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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

Commentary: Wrigley’s status as shrine undeserved

April 6, 2007

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— Wrigley Field still is a dump.

Several years ago I used that very word, dump, to describe the ballpark. At that point, chunks of concrete were falling onto seats at Wrigley. The place was showing its advanced age, had a hygiene problem and lacked many of the amenities that could be found in more modern parks.

People reacted as if I had said their mother's mustache needed a trim. I understood. You don't imply that a beloved ballpark's landmark status should be changed to pockmark status and think you're going to get off easy.

But aside from measures taken to stop the concrete from falling on Cubs' fans heads, not much has changed from when I wrote that column in 2004.

Neither has my opinion: We've all been had, not that there's anything wrong with it. Ignorance is bliss, and so is a beer on a sunny summer day. I think of Wrigley Field as the figment of somebody's marvelous imagination, as a subtle marketing campaign that snowballed into something spectacular.

You see the emperor's new clothes. I see a wrinkled, naked dump.

But that's just me.

The Cubs will be for sale after the 2007 season, but it's unclear whether Wrigley will be on the block too. Some estimates have the park being worth $90 million. It might be worth more dead.

If I were king for a day - Thursdays work for me - I would keep the beautiful scoreboard, the outfield bleachers (including the ivied walls) and the field intact. I would salvage the red Wrigley Field sign on Addison Street. I would tear down the rest of it and rebuild, even if that meant fewer seats. The charm of Wrigley is in the view from along the lines and behind the plate. Nobody turns around and says, "Wow, what a great park!" People say that when they look straight ahead at the field.

Look me in the face and tell me the people who stayed away from Wrigley Field in droves until the 1980s were peasants who didn't recognize a good thing when it was standing right in front of them.

It was the same park.

It was the same sun.

It was the same beer.

Many of those pre-'80s teams were awful, just like last year's team was awful. In 1969, when the very talented Cubs had their very dramatic collapse, they drew 1,674,993 fans, their most to that point. Last year, when the Cubs lost 96 games, attendance was 3,123,215. In fact, in the five seasons since 1997 in which they had at least 90 losses, their average attendance was 2.7 million.

If someone with a case of amnesia were dropped off in Chicago and handed those figures, he might have several questions:

Did the Cubs win a World Series somewhere in between all that awfulness, dramatically increasing interest? No, they did not. In fact, they have been very, very bad most of the time since they last won a World Series, in 1908.

Was the ballpark significantly renovated so that it became more of a user-friendly playground? No, it wasn't.

Did some sort of religious apparition appear there, turning the park into a shrine? Well, sort of. There once was this guy who went around saying, "Holy Cow!"

So what changed in the past 30 years or so? Mostly perception.

In the 1980s, people all over the country started watching the Cubs on superstation WGN and felt a "Field of Dreams" impulse to see the ballpark. And Wrigleyville grew into a place to eat, drink and see Harry Caray.

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