Opening Day at Wrigley Field has become a sort of ritual that mimics Easter: a time of rebirth as tangible as spring itself (if not more tangible here in Chicago, where the season tends to lag behind the calendar). This year former third baseman, current radio announcer, and future Hall of Famer (it will be so) Ron Santo embodied that rebirth. Having survived the amputation of his lower right leg and a near-death experience over the winter, Santo threw out the ceremonial first pitch in a moment that stirred the emotions of anyone who calls him or herself a Cubs fan. There was Santo, looking remarkably hale and hearty, handing his new cane off to Billy Williams at the pitcher's mound and then throwing the ball to catcher Randy Hundley--on the hop, to be sure, but triumphantly. It was a moment as rich in symbolism as any religious ritual. Santo, Williams, and Hundley are all deeply identified with the 1969 Cubs, the team that ushered many Cubs fans into their accepted life of suffering, yet are beloved as few Chicago athletes are. To celebrate them is to celebrate the idea that there are things more important than winning, that greatness is found in character displayed on the field, not in championships, and that Wrigley Field is a place where those priorities are kept in order and the materialistic concerns of the outside world are kept outside. Yet what served as the literal backdrop for this moving ceremony but the Tribune Company's latest device to get its way through bullying and spite: a hideous gray "windscreen" hung on the chain-link back fence of the bleachers. It was still more evidence--as if more were necessary--that the Tribune has precious little appreciation for what the Cubs and Wrigley Field represent, and that it constantly needs to be reminded of its responsibilities as their owner.
It's been only through fan sentiment and neighborhood pressure that Wrigley Field has matured into the grace it's enjoyed for the past 15 years or so. Wrigley Field has an intimate visual relationship with its neighborhood, and Cubs fans wherever they are--in Iowa or on Kenmore, watching via satellite in Los Angeles or from a rooftop on Sheffield--treasure it. Wrigleyville is the neighborhood of baseball, and every fan in the upper deck and looking out on the apartment buildings and the high-rises and Lake Michigan beyond knows it. Yet the Tribune Company has denied this relationship at every turn and has had to have its own best interests forced upon it.
Almost 20 years ago the first Tribune administration, under Dallas Green, wanted to build an upper deck over the bleachers, install lights, and make Wrigley Field into a ballpark like any other--"the better to compete," or so they said. It was only because of the resistance of neighborhood groups like Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine that mediation produced a compromise allowing a limited number of night games and preserving Wrigley's stature as a baseball paradise. And the Tribune Company benefited, with attendance growing even as the club scrimped on salaries. Understand, the decision not to compete had nothing to do with the state of Wrigley Field and was made by the club--or, rather, by its Tribune ownership.
Now the Tribune Company has to have common sense pounded into it again. To put that common sense in the simplest possible terms: Wrigley Field is fine as it is; don't fuck with it. How could anyone who shared Santo's moment, so divorced from the concerns of winning and profitability, feel otherwise?
At first I was lulled into agreement that the Tribune's plan to build up and out in the bleachers would alter the park relatively little. The drawings, of bleachers built up over columns to turn the sidewalk along Waveland and Sheffield into a shaded walkway, looked pleasant and more or less consistent with the original architecture--much as the lighting standards built in the 80s were designed with the proper sense of proportion and harmony. But my thinking has changed, and what changed it was that windscreen installed just before last Friday's opening day. The Tribune's motive was to block the views from the buildings across the street, because the owners of those buildings--whose rooftop views would be obstructed and apartment sight lines utterly blocked by the bleacher addition--were fighting the plan every step of the way. I have no sympathy for those owners, a gang of mercenary realty pirates that the Tribune Company rightly tried to tar and feather in the media. What changed my thinking was the look of that gray screen from the field and the lower grandstand. It was more a moldy shower curtain than a windscreen, and if it blocked the view of the field from the buildings it also blocked the view of the buildings from the field and the grandstand. The Cubs were punishing their fans inside Wrigley Field in order to punish the outsiders. The screen utterly altered the experience of the game. The park's tight connection with the community was visually violated. And the thing is, it would be violated even if instead of a shower curtain there were several additional rows of well-designed bleachers.
As for the view from the other side, the experience of watching the game from a rooftop has never been about seeing a game for free that one might otherwise have to pay for. TV is just as free, and it gives a better view. Take it from me: I lived on Sheffield, in the redbrick six-flat two doors down from Murphy's, for a handful of years in the mid-80s. It was then a roach-infested building run by a guy who'd inherited it from his father, and he was almost as blase about the rooftop as he was about the roaches. Rumor was he'd soured on it after someone fell off and was impaled on the fence, but when he let people up there the experience was transcendent. The whole ballpark, not just the field of play, was what one focused on--on the way chants and cheers echoed back and forth and people rose to their feet row by row at an exciting play. At the same time, one felt part of a surrounding community that embraced the Cubs, their fans, and Wrigley Field. It was a completely different experience from sitting in the stands, but just as rewarding in its way. Thus, Tribune columnist Eric Zorn's reductio ad absurdum that watching a game from a rooftop amounts to theft of services on a par with viewing a bootleg movie is the lowest form of sophistry, and when he insists that his bosses never ordered him to write such a piece, I reply they didn't have to, because the Trib hires nobody who doesn't think and march in lockstep--as its editorial crusade against the Soldier Field renovation made abundantly clear.
The Tribune Company is trying to make a profit; the building owners who bought out my nebbish landlord not long after I abandoned the place are trying to make a profit. If it bothers the electorate that the building owners are mercenary, that could easily be altered by fat-ass do-nothing politicians like Bernie Hansen (who, one can be sure, is taking donations from both sides). If the electorate so decrees, let Hansen put together an ordinance making it a crime to charge admission for a sporting event without actually offering access to its confines, be they a stadium, an arena, or a golf course. Take the rooftops from the people buying "memberships" to "rooftop clubs" and give them back to the community, to the fans who live under those roofs. (While Hansen is at it, he could enact an ordinance with teeth against scalpers and so-called ticket brokers.) But note, however, that the Tribune Company's claim that opposition to the expansion has been led by a handful of building owners was dismissed in the recent primary, where in a nonbinding referendum voters in surrounding precincts voted overwhelmingly against the Cubs.
As for the company's equally mercenary profiteers, they have to realize that constructing 2,000 additional bleacher seats might offer a short-term gain but would hurt the aesthetics of the ballpark, making it a long-term loss. Aesthetic values tend to be dismissed by bean counters, but those values have been critical to the long-term vitality of Wrigley Field. The view of the nearby buildings and rooftops is a key part of the baseball experience that makes Wrigley unique. If the cost of preserving it is to allow a bunch of real estate pirates to operate businesses gouging baseball romantics and the idle rich, so be it.
Finally, don't insult my intelligence by saying the Cubs "need" the extra income to compete. If the Tribune Company were really concerned about that, it wouldn't sell a large chunk of its TV rights on the cheap to WGN TV, thus transferring Cubs profits to another Tribune Company entity in a neat bit of bookkeeping typical of baseball's disingenuous owners.
If the windscreen furor distracted from the Cubs' play the first week of the season, that wasn't entirely a bad thing, for the doomsayers' worst-case scenario was playing itself out against the fans' high hopes. First the Cubs lost two of three in Cincinnati to the Reds. The offense sputtered, and only Kerry Wood was able to break through for a victory. Back home, the Cubs' offense was shut down by the Pittsburgh Pirates in back-to-back games, leaving the Cubs 1-4 with a Sunday rain-out to start the week.
The warm reception for Santo, Williams, and Hundley said one thing; the boos Randy's son Todd received last year during a down season said something else entirely. The historical paradigm of losing has always been easier to accept than losing in the here and now. Cubs fans know that in cold weather a team can't sit back and wait for its three, four, and five hitters to launch bombs, no matter who they are. A team has to get people on base and push them around, especially when the wind blows in at Wrigley.
Yet the Cubs went flat when Delino DeShields went hitless in those two games against the Pirates. With Fred McGriff struggling to start the season, and Roosevelt Brown--filling in for the ever fragile Moises Alou--obviously pressing under the rigors of manager Don Baylor's produce-or-sit attitude toward younger players, the heart of the order couldn't get runners around even when they were on base. The only thing missing was a blown save by newly acquired and highly suspect closer Antonio Alfonseca.
The sooner the Cubs come to their senses and admit they were wrong to cut second baseman Bobby Hill and pitcher Mark Prior at the end of spring training, the better--for this season and years to come. But "the Cubs" and "come to their senses" don't necessarily go together. The Cubs might have to take some serious punishment in the form of more losses before they do what makes sense, just as the Tribune Company might have to take some public abuse before doing what's in the long-term interest of the Cubs, their fans, Wrigley Field, and the Tribune Company itself.