I should go, see you in June – Smashing Pumpkins, “Rhinoceros”
As a born-and-bred West Coast, California kid, I gleefully admit to my various friends my general ignorance about other climates around North America. Many of my friends are transplants who casually talk about missing seasons while secretly celebrating not needing air conditioning (or much heating) where they currently live in the Bay Area. I’m smug and glib about it, I know. So it’s those times when I go out of my comfort zone that I learn a lot more about baseball and the way it’s enjoyed in other parts of the country.
Midwesterners tell me all the time about weird summer weather and turning leaves. None of it is a good substitute for me experiencing that weather. So it was with a little disappointment that I learned just prior to this weekend’s Chicago trip that the weather would be mostly overcast or partly sunny during the day with highs in the upper-60’s/low-70’s, lows in the low-50’s. I thought to myself, That’s the weather I’m USED to, I didn’t bargain for this. Rain would not be a factor in any of the five games on my slate, with only a tease of thunderstorms on the way in and out of Chicago. Alas.
Still, since I was in the area four days, there was time to experience the game at a less rushed pace. Friday was the big doubleheader, a 1:20 game on the North Side and a 7:10 tilt on the South Side. I went to the Cubs game solo and the A’s-White Sox game with Zonis, who lent me a day parking pass for his street just three blocks from Wrigley Field. I had been so used to taking the El up to Wrigley Field that I wanted a different experience, and there was no way I would pass this up. Safe navigation to Zonis’s house completed and after a chat with the young man and his dad (they had just completed their own mini ballpark trip to Milwaukee and Beloit), I walked out of Zonis’s house and started the three block walk.
Then I heard it. The pregame organ. It’s a siren song to the residents of the neighborhood, telling everyone that’s okay to come out and play, to cut school or work, to enjoy a day at the yard. It’s something that often gets ignored coming from the Addison Red Line station because of train and crowd noise. In the comparatively tranquil setting of the Lakeview neighborhood, the organ made me feel like I was already there, that the neighborhood was a big theme park where all the streets would eventually lead me to Wrigley. No other urban ballpark is as integrated to its environs as Wrigley Field is. Fenway comes second at night when it turns into Red Sox game mode, but Wrigley really shines for these day games, making Fenway a distant second. Nothing else comes close, because of the way new ballparks are designed to be insular.
Wrigley famously has very little façade. Behind home plate is the light gray concrete structure accented by green and the distinctive red marquee. It’s not brick or sandstone, and there’s little to write home about. At some point recently the Cubs decided to have huge vinyl signs of the players cover up much of the concrete, as many newer parks have done. As much as I appreciate the blast of color, I miss the old humble concrete. Along the first and third baselines are chain link fences, so the back of each deck is exposed to the street it faces. Narrow ramps and corridors fill some of the space along the fences, creating numerous places for fans to stand. The back of the lower deck is also a great place to catch some sun, especially if you don’t have the gift of a sun-kissed seat close to the field (or the bleachers for that matter). One of the downsides of the open back is the lack of wind buffeting. Throughout the back of the grandstand the wind has a tendency to swirl, whereas close to the field the conditions are downright placid. An open back design would never pass muster in the current era. Potential neighbors would complain about the lack of noise insulation that a façade and other elements provide. Owners and architects would push for a design with more heft, and that requires a façade whether it’s stone, brick, or glass.
I had a seat in section/aisle 223, row 27, which had me hopelessly stuck under the upper deck overhang with a column in plain view (but not obstructing). As the winds swirled around and brought the shade temperature down to the mid-50’s, my jacket-less and goosebump-ridden self started to look for ways to warm. The back of the lower deck was nice option. Wrigley’s compact design and unique network of ramps makes it easy to move among the decks. There’s only one concourse at street level, beneath the 200-level seats on the lower deck. I made my typical shutterbug walk in the 4th inning to capture as much with my camera as I could.
The true beauty of Wrigley reveals itself best when emerging from one of the tunnels in either the left or right field corners. Up a long stairway, suddenly you’re among the lucky sun-drenched fans. Ferris Bueller and his friends made the LF corner idyllic, whereas Steve Bartman made it notorious. You go there and then you figure out ways to stay there forever. As the shadows move during the game, those further away from the field down the 3B line get their sun taken away, a cruel tease.
Old Comiskey Park was even worse from a sun standpoint. The upper deck was only 16 rows from the field in foul territory, and completely hung over the lower deck in fair territory. While Wrigley was “wide open” behind the lower deck, Comiskey had windows to let some natural light in. Nevertheless, Comiskey’s reputation was always darker and more foreboding, an image owed to numerous factors such as the South Side location, the catacomb bullpens, and the generally darker, danker atmosphere.
Knowing what Sox fans had experienced for decades, Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf would give fans coming to the new Comiskey Park (nee U.S. Cellular Field) a much sunnier, wide open experience. The suite/upper deck cantilever is only a few rows above the back of the lower deck. Initially there was only a small roof covering the upper rows the upper deck. With a modern design derived from Kansas City’s Royals Stadium, New Comiskey was to be the more family-friendly albeit less intimate experience. Ramps were well removed from the concourse, especially the ones on the 3B side (across 35th Street). Escalators brought fans to their exclusive levels on three seating levels, with no way for fans to move from one level to another without proper admission. Seating sections were narrow to provide better access. The outfield seats were a single level, fully exposed like the Wrigley bleachers, and had full concessions plus a huge concourse. Enormous scoreboards and a video board were placed along the outfield, blocking much of the view of the less-than-desirable neighborhood to the southeast.
The upper deck concourse was also exposed, with only the tall seating bowl providing protection from the elements. That was changed in the 2004 renovations, when the concourse enclosed with translucent windows providing natural light. The Gate 3 ramps provided gorgeous views of The Loop, but the ballpark was built in the era before recognizing skylines, so New Comiskey turned its back to the city. Reinsdorf eventually reduced the park’s capacity while introducing touches reminiscent of Old Comiskey, such as the more extensive roof.
And so we have the starkest contrasts in ballpark building (multipurpose stadia don’t count as ballparks per se), mere minutes from each other on the Red Line. There’s “The Cell” with its hulking, seemingly impenetrable concrete edifice, and Wrigley, where the boundary between the ballpark and its neighborhood almost doesn’t exist. The former advances sun at the expense of intimacy, the latter brought intimacy well before anyone cared to consider ballparks as intimate or not intimate. We’ve seen the era of multipurpose stadia rise and fall, to be replaced by retro ballparks that feign intimacy while providing virtue for sun-seekers. It’s a summer sport, and in a place where summer really exists for only three months, we’ve seen owners and fans take great care to appreciate every bit of summer they can get. While Californians take summer for granted, those in the Continental climate savor it just a little more than we do. Therefore I can’t blame new ballparks like The Cell or Comerica for not being intimate. They’re just trying to give as much summer to as many fans as they can bring into the ballpark. As much as I prefer an aggressive cantilever to bring upper deck fans closer, I can see the argument against it. It took a trip to Chicago to fully understand the dilemma.