What Tom Ricketts must do to rebuild Wrigley Field
You can be sure Tom Ricketts has been a whirlwind of activity — albeit in stealth fashion — while waiting the moment Sam Zell handed over the keys to Wrigley Field on Tuesday morning, Oct. 27.
Ricketts’ handprint certainly was all over the signing of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, and that’s encouraging in that he did not cheap out in the first personnel acquistion to which he was a party. Despite decreased Cubs cash flow due to the economy and the down 2009 season, the new owner OK’d hiring the best-paid hitting coach in baseball.
The one above-ground sighting of Ricketts was at Fenway Park to view the Red Sox operation. No doubt he was urged to go to Boston by Cubs Chairman Crane Kenney, who has wanted to model the Cubs on the Red Sox for several years. The big part of that trip no doubt was surveying how the Beantown Dudes squeeze every last dollar out of Fenway Park.
Ricketts likely is kicking around concepts for refurbishing or rebuilding Wrigley Field. The hope here is he chooses the latter course, in terms of razing the grandstand and starting from scratch. There’s not much more that can be done with retrofitting the old structure, which in itself has been partially rebuilt several times since opening in 1914. The bleachers and scoreboard are fine as is — they were rebuilt in 2006.
I’d love to be a mind-reader to see which of the following concepts already have crossed Ricketts’ mental template:
–Hiring an architectural team that thinks outside the box. If the grandstands are rebuilt, the designers will have a difficult time crafting a perfectly symmetrical plan given the land available and the lack of slack on the Addison Street side. At one juncture the Addison Street ballpark wall is just a few feet from curbside and there’s just enough sidewalk room for two people to pass. I’m no architect — my daughter, Laura, is a talented young interior architect with skills and vision that were not passed down from the old man — but the new Wrigley Field may have to be “deeper” and more hefty in scope on the left field side out of necessity. Nothing wrong with that. New “retro” ballparks have had their non-proportional quirks, largely in outfield stands. Nothing wrong with the same being true in the main grandstand.
–Before fan comforts are addressed, the player facilities must be upgraded to the 21st Century. In 2005, then-Cubs president Andy MacPhail rejected the idea of expanded locker rooms, insisting that fans’ needs, such as more women’s washrooms, were a greater priority. The old-fashioned MacPhail even branded new ballparks’ player amenities as overly “lavish.”
But antiquated and cramped facilities are a big obstacle for the Cubs to overcome, as if they needed more hoops over which to jump given the pressure of going 101 years without winning a World Series. Building the much-talked-about “Triangle Building,” as part of this left field-tilted re-design, is a must, as much larger weight rooms, trainer’s rooms and a batting cages were planned underneath the structure, which could house the Cubs front office among other new features. Even a new Wrigley Field grandstand probably won’t accommodate a much-larger Cubs locker room complex by itself, so the players’ inner sanctum must be expanded to underneath and beyond the left-field-side wall. But while they’re at it, a new visitors’ clubhouse must be built. The present cubbyhole is a national embarrassment. Major League Baseball is fortunate a World Series has not been held with that tiny locker room being turned into a modern-day Black Hole of Calcutta amid the mass of people trying to squeeze in.
–No posts. Don’t get any ideas, designers, about putting this retro feature in. The present lower grandstands have too many obstructed sightlines due to posts. I sat with the Jay Buckley Baseball Tours group just to the right of home plate in the last few rows of the grandstand last season for a game against the Twins. A post was perfectly in line with my view of home plate: I could not see the hitter and catcher. At today’s ticket prices, that’s a rip-off.
–More elevators and a couple of escalators. The ramps leading to the upper deck have too steep of a grade. Faux macho media types insist on making the climb several times a day while fans ascend just once per game, but it’s a mini-aerobic workout unless you’re in marathon-calibre shape. The one elevator, down the left-field line, was not installed until 1996. One rumor had it was installed to forestall a lawsuit on disabled access to the upper deck, which was crimped due to the steep grade of the ramps. Amazingly, the Cubs weren’t aware for years they had some room to construct an elevator shaft on this site.
In 1995, a year before the left-field lift was installed, I had asked MacPhail about the chances for an elevator. “Go to Comiskey Park” if you want an elevator, he responded. In 1989, when parts of the upper deck were re-done to accommodate lights, then-Cubs president Don Grenesko rejected the idea of an elevator behind home plate because the shaft would “pierce the roof” and ruin the look of the ballpark. As for escalators, they’re a necessity, too, and they’re standard in a lot of other ballparks. Why else did Phil Wrigley attempt to install “moving sidewalks” on the ramps in 1956? These gizmos never really worked and were soon abandoned. But by that action, ol’ PK admitted the ramps were tough to navigate.
–A brightly-lit, wide main concourse on the lower deck and a legit concourse for the upper deck. Both make sense for both fan comfort and the ballclub bottom line. Too many people for too little space on a daily basis is a common sight in the dingy lower concourse now. There’s certainly no extra room for special features or displays. If the upper deck is re-done, the concourse would be underneath the seats. The Cubs can put in more concession and souvenir stands, again standard features at other ballparks’ upper decks. It’s the old concept of spending money to make money.
–Upgrading the menu. If you’re going to spend $6 to $8 for a simple sandwich, you might as well have some good choices. Wrigley Field is still stuck in that lunch/snack mentality for concessions, trailing U.S. Cellular Field, where culinary variety is a tradition dating back to old Comiskey Park. Hey, we’re playing 30 night games these days and folks want a good dinner if possible.
–Retire the troughs in the men’s rooms. Can’t the Cubs ask commissioner Bud Selig to work out a deal with Kohler in his native Wisconsin to fashion some utilitarian urinals and get a volume discount for Wrigley Field? If they want to be really aggressive, you can put advertising in there. It would work. You have a captive audience, looking down, for a minimum of 30 seconds, enough for the ad message to flow.
–Put the JumboTron on the building (which obviously would need to be purchased) on the northeast corner of Waveland and Kenmore. The Red Sox glean a windfall from their JumboTron and obviously this will influence Ricketts. But the video board can’t be installed in the ballpark or it will mar the classic cityscape view, and the classic manual scoreboard cannot be replaced by modernity. The building in question was never developed as a rooftop club. The ad sign on the slanted roof is a tradition; it was WGN back in the day, more recently a beer. So folks are used to looking that way to see promotion. Placement on this building would be visible from all parts of the ballpark.
–Aggressively pursue the “Cubs Campus” idea where fans can walk around (again predominately on the left-field side) and soak up the atmosphere via assorted displays and stands. The Red Sox have done this with their “Yawkey Way.” I just talked to former Red Sox ace Luis Tiant, who has a stand outside Fenway Park that sells tasty Cuban sandwiches. Meanwhile, El Tiante often is present to sign autographs. Imagine a similar high profile ex-Cub setting up shop outside Wrigley Field. An Ernie Banks’ “Let’s Play Two” double hot dog, heavy on the grilled onions, please?
Of course, a lot of these improvements would have to be approved by the city of Chicago, and you know how that could throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Richie Daley is a Sox fan and deep down he probably doesn’t want to cut the Cubs that many breaks.
But the important factor is Tom Ricketts is not Tribune Co., which has had a dicey rapport with Hizzoner. If Ricketts quietly can get things done as he has already demonstrated, progress can be made and the Cubs can truly be welcomed to the rest of modern-day baseball.