Since last September, I’ve been excited at the prospect of Theo Epstein coming to Chicago. I suggested that it happen almost immediately after the Red Sox collapsed in Baltimore on the final night of the regular season, and I’ve written about it here and here and here. And it’s always been with the assumption that whatever worked for him in winning a championship with the Red Sox (two championships, actually) will be brought here to Chicago as well.
But the news today changed my assumptions. I guess I wasn’t really listening, or hearing only what I wanted to hear, when Tom Ricketts spelled out the reasons why Theo was being brought to Chicago. But today it all became clear to me.
I went to Fenway Park for the first time in my life in May of last year. It was on my “bucket list” of things to do in life, and I was glad to cross that one off the list. I was blown away by what a great baseball experience it was. The Cubs were crushed, almost as badly as the baseball that Kevin Youkilis hit over the billboard above the Green Monster. But I loved it just the same.
A sense of baseball history pervades Fenway Park. You just have to soak it all in, and appreciate how unique it is. Baseball can tear down and rebuild any stadium it wants to, but it can never lose Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. The “baseball stadium as American cathedral” idea comes from these two places, and no others.
Toward the end of the game, as my baseball buddy and I were leaving the park, I pointed some sort of a gift shop in the bowels of the stadium. He indicated that it had been built just a year or two ago. I looked at it again, and at the sections of the park all around it, and realized that I couldn’t tell the difference between something Babe Ruth would have recognized, and something that didn’t exist when the 21st century began. It was a seamless transition from one to the other, and it was very well done.
One of the things that Fenway Park now has, and I was very taken with during the game, is a number of very large scoreboards high above the action. I remember looking at them on several occasions, and telling myself that Wrigley Field needed something comparable. And if the announcement that a big 70-foot LED screen is coming to Wrigley Field next summer, then it looks like that’s going to happen. It’s decades overdue, but it can only make the fan experience better for those at the game.
The idea of seats on top of the Green Monster in left field seemed silly once, but I will tell you that every seat was sold when I was there, and it’s basically a license for the team to print money. I’m certain that Theo Epstein had a hand in that, and will be expected to offer his suggestions about how the Cubs can do something similar at Wrigley.
I was also struck by how the road outside the ballpark–Yawkey Way–is part of the Fenway Park experience. The mother of all gift shops is literally across the street, so you can actually leave the park, go to the gift shop, and return to your seat during the game. I would expect something similar at Wrigley, either with Sheffield Avenue (similar to the Wildcat Way that preceded the Northwestern-Illinois football game a year ago) or along Clark Street north of Addison.
The Ricketts family also just purchased the plot of land where the McDonald’s is, literally across the street from the ballpark. I would look for that to be incorporated into the park in some way, as well. There are lots of possibilities, and lots of money will be spent to make this a reality.
Some people will just instinctively oppose new changes in the name of “tradition.” But the biggest tradition of all at Wrigley–losing–is what we all want to see changed. Any other tradition is negotiable. Paint the grass blue like Boise State’s turf, if you have to. Tear out all the ivy and convert it into padded walls covered with corporate signage, if need be. Remove the bullpens down the first and third base signs and put them behind the outfield wall. Do all of that and more in the name of winning, and I’ll happily go along with it.
I started going to games at Wrigley Field in 1987, and the only season I missed going to at least one game (but usually many more than that) was 2006. The Cubs had brought Dusty Baker back for his final year under contract, and I successfully staged a boycott of one during that season. But the result of all this is that Wrigley–for all of its history and charm–now seems a bit old hat. And if the ballpark and its surroundings are overhauled successfully, this feeling should vanish overnight.
Creating something new–while giving the appearance that it has always been there before–won’t be an easy task. But I have seen it up close, and I can attest to the fact that it can be done. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what they come up with.