Wrigley Field has changed.
Alterations in the ballpark are as striking as the improvement of the Cubs' on-field performance, and as you join me in Section 416, you may be surprised to discover that this traditionalist is fine with the new aspects of the park. As are the folks who share my seats.
"Yeah, sure, 'Babe Ruth stood on that very spot,' but great-grandpappy peed in the same troughs and listened to the PA announcer on the same WWII vintage sound system," says one seatmate, nicknamed the Country Doctor. "Time to move on."
That the now-102-year-old ballpark needed work was as obvious as the fragments of concrete falling from the upper deck, but let's add historical perspective to the conversation.
Wrigley, everyone in 416 agrees, is special. It lacked such commercialized features of other modern ballparks, and so it embodied the history and spirit of the game, rather than its debased modern cash-at-all-costs business model. To believe this requires buying in to baseball's oldest myth, that it's a pure game played for the love of it, not a money-making enterprise. But let's go with it.
See, Wrigley Field wasn't always special. Old brick ballparks with quirky dimensions jammed into residential neighborhoods were once the major league standard. Hell, Wrigley wasn't even the oldest ballpark in Chicago until the 1991 demolition of its sibling, Comiskey Park. (The same architect, Zachary Taylor Davis, designed both.)
Wrigley only became an icon when the other old ballparks it resembled were demolished. In the National League between 1966 and 1971 (leaving out the three franchises that moved west), several parks were knocked down. Riverfront replaced Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Philadelphia's Shibe Park became Veterans. Sportsman's Park (or Busch I) made way for Busch II in St. Louis. Pittsburgh transitioned from Forbes Field to Three Rivers. These shiny new concrete bowls had all the modern amenities that fans allegedly desired and the public financing baseball moguls demanded.
They also had all the soul of interstate freeway cloverleaf interchanges. And because they housed both football and baseball, they were poor fits for both sports.
Compared to these concrete doughnuts with parking lots, Wrigley became special, not just for Cubs fans but also for baseball fans worldwide. A visit turned into a bucket-list item, and thanks in no small part to cable superstation WGN, tourists began to make pilgrimages to 1060 W. Addison.
"Compared to these concrete doughnuts with parking lots, Wrigley became special, not just for Cubs fans but also for baseball fans worldwide."
Like that, Wrigley was special for its changeless history. Yet the park has changed many times. The upper deck was added in 1927, the bleachers in the next decade. Surely purists back then complained about girders obstructing their views, or about not being able to stand behind the rope in deep center jawing with Kiki Cuyler or Hack Wilson. More recently, lights were as unwelcome as video boards were on this day. One of my season-ticket partners, Teach, still sports a mustard-yellow "No Lights" T-shirt.
But the lights show how good design can work to finesse the combination of historic continuity and contemporary change. Installed in 1988, the light stanchions have graceful 1930s art deco lines, paralleling other architectural features of the ballpark. The team is also restoring that era's historic look on the exterior, with classy wrought iron replacing chain link fences.
The new video boards don't blend in as well as the lights, but they also don't overwhelm the way people expected them to. The color scheme -- a dark-green background, with information displayed in yellow -- matches the rest of the ballpark, including the Old Scoreboard over the center-field bleachers. And while the left-field video board is larger than the Old Scoreboard, it doesn't seem larger, because the mass of the center-field bleacher seating area adds to the perceived size of the Old Scoreboard.
As seatmate Azz puts it, "the JumboTron seems like it's always been there."
How information is presented reinforces the integration of the new with the old. The team doesn't put balls, strikes and outs on the video boards. For that information, you still have to look at the Old Scoreboard. (Or the video ribbon on the front of the upper-deck façade, if you're sitting in the bleachers and aren't limber enough to turn around.) But they now feature replays, a welcome addition to the game-viewing experience. "It's nice to not have to turn my head and try to watch a small 32-inch TV that's 100 feet away," says the Big Bun, who used to work for Vienna Beef, which advertises at Wrigley, though it really doesn't need to.
The boards feature ads, but it's not hard to tune them out. No one says The Wintrust Video Board or the Budweiser Board. "They mostly promote the team," says Old Style, so named for his dedication to the bunt, complete games and pre-SABR statistics. "Seldom is the whole board the ad."
Best of all, the video boards have added a new feat for hitters: knocking a homer off, or onto, them. The legend of Kyle Schwarber was made when he hit that homer onto the top of the right-field board in the division series clincher last year. A ball on top of the board is the stuff dreams are made of.
As of this writing, the Cubs are winning at a .700 clip. They almost certainly won't maintain that pace, given the grim reality of regression to the mean. But no one thought that lights or video boards could blend into the history of Wrigley, and both have.
Perhaps seatmate Rich puts it best: "The video scoreboards add a new dimension to the fan experience, and in any other city, it would be that simple. But in Chicago, there's always a subtext, and in this case, the video scoreboards are Tom Ricketts' meaty middle fingers extended over the bleachers to the rooftop owners whose views he blocked."
Welcome to 2016.