Every decade or so, there erupts a Wrigley Field controversy that invariably involves the bruised sensibilities of tradition-bound Cubs fans set against the inexorable march of progress. In 1988 it was the addition of lights to Wrigley. This year it's the outfield screens that the team has erected in an attempt to impede the views from the rooftops adjacent to the stadium, much to the dismay of Wrigley's neighbors. Predictably, two weeks into the new season the debate has already consumed the city.
Seemingly all of Chicago has taken up sides. Neighborhood landlords, naturally, are crying foul, citing the longstanding tradition of rooftop viewing. (It's funny because when I was a kid, it was considered a hazard to live in those buildings, as an errant Ernie Banks home run could break a window. Nowadays, those houses are prime real estate.) Wrigley's neighbors would have you believe that the Tribune Company, owner of the Cubs, is taking the game away from a modern-day knothole gang. However, the team points out that like the Cubs, rooftop viewing is a business. Landlords charge admission to their roofs—$100 a seat is not uncommon—and many of them have corporate sponsorship deals. "When they were up there with Weber grills and lawn chairs it was romantic," says team spokesman Mark McGuire, who adds that what the rooftop denizens are doing today is essentially theft.
Bottom line: What does this all mean for baseball? In one sense it means a lot. With apologies to Fenway, Wrigley Field is the Vatican of the sport. Any alteration or adjustment to it chips away at its tradition, and that understandably upsets the fans in Chicago and beyond.
But in another sense the big green fence around Wrigley is just so much wire and plastic obscuring a more important issue: The Cubs can't win. They thrill us, they tease us, they torture us. The tragedy of '69. The horror of '84. The beat goes on—the Cubs can't win.
In 1977 I conceived and co-wrote a play called Bleacher Bums, about a group of fans in Wrigley's cheap seats. My intent was to explore the kind of fanaticism it takes to continually follow a losing cause. An interviewer at the time asked me if the play would still be relevant if the Cubs ever became world champions. My response was, "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
Twenty-five years later I still haven't had to cross that bridge. The players change, the fans age, the minor controversies come and go. But we all still gleefully continue our pilgrimage of springtime hope and autumn sorrow to our Mecca at Addison and Clark streets. Turn on your lights, put up your screens—we will still have that one eternal truth that connects the fans of the past and the fans of the future: The Cubs can't win. God bless them, and God bless Wrigley Field.