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Building A Cubs Champion: Wrigley Field

Oh, brother, in the words of Jack Brickhouse, am I going to open a huge can of worms with this one. And, just last Thursday Galvan316 made this FanPost on this topic which generated a large number of comments, including a fair number from me. But I haven't yet put my thoughts on the ballpark in one place and organized them -- so here goes.

First and foremost, in any analysis of the future of this franchise, it must be stated clearly and without any hesitation: the fact that the Cubs have not won a World Series for 100 years, nor been in one for 63, isn't the fault of the ballpark. The primary factors have been discussed elsewhere, but they include bad ownership and management, which led to the acquisition of bad players, coaches and managers, and a little bit of bad luck and bad plays at the worst possible times.

Those things could have happened if the Cubs were playing in a megastadium built downtown (and yes, that was discussed by the Cubs, Bears and the city in the early 1960's), or if they were playing at Thillens Stadium at Devon & Kedzie.

I don't think it's any secret to any of you that I love Wrigley Field. I love the intimacy, the sightlines (well, at least from most of the seats; I'm well aware that there are some obstructed-view seats), the fact that it's in a city neighborhood, unlike any other major league park except Fenway; I love the ivy and the old scoreboard and the friends I've made there.

That said, Wrigley Field is a 94-year-old building, and it needs work to update it if it is going to survive and flourish for, say, the next 50 to 75 years, which would be the lifespan of a new stadium if it were to be built (although, history tells us that 45-50 years is about the lifespan of most ballparks; the cookie-cutter stadia of the 1960's were built to replace parks that were consttucted in the 1910's, and those recently built were, for the most part, replacements for the cookie-cutters).

But if you think every bit of Wrigley Field is 94 years old and is about to crumble, you'd be wrong. You all know that the bleachers were completely reconstructed in the 2005-06 offseason, and the organization did a terrific job of both keeping the look and feel of the original 1937 bleachers, and updating the concessions, restrooms and seating to bring them into the 21st Century. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if the Cubs were willing to invest enough money in renovating the rest of the park, they could and would do just as respectful a job, AND put in what is required for modern ballparks to have modern amenities.

The only part of the current structure of Wrigley Field that is more than forty years old is the upper deck, which was built in stages in the 1920's. Surprised? That's right, not a single part of the park remains from 1914, when it was built. The last such part was the old outer bleacher wall, which was torn down in 2005. The lower deck bowl was completely rebuilt in stages in 1968 and 1969; the lower grandstand seats, which used to face left field and right field, respectively, were banked and turned so that all the seats face home plate. In doing so, the Wrigleys actually reduced the seating capacity by about 5,000. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- most recent studies show that the optimium capacity for a baseball park is about 42,000, and with only three exceptions (the new Yankee Stadium, which will seat about 51,000, Camden Yards, which seats about 48,000, and Coors Field, which also holds about 48,000, and they tacked on more seats to a park that was originally going to seat less), every single new park that has been built since 1992 (when the current wave of new stadium building was begun), seats approximately that number, or within a couple thousand of it. Even the Cell, which originally seated 46,000, took out 6,000 of its worst seats because they almost never sold. The current capacity of Wrigley Field, approximately 41,200 (different sources list different numbers, cubs.com says 41,160, but I don't think that was updated to add the 70 CBOE seats put in last offseason), is right in line with virtually every new park (example: the Mets' new Citi Field, in a much larger city, will seat about 45,000).

So if seating capacity isn't the issue, what is?

There are three things that can be done to Wrigley Field over the next few years, possibly even being done over the course of one offseason and during part of a season so they wouldn't have to move out, to bring it into the modern age:

1) Tear down and completely rebuild the upper deck. This is the place from where the concrete fell four years ago and is the part of the ballpark mostly in need of repair. In doing this, the Cubs would also have to rebuild the 20-year-old press box (built when the skyboxes displaced the original mezzanine-level press box in 1989), and they could add a Stadium Club, perhaps on the top of the upper deck in between the light towers, which would face the field. The current Stadium Club, a nice venue, is tucked into a corner of the park far from the field (you can see its windows if you walk by the southeast corner of the park on Sheffield). Having such a club that faces the field would be a huge revenue generator, because more people would buy memberships and daily passes to such a place if they knew they could watch the game from there.

2) Build the "Triangle Building" on the lot west of the ballpark. This has, as you know, been proposed for several years, but it needs to be done now. If the Cubs do this, they would move the team's offices, now occupying a fair amount of space, into that building, freeing up space inside Wrigley Field that could be used for even more high-end seating (it would go behind the plate in the lower deck). They could also use space in this building for things like an expanded clubhouse and batting cages, which other ballparks have -- they'd be accessible by either an overhead walkway, or maybe by a tunnel.

3) Many of you will scream "Blasphemy!" when you read this, but I'm going to go on record right now in favor of adding both a ribbon board (which would go on the facing of the upper deck, as it is in most other parks), and a Jumbotron (which would likely have to go on one of the rooftops, in a deal made with those owners, since there's no room in Wrigley itself). The model here is Fenway Park, which retained its old-fashioned manual scoreboard on the Green Monster, and added a Jumbotron. It doesn't detract from the 96-year-old charm of Fenway Park; I was at Fenway in 1983 and frankly, it was a dump, dirty and dingy, with old broken-up seating and few amenities. Less than ten years ago there was a movement to build a "new Fenway" -- but both fans and the new ownership rallied behind the old park, and the renovations and additions to Fenway have made it an historic showplace. Cubs management has made no secret that they want to follow the Red Sox model, both on the field and off, and putting up new boards while retaining the old, would provide needed new sources of revenue while still keeping the look and feel of Wrigley mostly the way it is now.

If you cringe or scream at that, I do not see Wrigley becoming another Chase Field if boards like this were installed. It couldn't happen that way -- Wrigley's still an outdoor park in a neighborhood, and no amount of lights and bells and whistles is going to change that; and that leads me to my final point, which is -- if you are in favor of "rip it down and build something new", there are two simple questions you must answer:

1) Where?, and

2) How much?

It's really quite simple. There's no logical place in the city of Chicago to build a new ballpark, and no place near Wrigley where you could replicate it. And no one -- repeat, NO ONE -- builds a stadium in the suburbs any more. In several instances (San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, Baltimore) where old parks were located on the outskirts of a city or in neighborhoods, the new parks were built smack in downtown, in revitalization efforts. You could argue about Miller Park, but it's still in the city of Milwaukee, and in fact, they probably should have put it in downtown Milwaukee, which does need a boost. Downtown Chicago doesn't need that and there isn't any vacant land there, anyway.

Yes, renovating Wrigley Field will cost quite a bit of money -- but far less than building a new park would (and consider that the new Yankee Stadium's cost overruns put the final cost of the place at something like $1.3 billion, and that number could rise). But that's the answer; put $350 million (a number I've seen batted around) into Wrigley Field and it would become a showplace, with its look and feel mostly as it has been for decades, but with 21st Century amenities (yes, you'd also have to upgrade the concessions, restrooms, and put in larger and better restaurants and souvenir stores, as you see in places like Miller Park).

There's one final thing that doing all of this would accomplish. Some players, and rightfully so, complain that Wrigley Field doesn't have the space and modern amenities that the clubhouses and facilities at the new ballparks (Miller Park was cited by a couple of players after the Cubs inhabited the home clubhouse there during the relocated Astros series in September). Doing the additions I mentioned above would address these issues; while I still don't believe the ballpark is the problem, expanding the clubhouses and adding batting cages, workout areas, etc. would bring a renovated Wrigley Field in line with other new parks and put Cubs players on equal footing with their peers.

It can be done. I, for one, hope it IS done.