All the chatter surrounding the future of Wrigley Field is almost smothering Opening Day and the ballpark. Let the politicians, the Ricketts family and the neighborhood slug it out and figure the steps of what will happen to this iconic stadium next.
After this year the face lift will begin in earnest. It is needed and will be welcomed by players, managers and the media. There have been some subtle changes as the park nears its 100th year, but it is still a place where the Cubs and the fans celebrate the game of baseball.
When the Chicago Tribune bought the team thirty years ago from the Wrigley family, they had a huge obstacle to face with their plans for the park. After a long, losing history, the Cubs made the 1984 playoffs, but the lack of lights became a rallying cry by team ownership. Major league baseball penalized the Cubs post season schedule against the San Diego Padres because they couldn't play night games. After the Illinois legislature finally gave the green light to the team, Wrigley Field finally turned on the lights in August, 1988. The first scheduled lit game was supposed to be August 8, 1988, but Mother Nature had her own idea, and rain postponed the game, so the actual first game under the lights was the next night, August 9th.
The uniqueness of this old ballpark is what makes it special to baseball fans, not just Cub fans. Boston’s Fenway Park is the only baseball stadium that shares similar feelings for its field, structure and surroundings. Having been to both venues, the “Friendly Confines” gets the nod from me. But only to watch the game, the amenities need to be replaced and upgraded. The very small locker room for both the home team and visitors is one of the toughest to navigate. A bad rain can cascade into the dugouts and into the Cubs locker room. The media room for interview sessions behind the dugout is very cramped. It was priceless when former Cub Lou Pinella stepped into the room for his first press conference there, he couldn’t believe it was that small. It was just one of many aspects of the old park he discovered would be an adjustment for him and any manager before and after.
Do you ever wonder why the managers are perched by the steps in the dugout? Their vision of the field is limited because of the deepness of the dugout.
The press box and broadcast booths are the smallest in all of the Major Leagues. It is always fun to hear the New York Yankee contingent come to Wrigley Field and complain about the working conditions and their seats. From their broadcasters to the working media, they gripe from the time they get there until the time they leave. Somehow they fault the Cubs staff for the conditions, and they think they can magically fix it.
These are some of the negative issues about Wrigley and there are more, but let’s not dwell on it.
Here are some of the positives, the big manual scoreboard, the green ivy on the brick wall and the closeness to the field. If you are lucky enough to sit in the first row near the bullpens or near the on-deck circle, you can have conversations with the players and the sometimes the manager. It is Gary Pressey playing the organ and the celebrity-led 7th inning stretch (In my opinion, should be retired).
The bleachers are a special place in the ballpark and probably the most famous, as well as the favorite place for fans. You can rub elbows with regulars that have sat there for decades. Legendary broadcaster Harry Caray would broadcast from there. That area and the people that inhabited those seats were immortalized in the 1977 play, Bleacher Bums. Chicago native actor Joe Mantegna hatched the idea for the play and starred in the original production with another Chicagoan, Dennis Farina.
The Cub teams that have played year in and year out have not had the ultimate success at Wrigley. The last time they played in a World Series was 1945, and they lost, of course, to the Detroit Tigers. The famed 1969 team thrilled the Cub faithful throughout that year, only to fade at the end. Four members of that team made the Hall of Fame - Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo. There were several other players that enjoyed great careers at Wrigley, most recently, Ryne Sandberg,Andre Dawson and Sammy Sosa come to mind. There hasn't been much of a post season throughout the last few decades, the 2003 season being the closest the team has come recently. Five outs away and the world stood still as a foul ball changed the complexion of that playoff series. Wrigley Field never felt so down.
Even after losing 100 games last season, the park is still a place for baseball fans to congregate. My dear friend, Sue, lives in England, and when she makes her way “over the pond," Wrigley Field is a coveted stop no matter how the team in playing.
Years ago I brought my favorite uncle to a game. I surprised him with a chance to go on the field and have his picture taken by team photographer Steve Green. Wrigley is one of the only places that can make grown people cry. My uncle certainly did that day.
It's Opening Day at Wrigley, with the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers facing off this afternoon. I'll be there along with thousands of others.