While I’m not a prime candidate to give tours at Wrigley Field, the rumors of my hatred of the ballpark, and the Cubs for that matter, have been grossly exaggerated. It’s nothing personal. I bear no animus towards architect Zachary Taylor Davis, the man who designed the park, or the team that plays there, but as an objective observer I’m willing to admit that there are flaws. Big ones.
It starts even before you get in the park, at the apex of Addison and Clark. People, both sober and bombed, spill out of the bars onto tiny sidewalks packed with peddlers, tourists, locals (who may or may not be headed to the game), transients, and traffic cops who scream at everyone to, “GET BACK ON THE SIDEWALK!” even though every inch of real estate is already occupied by someone else’s feet. Unless you’re light enough to perch on someone’s shoulders, onto the street you spill.
Once inside, the concourse is cavernous; the only light comes from narrow splits in the concrete that lead to the stairs that ascend to the seats. Even if you could see beyond a few inches from you face—which you can’t, because of the crowd density—there’s not much to look at anyway. Your peripheral view reveals the faces of shuffling patrons that you’d die next to in the event of fire as well as concession stands that tout specialty snacks, a deception—in actuality they are selling the same products as the next stand over under a different name.
There is no place to congregate. The concourse is purely in the business of moving people, and if you grab a rail on a less crowded ramp you can’t see the field and the street views are obscured by plywood that serves as a placeholder for missing metal grates. To meet someone anywhere other than your seat, you have to climb to the roof where there’s a beer garden that faces the street instead of the field (and there’s no game audio, or if there is, you can’t hear it). There may be more freedom to mingle in the Bleachers, but the lore of the hedonistic drunks out there have made me never want to find out.
Wrigley has a 90% chance of being beautiful once you’re seated, but if you’re one of the unlucky patrons seated directly behind a pole it could be less fun, especially when you factor in the bedlam of entry and the ticket prices. To give credit where it is due, the field itself is mostly pristine—unless it’s early in the season and the ivy is still a horticultural eye-sore—but with the cracking concrete, rickety seats, and the blight of 100 years of hard use, it’s easy to get distracted by the ick. In my last visit, during a rather uneventful Wellington Castillo at-bat, my shoe got stuck to the concrete from someone’s discarded chewing gum. As I attempted to extricate myself, my eyes danced between the field, the dessert cart that was hovering directly above my head on the exposed catwalk to the luxury suits, and the burrito-sized chunk of concrete that was missing from the stairs next to me and I pondered which would go first if I was trapped, me or the superstructure. While most would never advocate tearing the park down, you’d at least get them to concede that the park is due for upgrades (which are now on their way).
But you can’t mention that stuff to the purists; there exists a sect with Stockholm Syndrome whose apostles insist that falling chunks of stadium are “all part of the charm” and try to rationalize that the chipping paint isn’t dangerous and who would sooner don hardhats than admit that there’s something wrong with the relic of the Federal League.
It takes time to understand Wrigley Field and the people who flock there. The missing piece, the unspoken truth, is that but when people express their love for Wrigley Field, what they are really doing is expressing a connection to the history of the ballpark and the organization itself rather than worshipping a park that is past its prime (though, as above, there are some who swear they love the flaws, and I guess that’s their prerogative). Whether you’re behind a giant girder or not, you’re entrenched in history without much effort. There is no Jumbotron (at least not yet), and no between-inning gimmicks involving t-shirt cannons and hotdog-eating contests. The fanfare is minimal, just the soft hum of the organ and a public address announcer. The beauty isn’t in the park itself, it’s in the fact that you’re sitting in a monument that has been granted amnesty, a courtesy that hasn’t been extended to many other aging ballparks and buildings.
Chicago is one of the finest architectural cities in the world, and from the moment that architects and engineers learned to make buildings tall, they started doing it here in Chicago. There’s Art Deco and Art Nouveau. American Four-Square and Sullivanesque. There’s Edwardian and their very city’s own Chicago School. But the cruel reality for the earliest buildings—those that predated Wrigley or came just after—was that as the architects got smarter, the scrapers could get taller, and buildings that were once marvels and miracles were eyesores that stood in the way of progress.
The Rand McNally Building, designed by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root, was the first all-steel framed skyscraper built in 1889. It was torn down three years before Wrigley Field was even finished. Burnham and Root’s Masonic Temple Building, which went up 1892—back when the Cubs were the Chicago Colts—was revered for its exterior beauty and finishes, but once operational, its lack of functionality, coupled with a desire to put in a State Street Subway, meant the building was demolished in 1939, the year following the Homer in the Gloamin’. Some of the Burnham and Root buildings like the Monadnock and the Rookery are now National Historic Landmarks and will remain fixtures indefinitely, but those buildings are the fortunate ones that weren’t cleared out to make room for more recent waves of architectural brilliance that push the limit of the mind’s creativity, and literally, at times, defy gravity.
And yet, Wrigley remains.
It’s the same place that my grandparents saw games when they came to visit their relatives who lived on the outskirts of the city, far up north on Pulaski. It’s where Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney both threw a no-hitter through nine innings in 1917. And in 1922, the Cubs and Phillies set a record by scoring a combined 49 runs in a game, which is still a record. Stan Musial had his 3000th hit there, Ernie Banks his 500th home run. It’s where the Cubs won their last World Series game back in the ’45, and, on a more personal level, it’s the second ballpark I ever visited. Although I was young, I’ll never forget the bone-chilling breeze off of the lake at the Sunday afternoon game. It’s easy—almost too easy—to carry on about the eyesore that the park has become in its unrenovated state; it’s easy—definitely too easy—to be glib about the drunken fans and the stadium’s place as, “The biggest beer garden in Chicago.” I’ve fallen victim to that, we all have, but those are just empty jokes at the expense of a 100-year-old landmark that, when rightfully evaluated for its place in history, is awe-inducing.
The renovations are a good thing. The “plan” of ignoring its flaws and hoping that it would stop decaying wasn’t working, and the alternatives of rebuilding and relocating weren’t going to work either, not without sacrificing something unique and irreplaceable. If there’s anything that can be learned from the renovations at Fenway Park, a park with even more nuance and equal history, it’s that the prestige and significance doesn’t disappear with the addition of Jumbotrons and fresh layers of polyurethane. The modernization is inevitable, but if done with a proper respect for history, the renovations’ impact will be only positive in that every dollar spent will ensure that Wrigley Field will remain a fixture indefinitely, and the Cubs won’t have to box up their history and ship it elsewhere. It gets to remain here and defy the odds of becoming obsolete and antiquated despite so many buildings and ballparks never getting that chance.
Wrigley Field isn’t perfect. It never will be, but there’s something worth boasting about in living a quick walk from the second-oldest park in baseball that is committed to dishing out an experience in a way that 29 other parks can’t. I still don’t think anyone will be hiring me to give tours, but if they did, I think this girl, who spends the bulk of the season at the park on the Southside, might surprise a few people with her reverence for what she has sometimes dismissed as a scrap heap of steel.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter whose work has appeared at Deadspin, Baseball Prospectus, The Classical, and 670 the Score, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi.
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