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Wrigley's Soul
By Mike Nalepa

We do not preserve our relics, especially our ballparks.

The intimate baseball stadiums of the past do not generate enough revenue. They lack skyboxes and retractable roofs, hot tubs and ample concession stands. So old fields are ripped out and new ones are built. Architects strive to design replacement stadiums that will be described as classic and old-fashioned. This is often a futile attempt to capture the spirit that is lost when the wrecking ball hits the park that the team claims it has outgrown.

Fenway Park, the oldest structure in the major leagues, could be next. The venerable ballpark won a reprieve this season as the new ownership studied the feasibility of renovation (an idea promoted the past several years by the passionate Red Sox fans who make up the Save Fenway Park! organization), but a 44,000-seat "replacement" stadium approved by the Massachusetts legislature in 2000 remains a possibility. Tiger Stadium opened in 1912 on the same day as Fenway, but Detroit abandoned its historic ballpark after the 1999 season and now plays in Comerica Park. Even Yankee Stadium may be at risk; before he left office, Mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested replacing the House that Ruth Built with a new stadium.

Yet in Chicago, Wrigley Field just finished hosting its eighty-ninth season of baseball. The Friendly Confines remain the home of the Chicago Cubs from April until September—October in the good years. The seating is still tight and the lines of sight are clear. Night games are few and far between. Wrigley is best enjoyed as it has been for almost nine decades—in the bright summer sun, with a hot dog in one hand and a cold beer in the other.

The limited number of skyboxes in the Cubs' park are not prime real estate. Everyone wants to be a bleacher bum, and those seats sell out first. A Cubs home game is a bonding experience. There are few empty seats to act as buffers, so you get to know your neighbors well. And Wrigley provides one of the last democratic experiences in baseball: A software designer may be cheering next to a welder; a plumber may give a banker a high five when Sammy Sosa drives one over the ivy-covered wall.

But there are plans to renovate Wrigley. Among other "revenue-enhancing" improvements, the Cubs want to add a few rows of bleacher seats to accommodate about two thousand more fans. Nearby residents, local politicians, and longtime supporters are worried about the changes. The new seating will jut out over the back wall of the park, and steel columns will have to be anchored into sidewalks outside for support.

The Cubs have proposed wrapping the columns in ivy to make them more aesthetically pleasing. But exposed steel I-beams are not what is disturbing about the Wrigley renovation plans. The real question is what happens after the bleachers are expanded? Space in Wrigley is limited; the Cubs can squeeze only so many extra seats into their ballpark. Once that space is completely filled, the lure of a bigger stadium and the extra revenue that comes with it may be too tempting for the Cubs to resist.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope that the Cubs realize how much Wrigley means to their fans, how the magic that attracts people there—even when the team has been mediocre for so many years—is the intimacy of the place. For almost a century, fathers have taken their sons to see their first games at Wrigley. When I was six, I was one of those sons. The Cubs lost to the Houston Astros, but it was still a great day. My dad and I sat in the upper deck on the third base line. We ate peanuts and he explained baseball to me. It is one of my first memories, and still one of my best.

I worry about Wrigley. The worst-case scenario I have described has happened before in Chicago. I've got a brick on a shelf in my bedroom as a reminder. Comiskey Park—the former home of the Chicago White Sox—was demolished in 1991. The modern behemoth that replaced it doesn't have its whitewashed brick exterior, its creaky green wooden seats—or its soul.

Years from now, I want to take my kids to Wrigley Field to see their first major league game. I don't want their only connection to that historic place to be a brick memento sitting on a shelf in some room.


Editor's note: In August, Chicago mayor Richard Daley rejected the Tribune Company's (owner of the Cubs) architectural plan to add two thousand bleacher seats to Wrigley Field. For the time being at least, renovation plans are on hold.


MIKE NALEPA is a writer and copy editor living in Washington, D.C. He roots for the Cubs every season, even the hopeless ones.

© 2002 Mike Nalepa


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