It's time to get rid of Wrigley

Publish date:

Ruth made his observation during the 1932 World Series, when the New York Yankees played at Wrigley for the first time. Gammons spoke last week in his role as an analyst for MLB Network.

As the Yankees prepare for an interleague series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field this weekend, a fan can ask if, from very different perspectives and very different eras, Ruth and Gammons were both right.

Maybe dump is a tad harsh, but the 97-year-old ballpark has seen better days --and decades.

As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey noted this week, "There's still rust, the concourses still resemble dark alleys and people still have to elbow their way to their seats. ... It's a great park when you look at the field from your seat. It's not so great on the way to and from your seat."

Yes, it's time.

The Chicago Cubs should start seriously thinking about a new ballpark and prepare a fond farewell to Wrigley Field, their historic but cramped and crumbling home since 1916 (Wrigley opened as Weeghman Park in 1914 for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League).

The Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs, can study proposals for a state-of-the-art facility. The new Wrigley would combine distinct features of the old place, like the ivy-covered outfield walls and a hand-operated scoreboard, but add modern comforts, such as wider concourses, more leg room between seats, no poles to block views of the field and, hopefully, more parking.

It should also include a bigger clubhouse and weight room that will please future Cubs players and help attract potential free agents. Obviously, there would be more luxury suites, but that's the price of doing business in modern baseball.

Now before you threaten to toss me into Lake Michigan, I am far from the first to suggest a new ballpark for the Cubbies. Late last fall, after city and state officials turned down the team's request to use 35 years' worth of amusement tax increases to finance a $210 million renovation of Wrigley, online and print commentators in Chicago began advocating a different direction for the Cubs. Don't renovate Wrigley, they argued, especially if this would entail the sale of the dreaded personal seat licenses. Start from scratch and build a new ballpark.

Sure, it will be hard to say goodbye to an old friend. For nearly a century, the beloved North Side playground has served as an easy-on-the-eyes stage for 10 generations of fans to cheer and groan (mostly groan) as they followed the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the Cubs.

Not that there's been much to cheer. The Cubs haven't won a National League pennant since 1945. Their only World Series championships, in 1907 and '08, took place before Wrigley existed.

On those few occasions the Cubs have reached October, their play at home has been awful: a 7-20 postseason record at Wrigley.

There's plenty of history at Wrigley but much of it hurts. Instead of locating the seat where a historic home run landed, visitors point to where star-crossed fan Steve Bartman reached atop the wall during the fateful Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.

It's hard to develop any kind of home-field advantage when your ballpark's nickname is "The Friendly Confines." Opposing teams enjoy playing at Wrigley, always have. It's not an intimidating arena -- at least not for baseball.

Football was another matter.

Through the 1960s, Wrigley Field was best known nationally for the Chicago Bears, a team whose demeanor was decidedly unfriendly. Unlike the Cubs, the Bears won. The Monsters of the Midway, led by stalwarts such as Bronco Nagurski, Bulldog Turner, Sid Luckman, Doug Atkins and Ed O'Bradovich, captured eight NFL championships as Wrigley residents before moving to Soldier Field in 1971.

As for baseball, during most of Wrigley's first seven decades it was just another old ballpark -- and not a popular one, particularly in the '50s, '60s, '70s and early '80s.

National League ball yards such as the original Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the Polo Grounds in New York and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn were older than Wrigley and provided better baseball.

Between 1953 and 1967 the Cubs failed to draw one million fans a season. The crosstown White Sox consistently outdrew the Cubs. In 1982 the Cubs finished 10th in National League attendance, averaging only 15,000 fans per game. By the mid-1980s, however, Wrigley had become a go-to destination for the nation's baseball fans,thanks to four developments.

First, the team's longtime TV network, WGN, had become one of the first cable superstations. Nationally televised day baseball helped the Cubs attract fans in every section of the country.

Second, the Cubs hired legendary broadcaster Harry Caray away from the White Sox. New Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf didn't care for Caray's sometimes-caustic comments about Sox players ("Biggest game of the year and our best pitcher doesn't have a thing") and made little effort to retain the future Hall of Fame announcer.

Third, Wrigley Field was starting to look good, especially in the National League. By the 1970s most of the NL teams were playing in charmless all-purpose stadiums, many with artificial turf. Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, Pittsburgh's Three Rivers, Cincinnati's Riverfront and the new Busch Stadium were drab, cold arenas with no grass. San Francisco's Candlestick Park was simply cold.

New York's Shea Stadium was an eyesore, and hardly anyone seemed to be in the stands at Montreal's massive Olympic Stadium or at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. Houston's Astrodome meant baseball indoors, even in nice weather.

Only Dodger Stadium, perhaps the most iconic ballpark of the expansion era, didn't fall so harshly on the eyes of NL fans.

Wrigley Field had become the Betty White of ball yards, perhaps not a great beauty in its heyday but an old trouper that appeared stylish and classy in its dotage.

Finally there was 1984, when the Cubs ended their 39-year postseason drought by winning the NL East. Future Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandburg was elected league MVP and, for the first time, more than two million fans poured into the Friendly Confines.

The Cubs quickly returned to their losing ways,but even though they would make only two playoff appearances over the next 17 non-strike seasons, Wrigley Field had become cool. Attendance has dropped below two million only three times since '84.

Under the skilled eye of WGN's Arne Harris, one of the first TV directors to showcase crowd shots during big plays, fans attending games at Wrigley were as much a part of the action as the Cubs.

And Caray, no longer criticizing players as in his days with the White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, led the cheers for action both on and off the field. Amid his play-by-play he always found time to recognize visiting fans: "They're here from Paducah, Ky., to see the Cubs."

Was there any place on Earth more fun than Wrigley Field? No wonder the turnstiles continued clicking, even after Caray's death in 1998. The Cubs' near-pennant in 2003 boosted attendance past the three million mark for the first time a year later.

But there are signs the party could be ending -- or at least quieting down. The Cubs have drawn more than three million fans in each of the past seven seasons but the numbers have fallen the past three. If Major League Baseball counted no-shows, the Cubs would be embarrassed. Recent Septembers have resulted in large sections of empty seats at Wrigley.

This year looks worse. Only 26,292 fans showed up for an April 4 game vs. Arizona, the Cubs' smallest home crowd since 2002. Through June 15, Wrigley Field attendance was down 2,259 fans per game from 2010.

During the Mother's Day weekend three-game series with the defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds, the Cubs averaged 35,000 fans per game, about 6,000 under capacity. Even the first 2011 visit by the archrival Cardinals on a summerlike night in mid-May drew only 34,000.

Not once in May did the slumping Cubs draw a crowd larger than 40,000, compared to five times in 2010, seven in 2009 and 10 in 2008.

Maybe Wrigley isn't quite so cool anymore, especially if the Cubs are awful.

Meanwhile, most National League teams have moved out of the all-purpose monstrosities and into baseball-only facilities with superior amenities, sightlines and comforts to what Wrigley offers.

PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Coors Field in Denver, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Petco Field in San Diego and AT&T Park in San Francisco are better looking and more comfortable than Wrigley -- also usually cheaper.

A bleacher seat that used to go for a few bucks has climbed to $72 for selected series -- like the Yankees -- and costs at least $42 for more than half the Cubs' home games.

How much longer can the Ricketts family ask Cubs fans to pay top dollar for nostalgia and atmosphere? Wrigley's food has never been the greatest, the concourses remain narrow and all those poles mean that many seats have a partially obstructed view of the field. If a fan can't ride a Red Line train to the game, parking becomes an expensive nightmare.

Other prominent teams have left historic homes. The New York Yankees exited Yankee Stadium and the Boston Celtics departed Boston Garden. Neither of these championship-rich franchises appears to have suffered.

Were the Detroit Tigers worse off for saying so-long to historic Tiger Stadium? What about the White Sox? Moving out of ancient Comiskey Park (built four years before Wrigley) hasn't hurt the South Siders, who in 2005 won their first World Series in 88 years.

Yes, the Boston Red Sox continue to play in venerable Fenway Park, a facility two years older than Wrigley. But the Red Sox win World Series'. Their fans would pack a barge on the Charles River to watch the Olde Towne Team.

Out-of-towners enjoy Wrigley Field but is that the reason to keep an aging ballpark? Do the Cubs, as critics say, view themselves more as a tourist attraction than a contending major league ballclub?

The current financial climate makes Wrigley II a dream for the future. The Ricketts family's debt burden from their portion of the Cubs' $900 million purchase price and subsequent spending on the team leaves them poorly positioned to implement anything beyond cosmetic improvements to Wrigley. Financial help from the cash-strapped city of Chicago and state of Illinois is unlikely anytime soon.

This doesn't mean, however, that the Cubs can't plan for future decades.

In a city where Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe helped shape the skyline, surely the Cubs can ignite the imagination of architects to design a worthy successor to what Chicago troubadour Steve Goodman called their "ivy-covered burial ground.''

The Cubs should spend the next few years researching locations around the North Side and examine proposals for Wrigley Field II, a modern ballpark that would provide more comforts and generate more income to help secure better players, the kind of players who just might get the Cubs to a World Series or two.

Wrigley Field has landmark status, so despite the wishes of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, it's unlikely to be "blown up." A scaled-down Wrigley could be used for high school and college games. A Big Ten baseball tournament there would draw significantly more interest than if it were played on campus.

When the Cubs celebrate Wrigley Field's centennial in 2014, perhaps the team will culminate the year-long festivities with an announcement about its new home for the next century.

It's time.