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renovations package (done by HKS) was completed in 2012, the Cell had earned a somewhat unearned reputation as outdated.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 If that meant outdated, so be it.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).
ML, I assume you’ve been to Angel Stadium as well. How do the two stack up since both were built as “modern” parks (albeit 25 years apart) and then both later retrofitted into being modern parks with retro park add ons?
@Dan – Both suffer from a level of contrivance that most casual fans won’t notice, but purists will. It doesn’t matter much in the end. Angel Stadium is certainly an improvement on Anaheim Stadium, and the Cell is light years from Old Comiskey. That said, both lack charm despite their age. Maybe it’s because of all the concrete.
Grant Green makes his debut tonight
Haven’t had the pleasure yet at US Cellular but I’d probably agree for the most part regarding Angel Stadium. While they did a great job in updating the place during the mid-90’s renovation, it still doesn’t have that inherent charm that most of the retro parks (and of course the old parks those are based on like Fenway) have to them. It felt more like lipstick on a pig. That said Angel Stadium at least was a nice pig to begin with (I’d say the nicest stadium from the 60’s) so the add ons and rebuilds made for a nice improvement on it. I’d even rate it higher experience wise than a couple of the retro parks even if it lacks the charm.
Oh and as for the Cell, your complaint about the ability to move between levels seems to be in line with other reviews I’ve read about the place that also have an issue with that aspect of the park. I’ve read similar complaints about Dodger Stadium as well and have experienced that problem there in person too. Maybe it’s just something that effects people like us who like to explore parks as the locals don’t seem to have too much of an issue with it. But I for one move regularly between the upper and lower decks at parks, particularly newer parks like PETCO, if just to see what various stands have at them.
The cell is okay. I think it gets worse rap that it deserves. The neighborhood is beyond terrible.
I’d strongly recommend not going to a white sox – cubs games at the Cell especially with children. You’d hear non-stop foul mouthed back and forth. Some of it funny, most of it not. And plenty of fights.
Remember these are the same fans, who had a father and son charge on to the field to fight the 80 year old Tom Gamboa. Probably the only fans I’d put up with Phillies fans.
I actually thought Dodger Stadium had quite a bit of charm. I’d put the Cell a heck of a lot lower. BTW, I went to Dodger Stadium for the first time this spring. I had no problem going between decks. They granted access through the stair wells. I wasn’t expecting to be able to, but security was letting everyone go up and down the stairs all game.
/ / / And we’re the same fans that throw M-80’s in the stands, bite an arresting cop’s finger down to the bone, throw TP on to the field, have a fan run onto the field in an adult diaper to film for his rap video, and get all drunk and disorderly on Dollar then Double Play Wednesdays. Generalizations suck.
I hear what you’re saying. Its true there are probably rivalry match-ups in just about every city where its not a good idea to bring your wife and kids to.
But I have gone to several Cards-Cubs match ups and thought they were fine. I’m not sure how the A’s – Giants games are. I heard quite a few Giants fans talking about how they won’t go to Dodger games. Too many fights and crap thrown at them.
To put things in perspective, when the White Sox won their long awaited WS, a group of bonehead fans celebrated by vandalizing Wrigley. I suppose it could just be a matter of a couple of bad eggs spoiling the bunch, but it seems so ridiculous, that Sox fans seem to identify themselves as Cub-haters more than Sox fans.
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Ushers?! Is this the same Chicago White Sox stadium we are talking about. I always buy the upper deck seats, go out, if they stop me say I’m going to the bathroom, and go down to level one. From there I sit wherever I want. I love the lack of usher (or I’m just very good at this). Half the times I go, I literally put my feet up on the dugout.
You just need to know what you are doing and where you are doing it. In Wrigley, the ushers guard the 100 level, so either find an usherless section, or sit in the 200s or bleachers. I have never gone to a game without moving down. Just look confident, like you know where you are going, and you will be fine.