Wrigley’s rooftop views must be preserved

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CHICAGO — Terry Collins, the New York Mets manager, once said:  “The Cubs fans are the greatest in the country.  And that’s probably why they lose.”

Indeed, they are taken for granted.   If the Cubs can be a last-place team – as they have been for four years, going on five – and still draw 30,000 a game, why should their owners dig deep to field a first-rate product?

It’s quite enough that Wrigley Field, now being celebrated for its 100th anniversary, leads the league every year in ambience.  Build it and they will come.  Rebuild it and even more will come.

In recent decades Wrigley has had more facelifts than Dolly Parton.  None brought much media attention until the Cubs tried to topple one of the city’s most cherished traditions:  the rooftop view of a big-league ballgame. 

The latest Wrigley renovation/expansion, to be executed over the next four off-seasons, met little resistance for introducing 21st century technology to the National League’s oldest park.  City Hall approved a jumbo video screen.

The only furor developed over the intent by Cubs owner Tom Ricketts to install five outfield billboards that would block views from most of the third-story rooftops along Waveland and Sheffield avenues.

The 15 rooftop owners are contracted to pay the Cubs 17 percent of their revenues for visual access to the Friendly Confines.  These small-business owners have been negotiating with the Cubs since early in the year, but there’s been little headway.

The tie goes to the roof-toppers.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered:  “Discussion with the rooftop owners must continue so that this plan remains a win-win.”

Being a modern Democrat, Emanuel is not in favor of large corporations stomping on small businesses, but he is in favor of just about anything that brings jobs.

The mayor didn’t take much of a stand on preserving history and tradition, which are larger components of baseball than other U.S. sports.

The hard-core baseball fan, almost literally a dying breed, cares little for time moving forward.  Baseball has no clock; it’s about timelessness.  You either get it or you don’t.

Sitting on one of those rooftops (some have rows of bleachers) is something I’ve always wanted to do, even if it’s not quite bucket-list.  I would hate to think that within a few years it will be impossible to do.

And to what end?  So the Cubs can make another $20 million a year in advertising?

Are they considering what the long-term cost might be of desecrating a cathedral?

This is not a company that knows how to use the money it has.  Forbes values the Cubs at $1.2 billion (Bloomberg says $1.3 bil).  Only the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox are worth more.

Ricketts says his team needs more revenues “to be competitive,” but Forbes says the Cubs’ annual revenues exceed $300 million.  In a sport in which most successful teams allocate about half their revs to player salaries, the Cubs’ $88 million payroll ranks 23rd out of 30.

If they get $20 million in additional revenue, will the Cubs use it to build a championship team?  I doubt it more than I doubt the Birthers and Charlie Sheen.  

It’s more likely Ricketts will use the money to build support for Republican politicians.  The Ricketts family reportedly donated $13 million in the 2012 election year.  The Cubs’ ownership makes more political contributions than all the other big-league baseball owners combined.

Emanuel hesitates to push hard for tradition because he’s so connected to his long-time pal Barack Obama that he will be accused of malice and pettiness if he tries to prevent cash from flowing to PAC-man Ricketts.

With their stinting on payroll, the Cubs are one of the few sports teams whose players are less relevant than the arena they play in.  Not to deny there have been some very lovable Cubs – Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, all immortalized, along with iconic voice Harry Caray, by statues just outside the stadium.

But if the Cubs were to move a few miles south from bustling Wrigleyville to isolated, ubiquitous U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, they would be about as beloved as the Sox, whose owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, is committed to spending just a little more than the Cubs.  The Sox draw under 20,000 a game although their team, mediocre as it is, clearly is superior to the north-siders.

The Cubs have capitalized on Wrigley’s graceful, gently angled architecture and compact symmetry that feature an outfield arc of ivy-draped bricks.  They’ve turned the place into constant celebration, anniversary or not.  Brass bands play in the parking lot and stadium.

Adding to the appeal are the peerless Chicago hot dogs, with their sliced pickles and peppers, Giordano’s crisp, richly flavored pizza, thin-crust or deep-dish.   Goose Island beer that grabs you by the throat.  Simple, traditional ballpark dining at its best.  Though, to be fair to Reinsdorf, U.S. Cellular has more innovative and exciting kitchens.

Sit in Wrigley’s tight little seats (designed for 1914-sized fannies) on a warm sunny day – like you can count on that – and you have the ultimate baseball experience.   And while you cheer with all your heart for the Cubbies, it doesn’t feel so bad when they lose.  Which, as Terry Collins suggested, is why they lose.  And lose and lose.

But the Cubs should not take all that love for granted.  At recent games Wrigley Field has been half-filled.  On game days many fans stroll the sidewalks of North Clark, hawking tickets at far less than face value.

Three years ago Ricketts hired as president Theo Epstein, the boy-wonder general manager who in 2004 broke the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino.  He assembled a World Series champion in Boston and did it again in ’07.  Before he joined the Cubs, he laid the groundwork for a third Boston championship, last year’s.

Alas, he’s far less wondrous in north Chicago, where The Curse is worse than the one that haunted Boston.  The Cubs haven’t won a world championship since 1908.

But there is hope.  Epstein has turned the farm system into one of the most promising, and it likely will be productive as early as next spring.

Still, the more important thing is to preserve the eternal beauty of the unique treasure that was handed down to Ricketts and his siblings.  From the Wrigley family forward, the generations of Cubs owners, under the vigilant watch of the city’s Landmarks Commission, have protected baseball’s most perfect palace.

Perhaps overprotected.   Citing “the aesthetics” they’ve refused to build an elevator to the press box — even when the team was owned by the Chicago Tribune.  Even when, in 1989, a visiting sportswriter, 68-year-old Bus Staidt, died from a heart attack a day after returning home to Philadelphia.  His several round trips to the press box during a two-game series were cited as possibly contributing to his death.

It could be argued that a more accessible press box would bring more media coverage which might lead to more income.  That said, most of the $575 million upgrade seems justified, as it will bring, among other things, more lighting, expanded clubhouses and bullpens, 10 elevators to the upper deck (but none to the press box) and 300 more bleacher seats, plus standing room for another 300.

As for the one ISSUE, the hope here is that the rooftop owners stand their high ground.  That they hold Ricketts to his contracts.   That they refuse to sell out.

But what happens when the rooftop agreements terminate in nine years?   Who then will stand up to block the obstructions?   The writing is on the wall, or just above it.  The towers of advertising will rise sooner or later — absent massive public and political pressure that so far has not materialized.

Question:  How long before the ivy gets torn from the outfield bricks, to make way for more signage?




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