It's time to get rid of Wrigley (cont.)
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.
Richard Rothschild, a Chicago-area writer, has attended more than 100 games at Wrigley Field since 1989.
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