Pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training. OH UNBRIDLED RAPTURE! Fans had been counting down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds. It means that baseball is back and we'll soon get to see our favorite baseball team in action.
Actually, for most of the fans I've talked to it doesn't mean seeing the Cubs as much as returning to Wrigley Field.
As the magic day approached, I did an informal, unscientific survey. The sample was admittedly very small, but the results telling. I asked a single, simple question:
"Pitchers and catchers report in a few days. Can you name any of those pitchers and catchers?"
One Cub-fan-in-exile, living on Long Island, responded, "Nobody. But Comet Wrigley is approaching (referencing Asteroid 2012 DA14, due to buzz earth February 15, 2013). Last time one this big hit the earth was? You guessed it -1908 (the Tunguska "event" in Russia). But if no collision, maybe a playoff appearance, considering it will shave us pretty darn close. I grasp at all straws." He couldn't name any players, but he was still planning his annual pilgrimage to the ballpark with his rather large group of siblings and children.
Most others just said "Uh, can't name anyone." Two respondents came up with Garza and "Shark," not wanting to either spell or pronounce Samardzija. One fan, who lives within 6 blocks of the ballpark and used to live across the street on Waveland Avenue, listed two pitchers who were traded last year. No one remembered that Carlos Marmol is still on the roster.
I know for a fact that a couple of years ago all of these respondents would have quickly listed Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood, and Marmol on the mound, and Geo behind the plate. Not this year. There has been plenty online and in the press about all the young prospects and new signings, but few are paying attention.
What are these fans concerned about? The ballpark.
A couple of evenings ago we strolled over to our favorite sandwich joint, Big Boy Gyros on Western just south of Addison. (Great gyros, hamburgers, beefs, and dogs, by the way!). As we waited for our order, we stood examining the big vintage photograph of Wrigley Field mounted on the wall. The image predates the present bleachers and scoreboard, so it is probably from the early 1930s.
Suddenly, someone grabbed my arms from behind. What the ...? I turned to see the friendly owner smiling at us. "How ya doin'? Great to see you!"
"We're good," I said. "How are you?"
"I woke up this morning, so I'm happy." He paused and glanced at the photo. "The Cubs want to wreck the ballpark so George Loukas won't make any money."
We didn't respond so he continued, "He owns Cubby Bear and a bunch of rooftops. They're going to put up billboards so you can't see the field from those buildings anymore."
He didn't mention the team's chances of success this year, nor did he talk about the players. This was the norm whenever the subject of the Cubs came up during the recently ended off-season.
The Tribune knows this. The lead editorial for its Sunday, February 3, edition was titled, "The battle of Wrigley Field." In it the Trib exhorts the Cubs' owners to work with the rooftop owners along Sheffield and Waveland instead of putting up billboards that will spoil the views from across the streets. In the same issue Phil Rosenthal wrote about the same subject in the business section.
Fans are worried about Wrigley Field. The Cubs should be worried that the fans are worried. In spite of the wonderful renderings of the planned improvements to the ballpark that the owners unveiled at Cubs Convention, the prospect of "spite" billboards above the bleachers looms like huge, billowing, dark gray storm clouds over a planned 1:20 first pitch.
Maybe they're not intended to be spite billboards. The Cubs are no doubt looking to sell more "impressions" to advertisers. So when the camera follows the flight of a home run toward right field, instead of seeing the facades of the classic Chicago apartment buildings and two-flats, TV viewers will be treated to yet more views of Budweiser, Old Style, and Geico logos.
Many of the new, retro ballparks, like PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Camden Yards in Baltimore, Comerica Park in Detroit, and even Minute Maid Park in Houston when the roof is open, have incorporated local buildings and skylines into their designs precisely because of the success the Cubs have had filling Wrigley Field during all those many years when the Cubs have been awful. Why would the Cubs want to compromise that element of their success?
The buildings along those two streets are part of the ballpark, as far as many of us are concerned ... as much a part of the ballpark as the bleachers themselves. Putting up billboards, essentially building on the already tragic mistake of the Toyota sign in left field, would be a classic, most horrific case of biting off one's proverbial nose to "spite" one's face.
So please, Ricketts family, tell us it's all just a vicious rumor.
Next: There are more Sox fans than Cub fans.
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