Is It Time for a New Wrigley Field?

My sister-in-law Kelly of Duna Photography snapped this gem!

In less than a week, the baseball season will be over and I will begin dreaming of fantasy baseball drafts. I will also, as a Cub fan, start dreaming of next year. In fact that has been a never-ending fall experience for the past 50 falls. In fact, next year will not be here for a few more years. This year’s Cubs team will most likely lose 100 games come next Wednesday. They are going to be rebuilding for at least 2 more years. The Cubs currently play their games in Wrigley Field. 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ball park. But is it time to build a new Wrigley Field? For intents and purposes, while a landmark, the field is a money pit needing constant make overs and upgrades. While at the same time it the center of the Lakeview (Wrigleyville) community. This post will examine the history of the park and whether or not any team can win there in its current condition.

History of the Park
Charles Weeghman had a lot of bright ideas in his day. Working his way up from a waiter, Weeghman became one of the richest men in Chicago in the early 1900s by selling cold sandwiches at 16 diners in Chicago. He was Valued with a net worth of over 8 million dollars. He also loved baseball and saw an investment opportunity in a new baseball league called the Federal League. Weeghman bought the rights to own the Chicago Whales. The team needed a place to play. Weeghman decided he would build his own park in 1914. Fellow Whales owner Walker both put up $125,000 to help finance the park designed by Zachary Taylor Davis. Unlike other owners in the league who were going to playing at previously built parks, the Whales were going all in a new field. To help make the venture succeed, Weeghman had signed Joe Tinker for the exorbitant sum of $40,000. Once the construction began, it only took two months to complete the mostly steel and concrete structure.

Construction only took 2 months at a cost of $250,000.

Opening day was April 23, 1914. The dimensions changed drastically the first year. Left originally had a distance of 345 feet. Then it was moved in to 310 feet in May, and after a large amount of home runs, left field moved back in June to 327. Center was a constant 440′ from the plate while right field fluctuated between 356′-345′. Back then, the field didn’t really have a fence per say but more an area where the field ended as this picture shows.

Despite the new field, the Federal League and the Whales did not last. Instead, Weeghman bought the Cubs for $500,000 in late 1915 and moved them in to his new ballpark. On April 20, 1916, the Cubs debuted with a 7-6 win over the Reds. Despite making it to the World Series in 1918, the Cubs played the Red Sox and Babe Ruth in Comiskey Park due to its larger capacity.

In 1918, the restaurant business began to sour for Weeghman. He was losing money left and right. In an attempt to right himself, Weeghman sold the Cubs to William Wrigley – the chewing gum magnate. With Weeghman out the picture, Wrigley renamed the field Cubs Park. In 1922, Wrigley began the first of many changes to the park. Original architect Zachary Taylor Davis expanded the grandstands. More seating created a “dog leg” down the first base line. In addition to baseball, the stadium was also the home of the Chicago Bears through 1969.

In 1927, the field name changed to Wrigley Field. In 1927, construction began on adding a second deck and by the early 1930s, the iconic brick wall and numbers in the outfield were added along with scoreboard. In 1937, General Manager Bill Veeck (the same one who would later own the Indians and White Sox) planted the ivy, Wrigley’s most recognizable feature. Its current dimensions of 355′, 400′, and 353′ remain today. Lights were scheduled to be added in 1942. However, after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Wrigley donated the materials to the war effort.

The only major change to the ballpark in the last 70 years had been lights. Added in August of 1988. Still the ballpark undergoes numerous renovations and upgrades constantly due to its age and proximity to the lake air. The latest changes include a remade playing surface, clubs, suites, and a new right field bleacher section. Beginning in the middle 1990s, attendance has been near 3 million a year. It has been hard to get tickets until this year.

But Can the Cubs Win at Wrigley?
I remember as a young boy of 7, 8, and 9 year old and going to an afternoon game and sitting in the front row in the early 1970s. Wrigley Field is a great place to see a game. There is no experience like walking up out of the concourse into the cathedral of green and ivy in the late morning sun. It is breathtaking! To me, there is no better place to see the national pastime. But that doesn’t mean it is an easy place to build a winner. In fact, the ballpark is most likely a hindrance to building a winner.

1. The Conditions
Wrigley sits a few blocks off of Lake Michigan. Depending on the month, the wind conditions change drastically, sometimes within in minutes. In April and May, cool northwesterly winds come in off Clark. Other times, the wind generates a northerly breeze from Waveland. Occasionally, the wind blows in directly from Sheffield and the east. In June and July, the wind blows out as warm summer breezes work their way in from the west. On a really warm and humid day, howling winds from the south send any fly ball out of the stadium. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, General Managers Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry tried to stock the team with power hitting right-handed hitters. It failed. The type of team needed to win at Wrigley year round has to be a versatile team that can rely on speed, pitching, defense, while on being able to play small ball, and be heavy-handed right-handed hitting one day, and heavy hitting left-handed the next. It is very hard to find players with those kind of attributes. As for pitching, it also takes a variety of pitchers to pitch in Wrigley Field. Ideally, sinker ball pitchers would work best there to get grounder after grounder in spite of the varying wind conditions. Yet, in ignorance of that reality, the Cubs are trotting out pitchers who are flame throwers. This year, at Wrigley, sinkerballer Jeff Samardjiza did well at home (except in June) with his splitter as did Ryan Dempster. In addition, once Travis Wood and Paul Maholm learned the key to pitching in Wrigley was off speed stuff, the team did well in July (15-10). Fergie Jenkins, Rick Reuschel, and Greg Maddux did well at Wrigley by changing speeds routinely.

2. The Lights and Day Games
The Cubs are one of the few teams to commonly play day games. After the installation of lights in 1988, the Cubs have settled in to a routine of playing night games Monday through Thursday and occasionally Sundays. Day games have been relegated to Fridays and Saturdays, along with getaway days. The day-to-day changes of playing day and night intermittently takes a toll on a player’s body. Kerry Wood claimed this was one of the major reasons the Cubs swooned in June and July every year. The Wrigleyville neighborhood would never subject itself to night game after night game after night game.

3. The Facilities
When it comes facilities for the players, the Cubs are criticized for the cramped clubhouses, poor weight facilities, and batting cages under the bleachers. Part of Theo Epstein’s plan as President of Baseball Operations mentioned facilities as a definite need for the club to not only attract free agents, but also to develop players. Recently, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts has tried working with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in getting financing to upgrade the stadium including adding a museum and shopping center.

So What to Do?
The questions are simple for ownership: Can a World Series winning team be built in Wrigley? Or, will the Cubs go to the suburbs and build a stadium in a more weather friendly atmosphere?

Honestly, I can never see the Cubs playing anywhere else but Wrigley Field. On the other hand, I am sure Yankee fans would have said the same thing about Yankee Stadium or the Cardinals about Busch Stadium. Cub traditionalists would never support a team in any other place but Wrigley. I cannot see them moving to the suburbs, nor can I envision the pinstripes in another locale. However, this year saw the fan base erode. They did not come out and support a 100 loss team. Many games on TV saw empty seats everywhere. Moving to a new stadium could see the Cubs having the same attendance issues as the White Sox. Heck, the next two years may see the Cubs have attendance issues again if the team is not competitive.

The key lies in the next two years. This winter, the Cubs payroll will see several salaries come off the books. As of October 4th, only Garza, Soriano, Castro, DeJesus, and Samardjiza are signed for above the minimum MLB salary. With an estimated total salary of $60-70 million, the Cubs could be spenders this winter. The problem, however, is the pickings are slim for what the Cubs need – pitching, 3B, and maybe some outfielder should Brett Jackson not be ready after spring training.

For Theo Epstein and company, the mantra should be simple: If you build a winner, they will come. For Cub fans, that is all they want. The problem is: how long will are they willing to wait?

Editor’s Note
Three months after this was written, the Cubs showed off possible changes here:

http://galleries.apps.chicagotribune.com/chi-wrigley-field-renovations-cubs-photos/

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