The Cubs are in the middle of a full-tilt stadium drama. In many ways, it is a reboot of a stadium story that played out in the 1980’s. The Cubs find themselves in the same spot as the White Sox in 1982.
1- ComiskeyPark had reached the end of its useful life. Years of deferred maintenance resulted in severe structural problems throughout the ballpark. Rich Lindberg, in his book Stealing First in a Two Team Town wrote that engineers discovered advanced metal fatigue in an expansion joint in the upper deck above home plate. The ownership group was paying millions of dollars a year to keep Comiskey from falling down. Eventually, the President of the American League told Jerry Reindsorf that the White Sox had to be in a new ballpark by 1992.
2- Reinsdorf’s real estate company owned a parcel of land in west suburban Addison near Lake Avenue and Swift Road. SoxPark in Addison, if built, would be less than a mile from I-355. Save for the circular ramps, the Addison ballpark looks an awful lot like US Cellular Field. Sox fans who left the South Side of Chicago for the suburbs would have easy access to their team. The plan was put to a referendum in the fall of 1986. The voters said no. This time around, the Mayor of Rosemont is offering a 25-acre parcel of land to the Ricketts family. They can rebuild Wrigley Field, but this version of the park would have easy expressway access and ample parking.
3- The City of Chicago wanted the White Sox to pay their own way. Mayor Harold Washington wanted to keep the White Sox within the Chicago city limits. He wanted to build a new White Sox park at Roosevelt and Canal in the South Loop. In 1985, that part of the South Loop was nothing more than abandoned train tracks. The White Sox would have been on the hook for clearing the land, attaching water and sewer lines, and a subway station. The team said thanks but no thanks. For the past three years, the Cubs and the city have been haggling over who would pay to renovate Wrigley Field.
This is where the similarities end. I highly doubt the Cubs will threaten to leave the State of Illinois. The team stands to make billions on its next cable TV contract. Had the White Sox moved to Tampa in 1988, they would have played in a taxpayer funded dome, and they would have one of the richest cable TV contracts in the history of sports. The Tampa Bay White Sox would have been the only Major League Baseball team south of Atlanta.
The White Sox also didn’t have to compete with any powerful neighborhood interests, either. Bridgeport and Armour Square had a love/hate relationship with the Sox. The residents were bound to the White Sox by blood, but they also thought ComiskeyPark made a lousy neighbor. They didn’t like the noise, they didn’t like the fireworks, they didn’t like the stream of drunks walking past their homes after 10 o’clock at night.
As for the bars around ComiskeyPark; Ma McCuddy and the Schallers may have made a few extra dollars off of Sox fans, but that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that are raked in by bars, restaurants, and rooftops around Wrigley Field. If the Ricketts are to renovate Wrigley Field, the business owners around the ballpark will demand a seat at the table. The rooftop owners, speaking through Alderman Tom Tunney, are already fighting the Cubs over proposed signage and video boards that would block the view from their buildings.
There was no romance surrounding ComiskeyPark. It had a special place in the hearts of Sox fans, but that’s pretty much it. Players hated it. I’ve talked to several White Sox power hitters who said the wind currents at ComiskeyPark deflated their home run totals. It is a testament to the strength of Ron Kittle and Greg Luzinski that they were able to hit the roof so many times. Sports columnists didn’t shed a tear for Comiskey. When New Comiskey opened in 1991, the sports scribes wanted to know why it took so long for Chicago to embrace modern stadia.
That all changed in 1994. The strike wiped out all baseball games after August 12th. On September 18th, 1994, Ken Burns’ “Baseball” premiered on PBS. Without any actual baseball to watch, fans had to immerse themselves in the past. They liked what they saw. Instead of being crumbling eyesores, the old ballparks suddenly became portals to a more innocent time, when baseball players were in it for the love of the game.
I firmly believe the value of Wrigley Field and FenwayPark quadrupled over the course of that miniseries. Over the next decade, the concrete donuts that were built in the 1960’s and 70’s were torn down in favor of taxpayer-financed facilities that evoked the great ballparks of the past. Fan outcry saved FenwayPark from the wrecking ball. Wrigley Field’s flaws became endearing quirks.
The Ricketts family wants to rebuild Wrigley Field. But in order to do so, they have to make sure the preservationists are happy. The scoreboard, the brick walls, and the ivy all have to stay.
The Red Sox and the Cubs are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table. New ballparks provide limitless revenue opportunities; from luxury suites to premium seats to advertising. That money can be poured back into the product on the field.
The bottom line? Cubs fans can expect a lot of posturing on both sides before the Cubs renovate Wrigley Field. Make no mistake, that’s the endgame. The team will rip everything out of Wrigley Field with the exception of the walls and the scoreboard. It took 9 years for the White Sox to move into a new ballpark. Expect the same on the north side of town.