In a previous installment of this year’s Chicago travelogue, I described what it was like to go to both Wrigley Field and US Cellular Field on the same day thanks to a scheduled Chi-town doubleheader. While I went into some length about my experience on the South side, I wanted to save the bulk of my observations for a proper review, especially because I wanted to compare the current version to what I saw in 1996, five years after the park opened as New Comiskey Park.
Until the extensive, multiyear renovations package (done by HKS) was completed in 2012, the Cell had earned a somewhat unearned reputation as outdated. This wasn’t entirely HOK’s (Populous) or Jerry Reinsdorf’s fault. Reinsdorf wanted a modern edifice and used Royals (Kauffman) Stadium as his inspiration. The result was nothing like old Comiskey, cramped and dank. The new Comiskey was spacious, exclusive, and packed full of what was then the newest technology outside of a retractable roof. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards debuted the following year, starting the retro ballpark craze, all of the features that made New Comiskey modern made it look fan unfriendly and lacking in intimacy. If that meant outdated, so be it. They lacked the foresight to go retro? Fine. The O’s earned great acclaim for their small urban ballpark, while the White Sox and the City of Chicago spent much of the next two decades playing catchup to the Camden Yards and just about every other new park.
A look at the bones of the Cell should tell you the era it comes from. There’s a lot of bulky prestressed, pretensioned concrete in the supports and columns. The only structural steel you’ll see is in the upper deck, holding up the roof. The massive pole-to-pole structure backing the outfield concourse holds the scoreboards and numerous ads. If the park were built a few years later, Reinsdorf might have considered turning the ballpark north to take advantage of a great view of the Chicago skyline. Architect Philip Bess offered up his own alternative to New Comiskey in 80’s and in his book City Baseball Magic. Bess’s plan, called Armour Field, was more like Old Comiskey and even more retro than Camden Yards, with extremely shallow dimensions in the corners and a grandstand shape that evoked the Polo Grounds in New York. The park would’ve had a northern orientation, providing fabulous views of the Loop from inside the park. Instead, Reinsdorf chose the parking lot across the street from the old one and oriented the new one southeast towards Bronzeville. Call it a missed opportunity.
New Comiskey was criticized immediately for having a very steep upper deck that was also far removed from the action since it is placed atop two suite levels and a club level (sandwiched between the suites). In hindsight, this critique was perhaps a bit too heavy-handed as many Populous-conceived parks have used variations of this placement. Some may use a large club mezzanine backed by suites (Camden Yards, Petco Park). Another variant had a large club mezzanine, then a glassed-in concourse, then the suites, then the upper deck (AT&T Park, Safeco Field, Coors Field). Others utilized a triple deck of suites on one side and a club section on the other (Progressive Field). Now that we’ve seen 20 years of ballpark development, it’s easier to be kind to the Cell. In actuality, the biggest problem with New Comiskey was that there were too many rows in the upper deck, a chief complaint of the park’s inspiration, Royals Stadium. The latter day renovations chopped the top eight rows off the upper deck and enclosed the upper concourse in translucent glass. A much more substantial roof replaced the previous version and was heavy enough that it had to be supported by the aforementioned steel columns. Curiously, these columns also introduced something that Reinsdorf had worked hard to eliminate: obstructed views. The obstructions only occur in the furthest reaches of the upper deck, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who says the new structure properly evokes Old Comiskey. Still, it adds definition to a part of the stadium that sorely lacked definition.
Obvious nods to Old Comiskey come in the form of arched windows and openings in the facade, and the big scoreboard in center, complete with the multi-colored pinwheels and fireworks that go off after every White Sox home run. The board is flanked by screens in left and right, which are perfectly functional but not complete despite the number and size of the screens. Out-of-town scores are pretty much an afterthought. The arches, while a tasteful treatment, are nothing compared to the hulking network of ramps that nearly encompasses the Cell. The only thing that makes these ramps an improvement over previous cookie-cutter ramp structures is that they’re somewhat removed from the stadium. The problem with that implementation is that since fans enter at gates attached to these ramps, there’s no way for anyone to easily move between the different decks. To this day the White Sox maintain a policy that a fan’s ticket restricts him/her to a specific level. Fortunately, I was taking in three games of the A’s four-game set in Chicago, so I had a chance to roam around all of the non-premium areas. The White Sox have said that they plan to open up the park more in the future to allow for the kind of in-game circulation experienced at other parks. Even if they do that, moving among the decks will still be a pain because of the ramp system. At least at Gate 5, there’s a bar to accept fans pre and post-game.
At least the various food options have improved. The lower concourse has long had a good variety of concessions, including the staple Chicago dog and popular nachos stands. With the upper deck revamp came a number of new selections, including wings from Hooters and several open grills. I had a piled high Chicago dog, just as I did at Wrigley, and I liked the South side version more. A Jimmy John’s ad on the outfield fence teases about sandwich availability at the Cell, unfortunately the only Jimmy John’s is two blocks away along 35th Street, near the El and Metra stops. Outside food is allowed.
The outfield concourse, which has always been reminiscent of the old bleachers at the pre-Mt. Davis Coliseum, is as spacious and friendly as ever. The bullpens have moved from the former slots to Fenway-like spaces along the outfield fence. A patio area sits next to the visiting bullpen in right. The bleachers, which used to occupy both left-center and right-center, are solely in the former. A multi-level outfield platform was erected in the LF corner. Atop this deck is the Comcast-sponsored FUNdamentals children’s play area. Like everywhere else in the park, it has an usher or two to grant access, and when I approached to take look I was naturally looked upon suspiciously as no child was accompanying me.
Which brings me to the biggest issue I have with the Cell. The place has staff everywhere. Every aisle has an usher, every open stand (most) has a big crew. Normally that’s a good thing when you need help. At the Cell, it feels more like Jerry Reinsdorf doesn’t trust his fans and chose to have eyes everywhere. Most of the staff were friendly enough, but not to the level of either Miller Park or Wrigley Field. During the game, the upper deck ushers will watch the seats to make sure that fans don’t roam around, say, to the top of the stands. This results in a situation where sneaking down is very difficult. Your best bet for a good ticket below face value may be to find seats on Stubhub or via a scalper. US Cellular Field is the most overstaffed ballpark in the majors by far, and needlessly so.
The neighborhood is still not great. The Sox have gone so far as to point out neighborhood restaurants and bars in the vicinity, though none of them are right at the park other than the aforementioned attached Bacardi Bar. After the Saturday game we walked to Mitchell’s Tap, which has a pretty good beer selection including multiple selections from Founders (which is not available on the West Coast). Even so we eventually traveled back to the North side, ending up at the wonderful Hopleaf in Andersonville. The transitioning (or gentrification) process around the Cell is very much a work in progress.
A decade after opening in 1991, New Comiskey/US Cellular Field has undergone major, near constant changes. It started out with 42,000 seats, moved up to 47,000 seats, then dropped down to the current 40,000+. Royal blue seats were switched to green, while the white outfield framework was painted black. The upper concourse looks nothing like it used to. Ultra premium seats and a club were added behind the plate. The outfield was changed, foul territory was reduced, and the ballpark was made to resemble its predecessor more than the original vision would have suggested. That’s not enough to place it among the top 10 ballparks on my list. It’s enough to make the Cell a very respectable, functional ballpark that should last another 20 years without major changes. After that? It’ll be up to Reinsdorf’s sons.
P.S. – Many thanks to all of the readers and good people I met out there including Shane/Zonis, Nick, Joe, Derek, Mike, Tom, and everyone else I failed to mention here. All of you made the weekend even better than I expected. I’ll definitely put together a full meetup the next time I’m in town.
P.P.S. – As I’m planning a trip for New York over Labor Day weekend, after that’s completed I’ll do a feature that focuses on the ballparks for the premier teams in the two-team markets, and then another feature on the second banana ballparks (like the Coliseum and the Cell).