Cubs Hope To Give Wrigley Field A Facelift--And A Video Screen

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Standing in front of Wrigley Field's iconic red marquee, it's easy to imagine an earlier time. Not April 13, 1914 when this place first opened—it wasn't even called Wrigley Field back then. But maybe 1937, when Bill Veeck Jr. planted the ivy on the brick outfield wall by hand. Or 1988, when the lights were turned on for the first time.

Each change to Wrigley Field is significant, because over the past 99 years, there have been so few.

[sidebar title="Preserving Memories in Wrigley Field" width="630" align="right"] In March, Bill Littlefield spoke with longtime Chicago Tribune staff writer Ron Grossman about efforts to block changes to Wrigley.[/sidebar]When asked about the proposed $300 million renovation of Wrigley, Cubs' VP of Communications Julian Green starts with the changes everyone can get behind: bringing back wrought iron fencing to replace modern chain link and turning back the clock on changes to the facade.

And then there are more practical things like a clubhouse that offers more than eight shower heads for the 40-man roster, and for fans: more concessions and more bathrooms.

“Most fans will tell you when it takes four innings to grab a hot dog and go to the bathroom that probably needs to change," Green said. "People want to know when they go to the ballpark they can have a great experience and that experience is right from your seat watching the Chicago Cubs play.”

What Green doesn't mention, until he's asked, are the Cubs' more controversial proposals. Chief among those is a 6,000-square-foot video screen that would be perched atop the left field wall. The video screen would be nearly three times larger than Wrigley's manual scoreboard, but Green tries to downplay its size.

“When you look at the different measurements of video boards across the United States, we fall somewhere in the middle. So no one is trying to do this more responsibly than us."

Green makes that point, about size of the video screen falling in the middle, multiple times. But, his math is misleading. At around 11,500 square feet, Seattle's Safeco Field boasts the largest ballpark video screen. If you start the scale at zero--the current size of Wrigley's video board--that would put the Cubs somewhere in the middle. But, at 6,000 square feet, the proposed video screen would actually be the sixth largest in Major League Baseball.

Neighborhood business owner Beth Murphy isn't pleased.

“They do caution me, 'let us run our business' and I will, but it's too big for the ballpark,” Murphy said.

Beth Murphy runs her own businesses, Murphy's Bleachers and Murphy's Rooftop Company, across the street from Wrigley. And the video screen isn't the only worry on Murphy's mind.

“We always talk about the Jumbotron because that is so big, but actually the sign in right field blocks rooftops as well and probably a bit more completely.”

And this is where Wrigley's story is unique in all of baseball. In 2004, the Cubs signed a revenue-sharing agreement with the rooftops. For as much as $200 a ticket, fans watch the game from above, drink and eat all they want, and avoid standing in line for the bathroom. In return, in 2012, the rooftops paid the Cubs more than $4 million.

The 6,000-square-foot video screen and the 1,000-square-foot advertising sign in right field would diminish the views from the rooftops. Murphy says they wouldn't block any one business' view completely, but they wouldn't have to.

“It creates an uncertainty about the business, which is never what you're looking for,” Murphy said. “That's really not what we're trying to sell."

Steve Alexander manages 3639 – a rooftop with a pristine view over Wrigley's right field. From the metal bleachers to the climate controlled clubroom, everything at 3639 shines. Alexander says there's a reason for that.

"The boss spends $4 million, you gotta get your money's worth,” Alexander said.

After the revenue sharing deal was signed in 2004, the rooftops say they collectively spent $50 million to improve their facilities. Now, they collectively worry renovations to Wrigley will turn that into a bad investment.

On the rooftop, fans listen to radio play-by-play and munch on mini pulled pork sandwiches. But, they worry they won't be able to come back next year if the Cubs get permission for the video screen and right field sign. And some of them, like longtime fan Dino Pappas, wonder why Wrigley needs to change at all.

“It almost seems overkill, having a huge Jumbotron for somebody to see a player. At that point, I'll just stay home and watch it on my 55 inch on my wall, you know?” Pappas said.

But, other longtime Cubs fans disagree.

Beth Razza named her dog Wrigley.  She lives in Colorado now but makes it back to her favorite ballpark as often as she can. Over the years, she's embraced all of the updates to Wrigley Field. She was even here for the first night game in 1988, which didn't turn out exactly how the Cubs had hoped.

“It rained out. It did. The first official night with lights rained out, Razza said. "But, I'm all for progress and change. I like it."

Wrigley Field is threatened by more than rain this time around. The Cubs say they need revenue from the video screen and advertising sign to pay for updates to the ballpark and to fund a successful team. Owner Tom Ricketts has floated the idea of moving the team to the suburbs, but no one I spoke with seems to believe the Cubs will follow through on that threat. They say the Cubs need Wrigleyville as much as Wrigleyville needs the Cubs.

It seems inevitable that eventually the Cubs will join the rest of baseball and play in a stadium with a video board. But, there's a certain charm to watching a game here. As fans stand for the national anthem, all eyes are on what seems like an impossibly small American flag flying above the manual scoreboard.

Should left field be dominated by a 6,000-square-foot video screen, it's easy to imagine fans will look to it instead.

This segment aired on June 29, 2013.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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