War Minus the Shooting: On Foreign Fields

I’ve been to a lot of major league ballparks in my day.  I’ve seen games at fully half of the existing 30 MLB stadiums, and if you count ballyards that are now defunct or no longer used for baseball, that adds four more.  While I haven’t had the chance to be one of those road-tripping fanatics who’s seen every single team on their own field — and believe me, I’d like to be — I still think I’ve done pretty well for someone with my financial resources and free time, and I’ve gotten pretty good at assessing whether any particular ballpark is a good one or a shithole.

You might think, given my well-documented loathing of the Chicago Cubs, that I would judge the venerable and inexplicably beloved Wrigley Field a shithole based merely on the fact that the Cubs play there.  Not true!  In fact, Wrigley would be a shithole even if another team played there.  And make no mistake:  Wrigley Field is not just a shithole, but a complete and utter shithole, a shithole so lacking in redeeming qualities that it would be a significant improvement to just fill it up with concrete and use it as a paperweight.  Far from the claims of its overpaid boosters, who routinely claim it as a shrine of baseball the way it is meant to be played, Wrigley is not the best park in baseball; it is far closer to being the very worst.

The Cubs organization has always been a disgraceful fraud, a bunch of risk-averse greedheads who hold their client base in utter contempt; this is axiomatic, a natural consequence of mindlessly supporting a bad team and demanding no accountability for its failure.  But the utter stupidity and short-sightedness that led to this year’s opening day, which saw ongoing construction on the ancient venue — still an unfinished mess up to April 5th, when everyone with the good sense to look at a calendar knew that the stands would be filled with 40,000 sloppy, demanding drunks — in such a state of chaos that the bleachers were inaccessible is stunning even for management as historically inept as theirs.  Without seating for half the people who wanted to attend, there was still no shortage of attendees, which is what made it all the more stupefying when it slowly and terribly became clear that in the entire upper concourse — an area typically holding more than twenty thousand fans — there were only two open bathrooms.  Desperate stadiumgoers, bladders filled to busting with the garbage beer they serve at Wrigley, took to pissing everywhere:  in cups, in corners, on each other, and, in a dynamite bit of symbolism, licensed Cubs merchandise.  Wrigley, which had been a metaphorical toilet for decades, had become a literal toilet.

The comedy didn’t end there.  The ballpark, which reeks of urine even on its best days, had barely had time to contend with the fact that fans were using the construction zones as an open latrine when it came out that they were also running out of food.  Beer vendors, who had been selling for six innings to drunks who foolishly assumed that the club would at the very least provide them with the opportunity to recycle their liquid waste, started running out of stock; upper-deck food vendors ran out of hot dog buns (and, eventually, hot dogs); and lower-deck concession stands ran out of everything except french fries.  To put a shit icing on this crap cake, a dumpster fire broke out; whether it was caused by accident or arson, it was put out before causing too much damage, becoming merely the latest symbol of incompetence for a team that usually waits until at least May to complete ruin everyone’s hopes for the season.  The press, the blogs, and longtime Cub haters like myself had a field day as Wrigley became the filthiest, dirtiest, most desperate sporting arena since the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.

The thing is, though, Wrigley’s transformation into an utter joke didn’t happen overnight.  To those of use with eyes, its status as one of the Great American Ballparks has been a total fraud for decades, dating at least back to the Tribune’s purchase of the team in 1981.  Wrigley’s recent history reads like a career criminal’s rap sheet:  innumerable lawsuits (including against its own contractors, stockholders, and fans), collapsing concrete, clashes with the city, price-fixing and financial chicanery, hostile relationships with its neighbors, a decaying infrastructure, a reputation as a blight on the neighborhood that bears its name, traffic snarls, bad food, and a total failure to keep up with the expectations modern fans have of amenities at a ballpark.  It’s easy to see why hardcore fans are willing to ignore all this; fandom causes more blindness than bathtub gin, and most baseball fans are no more immune to public relations bullshit than anyone else.  But why do smarter baseball observers, and the press in particular, continue to buy into the bogus notion that Wrigley isn’t an ammonia-stinking hole, but perhaps the last great baseball venue in America?

Part of it is access, part of it is the increased self-perception of media’s role as part of the PR engine of anyone with money, and part of it is pure laziness.  But a more important factor is our continued belief that, in sports, older is better — although this rule is very selectively enforced.  We scream for instant replay when a call goes against us and deride it when things go our way; we throw pitchers under the bus in aid of the ridiculous notion that baseball is lacking in big offense, but we pretend the perfectly sensible designated hitter rule is an abomination.  Wrigley is supposed to be a paragon of The Way Things Used To Be because it has opted out of the race to whore out stadiums for naming rights (ignoring the fact that it is already named after a huge international corporation), because it lacked until recently an ad-covered electronic scoreboard (though the rest of the stadium is as crammed full of ads as any other ballyard in America), because it ignores the latest trends in stadium design.

But those trends are all intended to make ballgames better, more comfortable, less miserable, to make attendees feel less like the ever-increasing cost of going to a ballgame is a waste of money.  There’s nothing admirable about drinking crap beer or eating garbage food, any more than there’s something noble about having lousy sight lines and fans who treat the place like a port-a-john.  Consumers demanding more amenities and an improved bang for their buck aren’t the ones ruining the integrity of the game; that role goes to the greedy owners who are forever cutting corners, selling an inferior product for more money.  Cubs fans, if they’re every going to get a decent field let alone a good team to play on that field, need to stage a collective stay-home strike, or the Ricketts will keep feeding them shit and telling them it’s sirloin.  It may be true that Wrigley is a lovely place to drink a cold beer, enjoy the sunshine, and watch baseball, but so are 29 other stadiums that don’t smell like a sewer and charge you six bucks for cold French fries.  There comes a point when you realize that sitting on the shitter on a sunny spring day is still sitting on the shitter, and nobody ought to charge you $90 for that privilege.

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