Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I once had a calendar in my kitchen that read: "I like old things that time has tried, and proven good and true and fine. I like old things. They have a strength unknown by anything that's new."
I feel the same way about old ballparks. A new ballpark, regardless of how carefully designed, with its comfortable seats, waterfalls, exploding scoreboards, retractable roof, luxury boxes, unimpeded sight lines, etc., etc., still lacks the character of an old park. It is missing the tapestry of joys and pains of seasons gone by. The memories of attending games with a father or grandfather. The depth of experience. Yes, in an old park the seats are small and often uncomfortable. Some of the sections are obstructed by iron pillars. The bathrooms are cramped, outdated, and generally gross. The locker rooms are spartan. But we, the fans, love them. For all their cachet and conveniences, your Jacobs Fields and Camden Yards need to mellow and age for another 80 years or so. In the meantime, give me the two best ballparks in America: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. They are the national pastime's national treasures.
....But which is best? Fenway, that "lyric little bandbox of a ballpark", as described by John Updike? Or "the friendly confines of Wrigley Field", as described by beloved Chicago announcer, Jack Brickhouse.
...I grew up in Chicago. Now I live in Boston, where I share season's tickets to the Red Sox. I consider myself a neutral observer in matters Wrigley vs. Fenway. In July, 1980, I wrote a long story for Sports Illustrated on Wrigley Field entitled: "One Place That Hasn't Seen The Light". (You can click on the name to read it.) I remember wandering around the dark corners of Wrigley while doing the research, checking out the ivy on the outfield walls, going inside the hand-operated scoreboard, sitting in every section of the park. There isn't a bad seat in Wrigley unless you sit directly behind a pillar.
.... A few years later, in 1987, I wrote a story about watching a baseball game from inside the hand-operated scoreboard at Fenway Park, chronicling the action while watching the game over left fielder Jim Rice's shoulder. One eye open for rats.
So I am well familiar with the nooks and crannies of both parks. I hadn't been back to Wrigley for nearly 30 years, however, until last week, when I had a chance to take my son Teddy to Wrigley and see what, if anything, was new. Turns out, time had marched on without me.
....Our hosts were Sandy and Douglas Stuart, pictured above with Teddy. Sandy had bid on four seats nine rows behind home plate at a charity auction, and was kind enough to share them with us. They were perfect: in the shade, on the aisle, and just off-center so the umpire didn't block the view of the plate. This was it:
....The screen, by the way, wasn't the least bit intrusive. On balance the park was just about the way I remembered it. The ivy still covered the outfield walls in a rich, textured green, and the dimensions of the outfield was still cozy. The centerfield scoreboard still carried inning-by-inning scores of every game in both leagues--the only one to do so in baseball.
But there were changes. For one thing, there were lights, installed in 1988. And the previously pristine outfield walls now featured a pair of ads for UnderArmour in left and right, though they were tastefully backdropped in green.
(Fenway's green monster has ads galore, and the top of Fenway Park is bathed in neon. So on this score Wrigley was the height of reserve and discretion.)
The biggest change, however, had taken place outside the park. The apartment buildings across the street, which for generations had simply featured rooftop patios and deck chairs, were now hideously transformed by the addition of rooftop bleachers which neighboring entrepreneurs had built.
Signs for BeyondtheIvy.com and WrigleyFieldRooftopClub.com let you know where these rooftop bleachers seats could be purchased. They weren't cheap. $168 plus tax gets you one seat in a rooftop bleacher beyond Waveland Ave., plus some hot dogs and beer, so you can enjoy the view from, oh, 500+ feet away. If you're lucky, the seat won't be obstructed by the foul pole!
......What had once been one of the genuine charms of Wrigley Field--a baseball park in a residential neighborhood--had morphed into a kitchy, Capitalist nightmare: old brownstones defaced by steel and aluminum bleachers overlooking the backs of the left and rightfield walls. How the zoning board ever okayed these monstrosities is beyond me--probably in exchange for allowing the Cubs to play night baseball--but the effect ruins the integrity of both the neighborhood and the park. The one amusing part is a code on one of the rooftops on Sheffield Ave., beyond right field, which reads: AC0063100.
I asked Douglas what it meant.
"The AC stands for Anno Catuli," he said. "Latin for Year of our Cubs. 00 is the number of years since the Cubs have made it to the playoffs (2008); 63 is the years since they were in a World Series (1945); and 100 the years since they've won the World Series (1908)."
So here's how I assess the strengths and weaknesses of America's two greatest ballparks.
1) Beauty: Wrigley is symmetrical, Fenway is asymmetrical. The ivy-covered walls of Wrigley are gorgeous. Fenway's green monster is, well, monstrous. Both have lovely green grass. The rooftop bleachers overlooking Wrigley are an eyesore, but you probably get used to them. Edge: Wrigley
2) Ambiance Wrigley is homey, comforting, pleasant. Fenway is edgy, dramatic, electric. Cubs fans cheer. Red Sox fans cheer, jeer, and boo. Do not wear a Yankee cap in Fenway. Do not interfere with a pop foul along the left field wall when the Cubs are in the field at Wrigley. Edge: Fenway
3) Beer Within two minutes of my seat, Wrigley offered Old Style, Old Style Light, Bud, Bud Lite, Miller Lite, Corona, Amstel, Heineken, and Goose Island, a local beer, for $6.50.
In Fenway they sell Bud, Bud Light, Sam Adams, Amstel, Smithwicks, Guinness and probably others I haven't noticed. But they charge $7.50 for domestic beers, $8.50 for imported. Ridiculous. Edge: Wrigley
4) Restrooms: I can't speak for the ladies rooms. In Fenway, they have urinals. In Wrigley, they have troughs. I hate troughs. I really worry about overflow at the low end. Edge: Fenway
5) Traditions: The Cubs have a guest celebrity lead the crowd in "Take Me Out To The Ballgame", a tradition started by beloved announcer Harry Caray. Comedian George Lopez led it the day we were at Wrigley. The Red Sox sing that, too, during the seventh inning stretch. And even without a celebrity to lead them, people actually stand up and belt it out. But Fenway fans really get their kicks by singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" in the bottom of the 8th. Maybe you have to have been there, but I'm telling you, Sweet Caroline carries the day. Edge: Fenway
6) Statues: Outside Wrigley is a statue of Ernie Banks with the inscription: "Let's Play Two" beneath it, Ernie's favorite expression on a game day.
On Yawkey Way, outside Fenway, there's a picture of Ted Williams good-naturedly putting his baseball cap on some kid, like he was the kid's pal. I happen to know that Williams was usually surly and dismissive of kids, even kids who went to his baseball camp, for whom he refused to sign autographs. This is a fraudulent statue.
7) Movies: Oddly, the best the Cubs can boast in the movie department is "Rookie of the Year", about a kid who can throw the ball 100 mph or something after an operation and leads the Cubs to...wherever he leads them to. I've never seen it. The Red Sox have the Farrelly Bros. "Fever Pitch" starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. It's pretty darn watchable, even the second time around. And part of it was actually filmed the year the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series in 2004. Edge: Fenway
8) Curses: The Cubs have the Billy Goat curse, placed on them in 1945 when Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game at Wrigley because his pet goat's odor was bothering other fans. "Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more," he declared while being escorted from the park. Strong words and a strong curse, 63 years and counting.
The Red Sox labored under the "Curse of the Bambino", which was descended on them when the team's owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 in order to finance the Broadway show "No No Nannette." It was a pretty good curse, too, lasting for 86 years. But it didn't last forever. The Billy Goat curse might.
Let's see...add up the totals and you get...4-4. The best baseball park in America? I'm telling you, it's a toss up. But since no journalist worth his salt can possibly finish a column like this without taking sides, I ask myself this last simple question: If I had one ballgame, and only one ballgame left to attend on this earth, where would I want it to be played?
Ambiance, baby. Just the ambiance.
Posted by E.M. Swift at 11:21 AM