Take me out to the rooftop: Wrigley changes bring new looks

CHICAGO (AP) Top of the first, one out. It's a Friday in July, the start of a holiday weekend, and the Chicago Cubs are hosting the Miami Marlins.

Christian Yelich drives a 2-2 pitch from Jason Hammel to the second or third row in center field, prompting a groan from the fans inside Wrigley Field.

At the Wrigley Rooftops' building down the right-field line, just beyond the famed ballpark's ivy-covered walls and across Sheffield Avenue, none of the fans seem to realize the ball is gone until Yelich breaks into his home-run trot.

That's because most of the outfield is obscured by a large video board towering over right field.

Even so, Kevin Biederwolf of suburban Schaumburg, Illinois, says: ''It's a blast up here.''

Big changes are happening on Chicago's North Side. The long-suffering Cubs, those ''Lovable Losers'' who last won a World Series championship in 1908 and haven't been to the series since 1945, are contending for a playoff spot after a top-to-bottom overhaul.

Their beloved ballpark and parts of the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood are getting a makeover, too.

A $575 million transformation started in the offseason after years of meetings, hearings and legal battles with the surrounding rooftop owners who sell unique views into the stadium under an unusual revenue-sharing deal with the team that lasts until Dec. 31, 2023. There are 16 rooftops in all and the owners' anger with the stadium renovations has been a flashpoint for several years.

The video board in right is a big change, although it's hardly the biggest to date. The one in left field dwarfs it at nearly 4,000 square feet. New, expanded bleacher sections in left and right opened in May and June, and that's just the start.

To some fans, the overhaul is overdue.

''It still feels like Wrigley Field,'' said Steven Baker of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who took in a game in early July.

To others, the changes are about as welcome as a billy goat.

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Back across Sheffield on the rooftop, it's the bottom of the first, two out.

All-Star rookie Kris Bryant doubles and scores on a single by Miguel Montero. A few fans watching TV by the rooftop bar exchange high-fives, while others make their way to the stadium-style seats on the deck above.

It's not a bad way to start the weekend. The $104.83 single ticket admission buys plenty of food and drink. Watching the game? The right-field line and infield remain unobstructed, but look toward the outfield and it's not quite the vast expanse of green Aaron Danison of Valparaiso, Indiana, recalls seeing from this spot last year.

''It's still a good time,'' he said. ''As far as the view, the game experience goes, it's different.''

It's worse elsewhere. Some rooftops are completely blocked. Others might have better views. Prices vary by rooftop, and by game.

Under the Tribune Co.'s ownership, the Cubs struck a 20-year deal in 2004 in which the rooftop owners agreed to share 17 percent of their revenue. The days of lugging lawn chairs onto the roof are long gone, replaced by sleek bleachers and even skyboxes. The team promised not to block their views. But the relationship took a contentious turn after the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs in 2009 and decided they needed to update the stadium and the roster. That meant finding new revenue streams, including selling advertising on the video boards.

Since January, the Ricketts family or its entities have bought six of the neighboring buildings with rooftop businesses along Sheffield and Waveland avenues and a lawsuit has been filed in a bid to purchase a seventh. That has quieted things a bit, though the issue remains in court. No rooftop owner contacted for this story would comment.

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Top of the sixth, two out.

Justin Bour drives the first pitch from Hammel to the basket in right-center for a solo homer that puts Miami on top 2-1 - the final score. But just like Yelich's drive, no one on this rooftop can see where it lands with the naked eye.

Most are talking to their friends or relatives or waiting in line for a drink, although they seem to engage more in the game as it rolls along.

The seventh inning stretch arrives and they're really locked in now: Former Cub Ryan Dempster and team Chairman Tom Ricketts in the right-field bleachers lead a toast to the late Harry Caray. Then, just like old times, the famed broadcaster is waving his right arm, microphone in hand, as he leads the crowd in ''Take Me Out To the Ballgame'' on a video shown in the left-field video board.

On the rooftop, Biederwolf is singing and waving right along. He does not seem to mind the obstructed view.

''I think there's a lot of initial response that's negative because it's changing how Wrigley is,'' he said. ''I think five years down the line, it will be a very positive change that a lot of people will enjoy.''

Change is nothing new around here. The neighborhood has experienced ups and downs over the years, and Charles Weeghman would not recognize a ballpark he built.

Various owners have been tinkering with the place ever since his Chicago Whales of the Federal League moved into what was known as Weeghman Park in 1914, when it was nothing more than a single-story grandstand.

The famous marquee did not go up until 1934. The ivy was planted by Bill Veeck Jr. in 1937, and the same year, the Cubs replaced the ground-level bleachers with raised brick bleachers and put in the manual scoreboard in center. They were a little behind the curve when it came to night games, with Wrigley being the last park to add lights in 1988, and in many ways, they're playing catch-up with these latest renovations.

The new video boards, designed to mimic the style of the old manual scoreboard with their green and white color scheme, burst with statistics and replays and features. Fans inside the ballpark can finally see replays on something other than their phones. The Cubs can pay tribute to Caray and Ernie Banks and others in a way they could not in the past - with video.

But to Lucy Morrison, the character around the ballpark is changing. And to her, that's ''disappointing.''

''I feel like you can't experience rooftops anywhere else in the country,'' says Morrison, who became a Cubs fan when she moved from Charlotte to Chicago four years ago. ''It's what adds to the fact of Wrigley's coolness. It's just so different than what you can experience anywhere in the country. It's what makes Wrigley Wrigley.''

Bottom of the ninth.

Chris Coghlan leads off with a single against A.J. Ramos, drawing loud cheers from the rooftop crowd hoping for a comeback. A force out, groundout and strikeout to end the game by the promising Addison Russell with a runner on second sends them home disappointed.

While the rest of the crowd heads out, Nunay Vega lingers by the ledge.

A White Sox fan, Vega says he started coming to Wrigley Field as a 9-year-old in 1979. He keeps returning because he loves the ballpark even though he roots for the other Chicago team.

He's just not a fan of the changes. He hates seeing gigantic video boards at Wrigley, although he's not exactly sympathetic to the rooftop owners.

''Somebody's making money,'' he says.

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