CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs, who have clung to the past the way ivy clings to Wrigley Field’s outfield walls, won final approval Wednesday for a $500 million renovation project at the 99-year-old ballpark — including a massive Jumbotron like the ones towering over every other major league stadium.
A voice vote in the City Council gave the team permission to move forward with plans that will dramatically change the ballpark experience on Chicago’s north side. The most notable alteration is the 5,700-square-foot video scoreboard in left field — roughly three times the size of the iconic manual one in center, which will remain in operation as well.
The team also will be able to erect a large advertising sign in right field, double the size of the cramped clubhouse, improve player training facilities in the bowels of the ballpark and build a 175-room hotel across the street.
Some fans say the upgrades are almost as overdue as a Cubs World Series championship (which last happened in 1908 — eight years before the team moved into Wrigley).
“Why would you not want any of the improvements that have come over the last 60-70 years?” asked Dutchie Caray, the widow of the famed announcer Harry Caray, whose leading the fans in ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ helped turn Wrigley into the huge attraction it is today. “Would you ask someone not to have television because they didn’t have television in the old days (or) want to travel by horse and buggy to the West Coast?”
Besides, she said of the Jumbotron, “I kind of like the idea of being able to see where a guy (umpire) blew a call.”
Collectively, the changes — some of which could be completed as early as next season — represent the most dramatic additions since at least 1988, when the Cubs became the last team in the majors to install lights. That change sparked a battle even more fierce than the one over the Jumbotron.
In the decades since Wrigley became the Cubs’ home, the park has not always aged gracefully; the team once even installed nets to catch concrete falling from the upper deck.
Although Wednesday’s action was the last step in the long approval process, still unresolved is a dispute between the team and owners of the famous rooftops overlooking the field. The team’s owner said Wednesday that the threat of a lawsuit could potentially delay the upgrade.
Barring that, though, the council’s approval Wednesday was the final chapter in a decades-old tug-of-war between the team and its neighbors. During public hearings, some fans urged the city to let the Cubs modernize Wrigley, while others argued the charm of going to the ballpark would be lost.
“They had to modernize, for the team and for the comfort of the fans” said Clay Goss, a 53-yeaer-old trader after he was told of the deal Wednesday afternoon. “Baseball is having a hard time getting younger fans and keeping them, and (while) I’m not a fan of the Jumbotron, kids like it.”
After the Ricketts family bought the team in 2009, it made the argument that the ballpark needed to change. Although the Ricketts defended the brick-and-ivy walls and manual scoreboard, they said they were running a business and not a museum.
Initially, the team wanted public help to pay for the project, but that effort failed. Then the team said it would pay for the entire project. But, team officials said, if they were going to do that, they needed the city to allow it to erect the Jumbotron and other revenue-generating signs that would help pay for the project.
Ricketts tried to convince fans that making the renovations would help the Cubs contend again. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1945, the year of the infamous billy goat curse that some superstitious fans still blame for the drought.
The signs became the most contentious part of the proposed renovation project, both because they would change the look of the ballpark and because they were seen as threats to the rooftop businesses across the street. The owners, who charge fans to sit on bleachers they erected on top of the buildings, argue that any sign cutting into their views threatens the existence of their businesses.
Tom Tunney, the alderman whose ward includes Wrigley, said he finally agreed to support the project Tuesday after the Cubs agreed not to put up any more outfield signs for the 10 years left on a contract that calls for the rooftop owners to pay a chunk of their revenue to the team.
But after the vote, team chairman Tom Ricketts issued a statement that made it clear the dispute between the Cubs and the rooftop owners isn’t over. He even raised questions about when the Cubs would begin what is expected to be a five-year construction project.
“We look forward to beginning construction on our $500 million plan, but before we do, we must resolve once and for all the threat of litigation and the enforcement of existing rooftop ordinances and long term certainty over control of our outfield,” Ricketts said.
The Wrigleyville Rooftops Association declined to comment about Ricketts’ statement. But rooftop owner Max Waisvisz all but promised the Cubs will find themselves in court if what they build hurts his view and his business.
“What they need is a little lawsuit,” Waisvisz said. “That’s the only thing these guys listen to.”