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Some thoughts on the federal review of ADA seating at Wrigley Field

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There are some misconceptions that need to be cleared up.

Al Yellon

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported on a Justice Department review of accessible seating at Wrigley Field. This review stemmed from a lawsuit filed in January 2018 by a man whose disabled son claimed that renovations at the ballpark had taken away accessible seating he used to use:

David F. Cerda, who has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since age 10, says in his federal lawsuit that the Cubs owners’ $750 million renovation project removed wheelchair-accessible sections in the right-field bleachers where he had long enjoyed watching games and replaced them with a bar. The team also pushed the accessible seats behind home plate back several rows, making it impossible to see the “whole field of play” when spectators in front of him were standing, according to the lawsuit.

I wasn’t going to write about this at this time, preferring to wait until there was more information about the Justice Department review. But then I read this article by Sheryl Ring at SB Nation’s Beyond the Boxscore and felt I needed to clear up a few misconceptions in Ring’s article.

Ring correctly points out this comment by Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts:

But then Ring goes on to claim that this comment, and some other opinion pieces linked in the article, mean that this overage is a reason the Cubs want to trade Kris Bryant.

This is, to riff off the “100 percent” noted by Ricketts, is 100 percent wrong. Capital budgets for things like the renovation project and player payroll budgets are 100 percent separate. It’s clear to me that people as wealthy as the Ricketts family can afford both. Further, the money for the renovations is not “Cubs” money at all — it comes from the Ricketts-owned Hickory Street Capital, which also owns the Hotel Zachary and other Wrigley-area properties.

If the Cubs are looking to clear player payroll — and that claim is far from clear at this time — there would be other, baseball-related reasons to do so, including the possibility that the Cubs and many other teams are looking at the $248 million top luxury-tax level as a de facto salary cap.

Ring writes that this lawsuit is a reason the renovation project went over budget. There’s no evidence for this at all, in my view, and this claim in Ring’s article also appears incorrect to me:

Even if the team could reasonably argue that the ADA didn’t require a minimum number of wheelchair-accessible seats - and, to be clear, the 2010 ADA Guidelines are crystal clear that the team was required to conform to the ADA in its renovations - the fact that the team evidently thought that 42 wheelchair accessible seats in a 41,649-seat venue is nothing short of appalling. In other words, the team reserved one in every thousand seats for disabled fans. Twelve million Americans use a wheelchair, cane, or walker, and the team’s callous disregard for its disabled fans is second only to its noxious argument that Cerda didn’t suffer an injury because he wasn’t able to buy a seat.

There are far more than 42 wheelchair-accessible seats at Wrigley Field, and I don’t know why Ring claims the team thought that was enough. The photo at the top of this post was taken by me on a media tour last April 6. It shows an ADA section in the left-field corner. It’s one of five sections in the 100 level that have ADA-accessible seating, and though I have not personally counted, I have seen those sections filled with about 20 people in each section. There are similar seating areas on the right-field side. So in the 100 level alone, there are about 200 accessible seats. The 200 level has similar seating. Part of that seating is shown in this Tribune article, though the photo was taken May 9, 2018. More seating was added in that area before the 2019 season. That article notes:

The Cubs said in court documents that Wrigley Field will have more accessible wheelchair spaces and companion seats than before the renovations. Those include 33 right field and 21 left field bleacher seats accessible by elevator above the concourse, as well as 16 center field bleacher seats.

Cerda contends the Cubs have only 46 of the required 217 accessible seats at Wrigley Field, discounting seats with obstructed views such as the center field bleachers, which are located behind a screen that helps batters see the ball.

Cerda’s claim, as I have documented above, is incorrect. It is true that there are some accessible seats that have partly-obstructed views in the center field bleachers. Glass was installed over an accessible-seating area a couple of years ago apparently because some umpires thought that area, located above the batter’s eye suite in center field, was distracting to hitters. I disagree with that stand and would like to see that glass removed. As noted, there are only about 16 people who can fit in that area and it’s located high enough that any distraction to hitters should be minimal.

The Cubs have a security supervisor dedicated solely to helping people with disabilities. I have gotten to know this man pretty well and I can tell you that he spends hours every day trying to accommodate different questions and assistance needs for people with disabilities. There are multiple new elevators at Wrigley Field to help people in wheelchairs or with mobility issues to get around. And in addition to the seating mentioned above, there is room on the patio in left field, right next to where I sit, for people in wheelchairs and their companions. Security folks set aside areas for that pretty much every day.

This quote from above is demonstrably false:

The team also pushed the accessible seats behind home plate back several rows, making it impossible to see the “whole field of play” when spectators in front of him were standing, according to the lawsuit.

The seating area shown in the photo above is raised far enough above the seating below it that this shouldn’t be an issue. It appears to me to be similar to other raised areas for ADA seating that I have seen in other ballparks. There are areas in the bleachers, noted above, where this also isn’t a problem. The lawsuit, to me, appears to be a bit of sour grapes — this man’s preferred seating area in the right field bleachers was taken away, replaced by a patio area (underneath the right field video board), and there are plenty of accessible seating areas all around the ballpark where it’s entirely possible for someone confined to a wheelchair to see the “whole field of play” even when people are standing. Further, people who have seats don’t generally stand for the entire game. Conclusion: There are plenty of seating areas that would easily accommodate the fan who sued, but he chose not to accept that. That’s a personal choice, not something that would seem to stand up in a lawsuit.

I’m not a lawyer, but this suit seems baseless. The Cubs will pass the Justice Department inspection, in my view, and the suit should be thrown out.

And it has exactly zero to do with any potential trade of Kris Bryant.