by Adina Fried
Baseball has come a long way since the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, defeated the Great Westerners 45-9 in 1869. The next year, the Chicago Cubs (called first the White Stockings, then the Colts) were formed. They were dominant in early years, winning nine pennants and two World Series titles by 1908. Trouble is, they haven’t won since, making theirs the longest championship drought in the history of North American professional sports. So it’s understandable that they would try to amp things up, but they’ve never considered a new ball park since Wrigley Field was built in 1914. Earlier this month, however, the team announced a $500 million plan to renovate their 99-year-old park. People are pissed.
Wrigley has remained virtually unchanged since its construction. Their scoreboard is still updated throughout the game by an actual person changing physical, numbered cards. The teams’ pitchers warm up along the first- and third-base lines, because they don’t have a bullpen behind center field like all other stadiums. There are no billboards in the outfield. Even their trough-style men’s bathrooms are straight from the teens. Most games happen during the day, a throwback to when stadiums had no flood lights. You walk into a stadium with rickety seats and a sparse, plain field, and there’s a game happening. You can’t help but feel that this game would be going on whether you were there or not—whether anyone at all showed up or not. This sporting event is happening on its own terms, simply because the players are athletes and competition is what they do.
The team can’t tear down the stadium (it’s a registered historical landmark), but owner Tom Ricketts plans to do pretty much everything short of that. In a five-minute video on wrigleyfield.com, the franchise announced the details of their plan, including replacing the seating, the roof, the electrical systems, and the plumbing. More concession stands will be added, to eliminate waiting times for fans. New restaurants and lounges will be added. Underneath the stadium, the Cubs’ locker rooms and training facilities will be totally revamped. These changes seem fine enough; if you have to pee or absolutely need a hot dog during a game, it would be great to not have to wait 30 minutes in line. And if you’ve seen pictures of The Loveable Losers’ dilapidated clubhouse, it’s no wonder they’ve been sucking for the last howevermany years.
The Cubs-promoted video fails, however, to mention the single-biggest proposed change to Wrigley field: in addition to building five advertising billboards in the outfield, one of which will be 1,000-feet large, they want to add a 6,000-square-foot jumbotron in left field. Yes, that’s right, six thousand feet for clip-packages, kiss-cam-a-thons, and ball-under-hat shuffle-games between innings. If the city doesn’t approve the changes, and this one in particular, the team has threatened to move out of Chicago.
So what?, you might ask, Every other stadium in professional baseball has a jumbotron, so what’s the big deal? Imagine going to a bar to hang out with your friends, but there’s a giant TV right behind your friend’s head. I, at least, have found that it’s really difficult to not find myself accidentally staring at the screen while my friend is trying to tell me something. Now imagine sitting in a stadium with a screen bigger than a house in perfect view from whatever seat you have, and this screen is there to enhance your entertainment, to tell you about new products you might be interested in, to even show the world (the stadium) your face once in a while. The jumbotron shifts the focus away from the game and onto the viewers themselves. Suddenly, you’re not going to watch a baseball game, you’re going to be entertained.
As America’s National Pastime, baseball has always been meant to entertain its fans, but I think we can all agree that there are different forms of entertainment out there. On the extremes, there’s the visceral stimulation and excitement of flashing lights and explosions and then the often-subdued mental stimulation of artistic appreciation. Both kinds are great, and at some wonderful moments they’re even able to overlap. It’s a shame, though, when one end of the spectrum totally overtakes and clouds the other.
The jumbotron shifts our focus to ourselves. Rather than appreciating physical beauty of baseball’s movements, we become distracted by pretty lights and loud noises and only cheer for home runs. Perhaps naturally, baseball has devolved over the years ``into a strictly business operation, and Ricketts freely admits this: “All we really need is to be able to run our business like a business and not a museum.” But there’s a reason why Wrigley is considered among fans to be one of the stadiums you must visit to watch a game if at all possible. Not everyone there wants to see baseball as art, I know, but it’s one of the last places where that possibility still exists. Sitting in the stands, you can see Chicago’s skyline beyond the outfield and forget, however momentarily, that your life is dictated by corporate endeavors and business models. The players can become players again, not employees making six-to-seven-figure salaries. It’s a place where fans can step back and witness a classic sport in its purest form, where the sport’s intricacies can evolve naturally, where heroes can still emerge from stillness.
Adina Fried lives in Chicago, IL.