 when the Cubs lost to the Philadelphia Athletics, four games to one. Despite clinching the National League pennant more than a decade earlier in 1918, the Cubs played that series' home games at Comiskey Park to accommodate larger crowds. The Cubs would reach the World Series three times during the 1930s (1932, 1935, 1938), and once again in 1945.
More than half a century has passed since Wrigley Field's last Fall Classic. The Cubs have come close to claiming a National League pennant on several occasions during that stretch. In 1969, the Cubs famously squandered an 8 1/2-game lead in late-August to allow the New York Mets to win their first World Series. After winning the first two games of the 1984 National League Championship Series, the Cubs lost the final three games on the West Coast to hand the San Diego Padres their first NL pennant. North Siders are still smarting following the team's collapse during Games 6 and 7 of the 2003 NLCS to the Florida Marlins.
What fault lies with Wrigley Field? Does the field prevent the Cubs from becoming perennial contenders? I'm not referring to the hocus-pocus legend of the Billy Goat Curse from the 1940s. I'm referring to the revenue the Cubs simply cannot generate at Wrigley Field compared to other MLB ballparks.
No one will dispute that the Chicago Cubs are a profitable franchise. Despite waning attendance figures since 2008 and a lack of postseason contention, Wrigley Field remains a draw. As a franchise, the Cubs have traditionally been slow to adopt the latest baseball trends. After all, the Cubs refused to install lights until August 1988 -- nearly 40 years after most other ballparks had lights installed. The current look and feel of the ballpark dates back to the extensive renovations made during the late 1930s. The ivy-covered brick wall and manual scoreboard are products of those renovations that endure today.
Since the Ricketts family purchased the franchise and ballpark from the Chicago Tribune, they have openly stated that the Cubs will not move out of Wrigley Field. The team will remain housed where it has since 1916. That bold statement appeased loyal fans. The Ricketts family has attempted to work with the city's new administration to provide much-needed funding to keep Wrigley Field relevant in the 21st century. So far, the outcomes of that collaboration have been mixed, but regardless, infrastructure upgrades have been made. Recent improvements, despite initial cries of blasphemy, have been well-received over time, such as the reconstruction of the outfield bleachers to feature a much more fan-friendly concourse.
Many Cubs fans are proud that Wrigley Field has remained relatively unblemished by the onslaught of advertisements. Even when other ballpark walls were littered with ads -- Fenway Park's famous Green Monster was once covered with all sorts of product ads -- Wrigley Field was noticeably plain. But over the years, that has started to change, and perhaps for the betterment of the team. Scrolling ads appear on the brick wall behind home plate. Permanent ads are prominently displayed upon the outfield doors mixed amongst the ivy vines. The dated electronic board affixed to the manual scoreboard was upgraded to a larger LED display. The most radical change occurred prior to the 2012 season when a new fan deck was installed in the right field bleachers, complete with a 75-foot-wide LED board highlighting scores and in-game statistics.
Name one ballpark that does not feature a large video board. Wrigley Field is the only one. While video boards provide entertainment for fans, they also provide a vehicle for unlimited sponsorship potential. Just imagine the potential revenue the Cubs could generate by selling naming rights to the ballpark. Fans will shudder and gnash their teeth, but it proved immensely successful at 35th and Shields. According to the Chicago Tribune, the White Sox sold the naming rights to new Comiskey Park to U.S. Cellular for more than 20 years. That generated $68 million of additional revenue for the franchise. Two short years later, the White Sox ended the city's World Series drought.
While all of these improvements have vastly improved the fan's game-day experience, the baseball facilities remain in dire need of improvement. With the wave of new ballparks constructed around Major League Baseball during the 1990s and 2000s, Cubs players have commented on the archaic conditions at home. While newer ballparks provide access to batting cages during games, Wrigley Field does not afford that luxury. Currently, the park's lone batting cage is located beneath the bleachers in right field. Players entering the game as pinch hitters cannot take their cuts prior to standing in the batter's box against live pitching. Following a preseason exhibition series prior to opening of the new Yankee Stadium in 2009, former Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano told the Associated Press: "You wish that Chicago'd build a new stadium for the Cubs."
Is Wrigley Field simply too old to cater to the training needs of the current generation of baseball players?
Has Wrigley Field's relevance passed its expiration date? Is there a correlation between winning and ballpark facilities? Will recent improvements only serve as temporary fixes until the franchise can find a way to rebuild Wrigley Field or construct a larger facility in the suburbs?
Bill Pearch has been following Chicago Cubs baseball since the late-1970s. He has attended a game in every Major League Baseball park and blogs about them at www.humzoo.com/billpearch.