Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Give Wrigley Field a Decent Burial and Move On

I guess you'd have to call me a baseball traditionalist.

For example:
  • I think that the American League should get rid of the designated hitter. It's a perversion of the game and decreases the strategic cat-and-mouse contests between managers that have traditionally been part of baseball.
  • I think that the fences should be moved farther out at major league ball fields. Apart from the possibility that some of today's most prolific homerun hitters are juiced on steroids, the playpens in which the game transpires today make it much easier to jack balls out of the park. If Babe Ruth were playing this summer, he'd be hitting so many homers that, emulating him, Barry Bonds and other sluggers would pop hot dogs instead of the other things they're alleged to have ingested.
  • I think that two-run pitchers' duels are a lot more interesting than twenty-run slugfests. In such matches, virtually every single pitch is a game to itself, laden with tension and suspense and strategic decision-making. It's exhilarating to watch such Fischer-Spasky-like chess matches take place.
  • I also think that if players can't be summarily banned from the game for steroid use, owners should honor the game while honoring players' contracts by having roid-popping hitters make exhibition-only plate appearances in asterisk-embroidered uniforms. Let them hit balls over fences; just don't let their fraudulent achievements count for anything.
The integrity of the game is important to me. So is honoring its past.

But there is at least one way in which I am not a baseball traditionalist. Making this confession will probably get me into more trouble than if I suggested changing the colors of the US flag to purple, pink, and green. But, here goes.

I've been to two games at Chicago's Wrigley Field, home of the National League Cubs. The first time was in 1969. My uncle and cousin, then living in DuPage County to the west of Chicago, took me to a game between the Cubs and the Reds. Pete Rose was playing in right field, our seats were practically on top of him, and we were surrounded by a contingent of the Rosie Reds, a bunch of middle-aged and elderly female Reds fans who adored Rose. It's a charming adolescent memory.

My other Wrigley Field pilgrimage came in 1999. My son and I were headed to DuPage County, for a campus visit at Wheaton College, one of the schools he was considering attending once he graduated from high school. Unlike my earlier visit to Wrigley, this is one I wish I hadn't made, even though we witnessed two Sammy Sosa-launched homers.

Do you know what changed in the world during the thirty years between my two visits to Wrigley? Everything.

But you know what changed about Wrigley? Very little.

Many will tell you that's a good thing. A buddy of mine, an even bigger fan of the game than I am, says that he regards Wrigley's "friendly confines" as almost holy ground, a cathedral of America's national pastime. Those who venerate Wrigley think of it as a "field of dreams," the site of a Holy Communion-like anamnesis where true believers in baseball from the past, present, and future fellowship together.

That's not how I see it at all. To me, Wrigley Field is an interesting piece of Americana that historians might want to maintain as a combination monument and museum, but only if foot traffic through its labyrinthine and structurally volatile innards is kept to a minimum.

In the thirty years that passed between my first and second visits, Wrigley passed from a good venue for watching a baseball game to an uncomfortable, outdated mausoleum with ivy.

In that same period of time, a new generation of baseball stadia have been erected in places like Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco. They all manage to honor and evoke the past while giving the modern amenities that make it both possible and attractive for families to go to a ball game.

On that day at Wrigley in 1999, my son and I came face-to-face with the many problems of a stadium setting smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood, hemmed in by history and stifled by obsolescence.

Traffic was a mess. Residents in the surrounding area sold tiny spots of their yards and driveways as parking places at exorbitant prices. This was caused by a jarring fact: Wrigley has no parking accommodations.

The seats in the stadium, although certainly not the originals, conform to the dimensions of that original hardware, I'm sure. My son and I sat sandwiched between portly travelers from Kansas City; it was uncomfortable for all of us.

Hey, if I want the minor league experience, I can go to Columbus, Indianapolis, Dayton, or Louisville.

But at age 51, a whimpering, whiny, selfish baby boomer (at least when it comes to baseball), I expect major league amenities at major league ballparks. Wrigley is not a major league ball park.

And every time the owners of the Cubs try upgrading their white elephant, they offend the team's fans and assorted "purists." The biggest pitfall of owning a team that plays in what fans see as a shrine is that renovation and innovation are condemned as bad things. It's as bad as being the pastor of a traditional congregation who suggests the addition of a contemporary worship service: grief ensues.

Wrigley Field is falling apart. I worry that some day, a tragedy could occur: a roof collapsing on twenty-thousand fans, for example. And why? All because traditionalists can't let go of their nostalgia.

Renovations to Wrigley are virtually impossible to do either because of opposition at every turn or because the building is so structurally unsound.

I don't live in Chicago and I'm not a Cubs fan. So, maybe I shouldn't even have an opinion.

But if I did live in Chicago, a town I've always loved, and if I were a fan of the Cubs, a team that has been among my favorites over the years, I'd say, "It's time to give Wrigley a decent burial and say, 'Thanks for the memories.' It's time to make it comfortable to go to the ballpark. It's time to accommodate fans with parking. It's time to keep everybody safe."

Baseball isn't just about the past. It's about today. And if the stewards of contemporary baseball do things right today, the game could be around for a lot of tomorrows, too.

[For related stories, check out these links:
Plans for Wrigley Field Makeover Leave Much To Be Desired
Homeowners Put on a Good Face (about Fenway Park in Boston)]

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