Bad generals plan for the last war. But good generals plan for the future with a sure grasp of the history of politics, warfare and human nature; and as with generals, so with baseball executives. There is reason to believe Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein are on course in terms of Cubs player personnel and development, but on the verge of a mistake with respect to Wrigley Field.
It is always good to understand the value of genuine assets. In light of the so-called “Fenway Plan”—a term floated a year ago by Mayor Emmanuel’s office—for Wrigley now being proposed by the Cubs and the city, all parties should recall the last major makeover of the ballpark three decades ago, as well as the recent history of Fenway Park.
The Cubs were dreadful in 1981, and sold mid-season by the Wrigley family to the Tribune Company. Dallas Green came to Chicago as the new general manager, one year removed from managing the Philadelphia Phillies to their first-ever world championship. Green almost got the Cubs to the World Series. Almost as significantly, he got lights in Wrigley Field and created the neighborhood phenomenon now known as Wrigleyville. Victory-starved Cubs fans had made Wrigley Field a hopping place in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but Wrigleyville is a child of the ’80s. What had been a working-class Lake View neighborhood—one with rental apartments regularly available in the three-flats and six-flats opposite Wrigley—became upscale Wrigleyville by virtue of Boomer demographics, and the neighborhood presence of the Cubs. Tensions arose between the Cubs’ desire to increase revenue and competitiveness by allowing night baseball at Wrigley, and their neighbors’ desire to protect their quality of life and property values. But in the end, a compromise allowed limited night baseball, property values continued to rise, and Green came to understand Wrigley’s value as a unique asset integral to the Cubs’ identity.
The truth about Fenway
Fast forward to Boston in the late 1990s. Under the Yawkey Trust, the Red Sox were hell-bent to replace Fenway Park, the only ballpark in baseball older than Wrigley Field. Once again, a team’s management failed to understand the value of its asset.
According to its owners and their supporters in the Boston media, Fenway was “falling down,” “structurally unsound,” lacking “modern amenities”—a litany familiar to fans of original-franchise MLB teams who saw cherished ballparks fall to the wrecking ball. But where dedicated fans of Comiskey Park and Tiger Stadium failed to halt the march of ballpark “progress,” Fenway’s succeeded. After relentless pressure from the non-profit Fenway Community Development Corporation and an ad-hoc fan group called Save Fenway Park!, the new Red Sox ownership adopted a series of incremental interventions that take advantage of Fenway’s unique characteristics, and transformed it from an alleged albatross into the hottest venue in baseball.
What is not as well known is that the model for Fenway as a renovated neighborhood ballpark with potential for profitable baseball and good urbanism was 1990s Wrigley Field. Nevertheless, nobody proposing the renovation strategies subsequently adopted by the Red Sox thought they were trying to make Fenway more like Wrigley. The goal was to make Fenway Park a better Fenway Park. (Epstein should know, because he was there.) But with good reason do Cubs fans fear this distinction has been lost in the enthusiasm for a “Fenway Plan” for Wrigley Field.
Jumbotron? Just Say ‘No!’
The main problem is not the rooftop owners, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s great to have fans watching games from the rooftops across the street—a historic practice to which the Cubs have never objected—but outrageous that rooftop owners veto improvements to Wrigley on the basis of projected “lost revenues.” These “revenues” must be understood for what they are: a theft of the Cubs’ product, to not one dime of which are the rooftop owners entitled.
Nevertheless, it will be a blunder for the Cubs to block the views of the ballpark to or from the rooftops. Annex buildings and game-day street fairs may prove legitimate improvements to both Wrigley Field and Wrigleyville, but an outfield Jumbotron video board will not. Virtually every other MLB stadium has one, but Wrigley is unique in how the immediate cityscape is part of the ballpark experience. The Cubs will be making a mistake if, from their desire for increased revenues, and their squabbles with the fans outside Wrigley Field looking in, they sacrifice the pleasures of fans on the inside looking out.
When a stadium has a Jumbotron, the game becomes secondary and fans in the park start watching the screen rather than the game—which is why large video boards are a dependable source of advertising revenue. If the Cubs want to preserve Wrigley’s historic character in tandem with their construction efforts on Clark Street and their desire to extend their game-day domain to Waveland and Sheffield avenues, they might discreetly place multiple video boards outside Wrigley so fans in adjacent streets can watch the game. This could be a ballpark and neighborhood addition worthy of the baseball, entrepreneurial and larger ballpark culture–preserving ambitions of the Ricketts family and the Epstein regime, and would demonstrate that they understand the value of their assets.