Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Upping the ante

Responding to Brad Stevens, the mayor of Rosemont, Illinois who just offered the Chicago Cubs a 25 acre site gratis, along with other perks to build a new ballpark in his town, an aide to Mayor Emanuel said this: “The idea that the Cubs would leave Wrigley Field is not something to be taken seriously.”

I wouldn't be so sure. As beloved as the friendly confines of Wrigley Field may be, it has plenty of detractors. Folks claim that it's hard to get to, especially by car, difficult to get in and out of, has terrible food, dirty bathrooms, bad facilities for the players, it's old and falling apart; in short: "it's a dump." There are in fact many voices out there who for years have called for the team to relocate into a new facility either in the city or the suburbs, where much of the fan base resides.

Tom Ricketts who along with his family owns the Cubs and Wrigley Field, seems committed at the moment to keeping the team in the old ballpark. In that vein, the Ricketts family proposes a major overhaul of the 99 year old cathedral of baseball to bring it up as well as possible, to current standards, while preserving its intimate character. The price tag for such a renovation would be in the neighborhood of 300 million dollars, all of which would be funded through private capital. By not demanding the municipality pay for, or even share in the burden of the project, the family Ricketts is doing something almost unheard of in this day and age of public spending on sports arenas. True, AT&T Park in San Francisco was built privately, but in a time and a place, (the Bay Area in the 1990's) that was flush with capital. The same cannot be said of Chicago, 2013. One would think that everyone in the city with the exception of die hard baseball haters (and maybe a handful of disgruntled White Sox fans) would jump at the chance to keep the Cubs in Chicago without costing the taxpayers a dime.

Not so. To help raise capital for the renovation, the family is asking that some zoning restrictions be lifted in regards to advertising, night games, as well as certain landmarks restrictions relating to the design of the ballpark. Community groups with the help of 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney, are looking to stall the plans siting parking issues, police protection and “aesthetic” issues regarding the ballpark. But it seems the real stumbling block are the owners of the properties across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues from the ballpark who have constructed bleachers on top of their buildings for the expressed purpose of selling tickets (at about 100 bucks a pop) to watch Cubs games. They are afraid that the proposed advertising structures in the outfield would obstruct the views of the field from their "Wrigley Rooftop" seats.

In case you were wondering, no they're not getting that view for nothing. In an agreement brokered by Alderman Tunney, the rooftop owners fork over seventeen percent of their profits to the Cubs in exchange for the club not building a wall obstructing their view. Connie Mack did precisely that in Philadelphia in 1935 when his Athletics lost revenue due to fans watching from the roofs across the street instead of inside his ballpark. Needless to say, the Wrigley rooftop owners have a sweet deal and aren't going to let go of it without a fight, and Tom Tunney is their staunchest advocate. Not surprisingly, the rooftop owners have given Tunney's campaign fund a generous amount of money over the years. Could that be related to Tunney's foot dragging in the Wrigley renovation plans?

You mean a Chicago politician with an ulterior motive...  perish the thought!

Tom Ricketts would like a deal with Tunney and the city finalized by Opening Day if not sooner in order for work on the ballpark to begin by the end of this coming season. For his part Mayor Emanuel understandably wants a deal made, and now. “Yeah, but it’s not going to be on the backs of my community, sorry..." says a defiant Tunney, the man of the people. Adding to his demagoguery, Tunney made this pointless observation about the Rickettses: "You’re talking about one of the wealthiest families in America."

To hear the rooftop owners talk about it, you'd think it was they who are responsible for the Cubs' success and not the other way around. "There's a reason that the Cubs pull (in crowds)," said Beth Murphy, one of the rooftop owners. "I believe it's the synergy between the neighborhood and the ballpark."

Apparently it's inconceivable to them and many other defenders of Wrigley Field, that the Cubs might one day leave the "Friendly Confines."

Here's a brief history lesson:

The late forties and fifties were the golden age of baseball in New York City. There were three teams in the city back in those days when it was rare if the World Series did not feature at least one New York  team. In 1951 all three New York teams finished in first place. Perhaps the greatest year of all was 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Yankees to win their first championship. The same two teams met the following year in the Fall Classic when the team from the Bronx won.

Then the unthinkable happened. Despite their tremendous popularity, despite their success on the field, and despite boasting the names of immortals like Mays, Thompson,  Reese, Snyder, and Robinson, nobody came to the games, at least not in Brooklyn nor up in the Polo Grounds where the Giants played.  Walter O'Malley, then owner of the Dodgers desperately tried to get the city to help build a new ballpark to replace Ebbets Field, the beloved but run down ballpark in a run down neighborhood. The city was unmoved. It so happened that there was a tremendous market out west just waiting to be exploited but O'Malley could only move his team to California if another team relocated to the Golden State. O'Mally had little trouble convincing Horace Stoneham the principal owner of the Giants, to join him. So in 1958, both the Dodgers and the Giants left New York City for greener pastures. The move which was a huge boon to both teams and their new cities, left a tremendous void in New York, especially in Brooklyn.

So far Tom Ricketts has not publicly expressed interest in Rosemont's overtures to the Cubs. He is sticking to his April 1st deadline for the city to work out a deal. Short of that, everything may be up for grabs. Perhaps the Rosemont proposal will be just a bargaining chip. Wrigley Field certainly has a draw that a new facility would not. I've gone on the record and am sticking to my belief that the Cubs would be foolish to leave Wrigley Field. On the other hand, there are unavoidable issues that need to be addressed, first and foremost of them is safety. Wrigley Field has outlasted its life expectancy by at least fifty years; it was not built to last forever and its infrastructure is in desperate need of repair. Secondly, while it's difficult to feel sorry for multi-millionaire ballplayers, the training and workout facilities for them at Wrigley are woefully inadequate and the team needs to face the issue if it expects to compete for elite players in the future. The other issues which involve fan comfort and distractions have no interest to me, but they do for other people and need to be addressed. Plans are in place to address these issues right here in Chicago and at Wrigley Field, the only obstacle appears to be the arrogance, intransigence, and short sightedness of a small group of people, and a politician who appears beholden to them. If the alderman continues his stonewalling, the team may have no alternative other than packing their bags.

Unlike other local institutions such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Art Institute, the Cubs are a privately owned business, not a non-for-profit entity. The Ricketts family does not owe it to Chicago to keep its team in the city; they have the right to look at every option open to them. If they should decide to move the team out of Chicago, to a place where they feel their business has a better chance of thriving, that too is their right, it's their team after all. Chicago has nothing to gain by not working out a deal with the Cubs, and everything to lose.

After the Cubs move on to Rosemont, Arlington Heights, Shaumburg or beyond, we can look forward to the Wrigley Condominiums at the corner of Clark and Addison, surrounding a lovely little park. There will be a plaque marking the former location of home plate where Babe Ruth allegedly called his home run shot in the 1932 World Series, and from where Gabby Hartnett hit his "Homer in the Gloamin'" to help the Cubs win the National League pennant in 1938. Maybe there will be another marker at the pitcher's mound site where Fergie Jenkins once worked, and another at short where Ernie Banks first broke into the big leagues. There'll be a little piece of the outfield wall covered with the ivy that Bill Veeck planted, where Jose Cardinal "lost" several balls hit in his direction. If they're smart, perhaps they'll even build a Little League ballpark on the site of the old diamond for the use of the little tikes who live in the condos.

One thing is for sure, Wrigleyville will be a much quieter place. I'm just curious how much Beth Murphy will be able to charge for a seat on her rooftop overlooking the place where the Cubs used to play.

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