Commentary

On the rooftop of the world

Originally Published: July 31, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- I'm spoiled when it comes to Cubs games. For work, I have a pretty good seat in the press box. Occasionally, you can see me on TV during the seventh-inning stretch, pecking away at my keyboard while celebrities like "Ponch" (otherwise known as actor Erik Estrada) or Denise Richards croon away. There are free cookies and coffee, and when it's cold, heaters for your feet.

When I'm not working, I'm sometimes lucky enough to poach my friend's prime tickets in the lower bowl right behind home plate, a few sections over from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the bearer of the best hair Wrigley Field had seen since the late Rod Beck's mullet.

But I've always wondered what it would be like to pay top-dollar prices to sit in seats so far removed from the action you feel like you're watching an old Negro League "shadow ball" exhibition -- which refers to what players called pantomiming baseball without the ball -- from Ken Burns' film "Baseball" (while pounding free beers like it is Prohibition).

On Sunday, I realized that dream when I paid a couple of hundred bucks to party on some millionaire landowner's roof.

Next up on my to-do list: light a bag of money on fire.

THE EXPERIENCE

For those who watch games from the far-out reaches of Cubs Nation, the Wrigley Experience is, in some ways, everything you think and all you can imagine. Yes, Joe from Davenport, Iowa -- people really are having as much fun as they seem.

ESPN T-shirt2
Jon Greenberg for ESPNChicago.comThe rooftop experience is unique to Wrigley Field, as they separate the Friendly Confines from other ballparks stuck in the middle of concrete jungles.
In other ways, the Wrigley Experience is truly everything people mock -- just a playground for the so-and-sos, as former Cubs skipper Lee Elia more eloquently put it. To some, it really is just an outdoor beer garden for the fans who don't care about the actual team any more than they care about their favorite reality-show character.

But if you can put aside the cynicism -- and it's tough considering the exorbitant ticket prices and obnoxious fans -- there is something charmingly authentic, from soup to (pea)nuts, about the Wrigley Experience.

From the dearth of ADHD-inducing, commercial overkill that rattles your brain at other parks, to the ratty interior of the concourse, to the aged ushers who would gladly plant a support-hosed foot in your behind for even looking at the pricey club seats, Wrigley Field has managed to retain much of its crummy, old Chicago charm.

While the bleachers are the most mythologized, the idea of the rooftops are central to the Wrigley Experience, as they represent the notion that Wrigley Field is part of the neighborhood, unlike the majority of modern stadiums that are planted in the middle of concrete expanses. The rooftops act as a sort of buffer between the idealized Experience and the outside world, even if they truly offer nothing more than a bad view at a high cost. But of course, no one's really going to a rooftop to watch the game. It's all about the Experience -- it just depends on which kind you want.

WHAT'S THE SCORE?

"Do you think anyone here knows Rich Harden is pitching a one-hitter?"

The question was posed to me toward the end of Harden's outing Sunday afternoon, as I stood on the back deck of the roof. I couldn't make fun of the crowd around me, easy as it might be, because I had no earthly idea Harden had a one-hitter going.

The occasion was a 30th birthday party for a friend: a real Chicago guy who loves his wife and daughter, Barnaby's Pizza and the Cubs, in that order, and the kind of person you don't mind peeling off $200 for a Sunday afternoon near the ballgame.

An off-duty police officer checked off my wife's name and mine at the door, which is located in an alley behind the Sheffield Avenue building. I would've truly felt like a VIP if it weren't for the presence of several Dumpsters.

Rooftop TV
Jon Greenberg for ESPNChicago.comSometimes, this is the best view from the rooftops around Wrigley Field.
When we got to the top of the stairs, I was briefly mesmerized by the expanse of green over the right-field fence. Maybe this wouldn't be too bad. Then I got to the bleachers, which were already packed. This was the worst of both worlds: the annoying seating arrangement of the real bleachers coupled with the panoramic view of the upper, upper deck.

Just eight rows in all, there wasn't much room for stragglers, so the overflow crowd stood along the railing, blocking our view, stood down below against the edge of the roof, or flitted about the back where there were two televisions.

Since I couldn't really watch the game, I spent most of my time checking out the crowd, and occasionally taking surreptitious photos of them. People-watching is one of the great pastimes at Wrigley, whether you're at the game or even if you're at home, where you're at the mercy of the girl-hunting cameramen who often linger a bit too long.

There was the guy in the ESPN-AM 1000 T-shirt pounding drinks; the dude who spelled out Kosuke Fukudome's surname in a mischievous way on his homemade jersey; the girl with blonde highlights, big sunglasses, Cubs jersey and a short, short denim skirt -- a sartorial combination that is common in Wrigleyville. I call it hitting for the cycle.

There was the oversized couple from out of town, perplexed on how to politely mosey up the bleachers and claim a pair of seats. There were a slew of drunk guys and girls, old men with cell phone firmly affixed to their jean shorts, and plenty of nice folks who just looked like they wanted to enjoy a fine summer day adjacent to the only ballpark in the country so attuned to its fans' safety that it has netting to protect them from falling concrete.

BIG BUSINESS

As a general rule, I identify with the little guy. I cheer for the underdog and cluck my tongue at Corporate America.

About the only time I've ever sided with The Man was when the Cubs won their lawsuit against a group of rooftop owners in 2004, getting 17 percent of gross revenues over a 20-year period. Heck, even Ralph Nader could see their point. I had tickets for the 2004 home opener and was desperately hoping the team would use balloons to block the view of a holdout rooftop owner. Alas, it didn't happen. But I still have hope.

For years, the rooftop owners were essentially selling seats to Cubs games. Bad seats, to be sure, but the intent was obvious. Rooftop watching was no longer a quaint neighborhood tradition, but rather a very profitable business providing "ambience" to a healthy mix of the rich and stupid.

Rooftop Cupcakes
Jon Greenberg for ESPNChicago.comSweet treats for the Wrigley rooftop patrons.
While most rooftop companies cater to groups, in fact every person I know who has been to a rooftop was there for work or a party. Before the season began, an Associated Press story reported that some rooftop owners were offering multigame packages to individual fans, ranging from $1,740 to $3,150 for a dozen to 18 games. I'm just going to guess that anyone dopey enough to partake in this offer probably has a Corey Patterson jersey stowed away in his closet next to his "It's Gonna Happen" sign and "We Got Wood" T-shirt.

In my case, the Cubs made 17 percent on the combined $200 my wife and I paid for our tickets, and we got off cheap. Fans regularly pay upwards of $200 per ticket for a game, depending on the company. The average seems to be closer to $150, judging by the pricing on Web sites.

If you take 16 rooftops and multiply by 200 fans, you figure there are around 3,200 total extra tickets the Cubs could profit on, one way or the other. If you figure rooftops are averaging about 150 fans paying $150, well, that's not enough ticket revenue to pay for Roy Halladay, but it's probably enough to pay Luis Vizcaino and Joey Gathright not to play for the Cubs this season.

Most rooftop owners seem to be reinvesting in their product. Judging from the pictures and bird's eye views I've seen, the party areas are resplendent with luxury-suite amenities, like clean bathrooms, an indoor bar and, in some cases, good food. My rooftop didn't exactly have first-class cuisine, but I can't complain. All I ate was a liberally named "black Angus" cheeseburger, two bags of chips and some mini-cupcakes from the birthday boy's wife.

I'd love to tell you I spent my day discussing the socioeconomic impact of the Cubs on its ever-gentrifying neighborhood, or the idea that Wrigley Field provides fans a Jungian archetypal idea of "home," while also touching on man's basic desire to be one with the soil, i.e., the dirt and grass on the field.

I did nothing remotely like that. I just spent my three hours partying, or as I liked to call it, "getting my money's worth."

Was it all worth $200?

No, of course not. But you can't pay for ambience or for a warm Chicago summer day. And I'll always cherish the memory of the time I kind of watched Rich Harden pitch a six-inning one-hitter from across the street.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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