Last week I watched the New York Yankees demonstrate to the Minnesota Twins what it means to play the Bombers in the Bronx in October. It was like watching baseball-playing-human-things battle a platoon of automaton-cyborgs in pinstriped skin suits. From the first inning of the first game, the accuracy and power of the Yankees was fully on display; they came out swinging with both fists, popped the clutch over and over again, and ended the sweep gracefully, like gents with five o'clock shadows.
As much as it was about talent, it was about location.
Location, location, location, as in the new Yankee Stadium, blazing with light, thrumming with noise, vibrating with sacred traditions and great expectations. It was new looming granite and crisp clipped grass, 26 flapping championship banners high above Monument Park and Jeter hitting the first post-season homer in the new stadium. After awhile, anyone, much less a Twin, would grow lightheaded at the spectacle.
Indulge me now, while I draw a comparison.
I attended half-a-dozen Cubs home games this season, spanning shivering-April to blah-October. While the party atmosphere inside Wrigley Field was in full force each time, the later in the season it grew, the more it felt like the scene in Titanic with the quartet playing on deck as the ship listed horizontally. It was as if fans resigned themselves to the impending tragedy, so hey, fuck it, let's have another beer! At the last game on Oct. 4, I looked from the field, where the Cubs were mummy-walking through the game, to the celebration in the stands around me, and wondered: does a ball club's home field really offer it an advantage?
Regarding the Yankees, the answer is such a yes that 'yes' isn't affirmative enough to stress the yes-ness of it.
In the case of Wrigley Field, the reply is an adamant nope.
It was the Tribune Company in the 1980s that fostered the 'Lovable Losers' label, exploiting the middling performance of the middling teams they assembled, knowing that the underdog phenomenon made for good TV. Place one or two marquee players on the roster just to keep it interesting, get drunken Uncle Harry to slobber his way through the game while his foil, the Edith Bunker-ish Steve Stone sat primly alongside, lips pursed, and you had drama and comedy rolled into one. And then, to top it off, set it inside the 'Friendly Confines,' thus making the ballpark a gentle supporting character in that little baseball carnival. Shoot it with the multi-camera precision of a Scorsese -- first a shot of the electric green outfield, then cut to Ryno's rippling jaw as he takes a practice cut, then a shot of jiggling boobs and icy beers in the sunny bleachers, the steel train rumbling past, Lake Michigan sparkling in the background -- and soon enough Wrigley looked like baseball heaven. Who gave a shit what was happening on the field?!
Meanwhile, the Cubs kept losing.
Meanwhile, Wrigley kept crumbling.
Meanwhile, any semblance of home field advantage -- the visceral, in-the-air hope that one's team will win, which infiltrates an entire ballpark and humbles a visiting squad -- was replaced by the certainty that, at the very least, a party would break out.
Between 1903 and 1912, the Cubs won four pennants and two World Series titles in a five-year period. Those were not 'Lovable Losers' but bad-ass winners, and their home stadium was a place to fear. Now, in 2009, the old pile of bricks stinks of inebriated resignation at housing squad after squad that has done nothing consistently for a century but lose. It's haunted with disappointment and lousy with woulda-coulda-shoulda. That, and pieces of it are falling off. Whether or not the Ricketts family has a grand plan to win the World Series makes no difference to me; at this point, I'm less concerned with a championship than contracting dysentery in the men's room. A hundred years later, Cubs fans should not have to endure Cell Block E-type piss-troughs where adult men urinate shoulder-to-shoulder like beer-fed heifers (I usually wait for a stall, and what a treat that is, like being enclosed in my own pee-filled phone booth) or deadly falling masonry, or seats so cramped that by the end of the third inning you've made so much contact with your neighbor's arms and legs that you're lucky they don't burst into flames. With its 45-degree angle cement walkways to the moon, it feels like an old parking garage on the inside, and, neon finery at each gate notwithstanding, it looks like a Soviet-era tallow factory on the outside. Poor Ernie Banks was known for a single quotation and they left an apostrophe out of it on his (incredibly dull) statue. And speaking of statues, is it just me or does Harry Caray's Addison Street monument looks like he's being dragged into the fires of hell by little demon fans with needle teeth?
While I'm convinced that the phenomena of Cubs fandom inside the old stadium -- a butt in every seat in the worst of seasons, a chorus of voices ululating support -- have helped the team win hundreds of games, I also believe the old ballpark is in dire need of a spiritual and physical exorcism.
It's time for Wrigley Field to be gutted of the past and rebuilt for the future.
I'm not suggesting a tear-down and replacement like U.S. Cellular Field, that lethal combo of 1990s shopping mall and correction facility, or even a faux-retro something-or-other like Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field).
I mean a first-rate redesign and restoration -- Wrigley Field 2.0 -- a respectful and innovative update that retains the best (the field, ivy and bricks, scoreboard and neon, and location,) jettisons the rest (see 'men's rooms') and utilizes a unique Chicago resource to do it: the world's finest architects. It would be a real feather in the cap of an architectural firm to bring that little jewel box of a stadium into the 21st Century, and just think of the PR. Of course I understand how expensive it would be to do correctly. If the Ricketts family is light on cash after their recent $900 million outlay, I suggest they take a look at player salaries and consider a fire sale. For example, that $33 million Milton Bradley is being paid, but not earning, could buy a pretty nice privy or two. Maybe the right redesign could even inspire the owners and players to be relentless and hard-driving in their commitment to winning a World Series. In other words, to behave like the team's greatest asset, its fans.
Wrigley Field is not the house Ruth or Mantle or Jeter built.
It's the house that Cubs loyal built, brick by championship-free brick.
A hundred years later, it, and we, deserve better.