David Hoppe

David Hoppe is available
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David Hoppe
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:: Not like the others

A Wrigley Field pilgrimage

by David Hoppe

It doesn’t matter what the calendar says, I know it’s summer when my old friend Dale calls to say he’s got Cubs tickets.

When Dale and I started going to Cubs games together, we laughed as much as cheered at the likes of Jose Cardenal (he of the splendiferous Afro), flag-waving Rick Monday, and the fulsomely named Pete LaCock. As lifelong Cubs fans, we have shared a bond woven from equal strands of futility and hope.

To be a Cubs fan is to undergo an education in humility, if not humiliation. As Bill Murray, a fellow fan of our vintage said following a crushing defeat in the 2003 playoffs, “We are not like the others.”

At least that’s the way being a Cubs fan used to feel.

But the team has new owners. The Ricketts family comes from Omaha, Nebraska. Their patriarch, Joe, founded TD Ameritrade, an investment business so successful, Joe’s kids, Tom, Pete, Laura and Todd, were able to buy the Cubs for just short of a billion dollars in 2009.

Tom, who is the Cubs’ chairman, attended the University of Chicago. It is said he asked his wife to marry him while sitting in the bleachers at a Cubs game — a move that, given the shenanigans typical at Wrigley Field, might have been considered tempting fate. But for Tom it seems the Cubs’ story is less a history of lived experience than a colorful tradition and, as such, little more than a backdrop against which affluent strivers such as himself and his sibs feel free to act out their fantasies.

As this baseball season was beginning, the talk around the Cubs’ venerable ballpark was less about the team, a no-name bunch of place-holders waiting for the real talent to show up, than the park itself. For generations, Wrigley Field has been the one constant in the lives of Cubs fans. The second-oldest major league stadium in America, the Cubs have played there since 1916.

Wrigley is a place where you experience history, you don’t just hear about it. Although different regimes have tinkered around its edges over the years — affixing ivy to the outfield walls in 1937, putting up lights in 1988 — the park’s essential nature and dimensions, not to mention its existence at the core of a big city residential neighborhood — have remained remarkably stable. To sit in the grandstand at a Cubs game has been an opportunity to see, hear and smell pretty much the same sights, sounds and aromas (although cigars are long gone) as your great grandfather. There aren’t many places like it. This probably helps explain why, in spite of not having won a championship in over 100 years, the Cubs are the most profitable sports franchise in America.

The Ricketts’, though, think they have a better idea. Having discovered that fielding a winning team is, well, hard, they have decided to do what the very rich in our society do best: use their money to remake the environment to suit themselves.

And so Wrigley Field, as well its surrounding neighborhood, is on the verge of receiving a $500 million makeover. Not only will the ballpark be updated with a jumbo multi-media screen three times the size of its old-fashioned center field scoreboard, the park will also be embellished with a bevy of restaurants and clubs, so that people who are bored by Wrigley Field’s reason for being will still be able to enjoy a buffalo burger shipped in from the Ricketts’ own bison ranch.

Or they can stay at the hotel the Ricketts will build across the street, or go shopping in a new, multi-storey mixed-use apartment building on the corner. Maybe they’ll attend one of the street festivals the Ricketts plan on throwing around the park on game days.

This is not to say that Wrigley should be untouchable. The outer shell of the park, clad with vertical concrete slabs, is atrocious. Anybody can see the place’s infrastructure needs some major attention. If updated clubhouse facilities and indoor batting cages add a few more wins over the course of a season, I say do it.

Even though the Ricketts appear willing to bankroll this project themselves, their proposal has generated a fair amount of pushback from folks in the neighborhood. This, however, appears to be inspired more by the owners’ often tone deaf approach to Chicago politics than many of their plans. Chicago sports media seems ready to embrace the jumbotron, not to mention more comfortable amenities. Finally, it seems that for many younger fans, the multi-media barrage of sight, sound and spectacle on offer at virtually all other pro sports venues is part of the deal. They don’t know there’s a game on without the bells and whistles.

Dale and I saw the Mets come from behind and beat the Cubs 4-3. The game was a yawner, but the afternoon was sunny, with a cool breeze blowing from the west, toward Lake Michigan. Best of all was that first view of Wrigley’s greensward. The field was gorgeous and, as always, seemed ready for anything. That was good enough for me.