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Wednesday, August 6, 2003
Updated: August 15, 3:09 PM ET
Wrigley's more than a breath of fresh air

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: This is the 16th report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.

CHICAGO -- If you were to take foreign visitors anywhere in the United States for the very best experience this country can provide, where would it be? The Grand Canyon? Times Square? The Mississippi River? Big Sur? Graceland? Boston's Freedom Trail? Washington's Olympic Peninsula? The beaches at Maui? Vegas? Madonna's bedroom?

REPORT CARD
Wrigley Field
Capacity: 39,241
Opened: April 23, 1914
Surface: Grass

Our Ratings:
Seat comfort: 3.5
Hot dogs: 4
Concessions: 3.5
Signature food: 3
Beer: 3
Bathrooms: 1
Scoreboard: 4.5
P.A. system: 3.5
Fun stuff: 3.5
Souvenirs: 5
Tickets: 4
Exterior: 5
Interior: 5
Access: 4
Ushers: 4
Trading up: 4
Fan knowledge: 3.5
7th inning stretch: 5
Local scene: 5
Wild card: 10
Total: 84

I've thought about this question many times and I know exactly where I would take them. To three places that are quintessentially American: Disneyland, the Yosemite Valley and Wrigley Field (preferably for a day game).

Yosemite has the most spectacular scenery in the country while Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. And Wrigley? The Friendly Confines are the happiest place and most beautiful location in baseball. It may not rate as high on our scoring system as some of the newer stadiums (our categories are unfortunately somewhat weighted against older ballparks) but this is my favorite place in the majors. Almost unchanged over the years, Wrigley is baseball's own little Way-Back Machine, a way to step into the game's past and remember what the game used to be like.

Although, naturally, the prices are a lot higher now.

"Respect Wrigley," the stadium signs command. And I do, because I know what the stadium does to people. Watching a game here is sure to leave you with a grin so big and goofy that you'll look like Harry Caray after seven beers.

So much has been written about Wrigley's many charms that I don't need to add anything. I'll just say this. If you don't like Wrigley, you might as well leave the country and join the Taliban.

The ratings:

1. Access: Ours may be a nation based on the automobile but don't even think of driving to Wrigley. The limited parking is expensive and traffic in or out can be a bitch. The El is the way to go. It's cheap, convenient and drops you off right outside the stadium. And best of all, you can't get a DWI riding on the El. 4 points

2. Exterior architecture: To be honest, Wrigley isn't much to look at from the outside other than at its main entrance. But oh, that main entrance. The famous red marquee -- "Wrigley Field, Home of the Chicago Cubs'' -- is the most welcoming sign in the country, even more so than the "Hot Donuts Now" sign at Krispy Kreme.

The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed some of his most beautiful Prairie-style residences in Chicago but he never designed anything that made so many people feel at home as Wrigley. 5

Jim Caple
Shameless self-promotion.

3. Ticket price/availability/location: Reading the ticket prices is like understanding the BCS formula. Let's see. A club box goes for $18, unless it's July, in which case it's $36, unless it's a weekend in July, in which case it's $45. A field box goes for $40, unless it's in April, in which case it's $30, unless it's a midweek day game in April, in which case it's $15. A bleacher seats goes for $12, unless it's a Regular date, in which case it's $24, or a Prime date, in which case it's $30. Good lord. I just want to know how much a ticket costs, not apply for a scholarship to MIT.

I studied the prices more closely than my freshman Calculus textbook and in the end it didn't make a damn bit of difference. The game was sold out. I bought a standing room ticket for $12, though, and I was able to stand anywhere I wanted along the back concourse.

As for the seats? I would say it doesn't matter where you sit because there isn't a bad seat at Wrigley, but that's not true. There ARE some bad seats behind the supporting posts. That doesn't bother me because I don't mind posts. In fact, new stadiums should have them.

The big stadium architectural firms regard posts as evil because they obstruct views from certain seats. That's true, but so what? They also allow you to move all the upper-level seats closer to the field. So at the expense of a thousand or two obstructed-view seats that no one will ever sit in, everyone else has a better seat that's closer to the field. Sounds like an idea whose time has come again. 4

4. Interior Architecture: Stadium advertising doesn't bother me either because I know it's been a part of baseball since Jack McKeon had acne -- after all, Fenway's Green Monster used to be nothing more than a giant billboard for Lifebuoy and Gem razor blades -- but it's still refreshing to look out at a field and see nothing but that bright green grass and the ivy and the scoreboard and the bleachers and Sammy running out to right field. There are no come-ons to buy lottery tickets or take out a loan or watch a TV show. Just baseball.

And that's the way it should be. Remember, there aren't any ads for Expedia painted on Half-Dome, either. (At least, not yet.) 5

WRIGLEY FIELD BUDGET
Here's what Page 2's Jim Caple spent during his day at Wrigley Field:

El ticket: $3 (there and back)

Standing room ticket: $12

Hard lemonade: $4.75

Old-Style beer: $5

Hot dog: $2.50

Pizza: $3.75

Soda: $2.25

Chicken sandwich: $5

Kosher dog: $3.75

Total: $42

5. Quality of hot dogs: You can get a good, solid hot dog for $2.50. Or at least you can until the Tribune Company finds out and raises the price. 4

6. Quality/selection of other concession-stand fare: The park opened in 1914, when America and Americans were much, much different. Back then, we were satisfied if we ate something we didn't have to personally kill.

So there is no glass-walled restaurant down the third-base line. No micro-brewery. And no garlic fries. But even though the concessions are run by the dreaded and unappetizing Aramark company, the variety of food has improved in recent years -- chicken sandwiches, calzones, pizza and mai-tais -- and the prices are reasonable. 3.5

7. Signature Concession Item: There really isn't one specific item, but the kosher dogs and Italian beef sandwiches aren't bad. 3

8. Beer: I can't believe it. They ran out of beer before the seventh inning. In Chicago. Unbelievable. What will they run out of next? Cholesterol? 3

9. Bathrooms: Let me put it this way. During the fifth inning, the line of women outside the restroom stretched nearly the length of Lake Michigan. That can only mean two things. Either there aren't enough restroom facilities for women or Oprah is filming her show in a new location. 1

10. Scoreboard: If I were the Cubs, I would find a way to rig up a videoboard behind right field. That would serve two excellent purposes. One, it would give fans video replays and two, it also would block the view of those greedy SOBs selling tickets to sit on the neighboring rooftops.

That's a minor quibble, though, because Wrigley's old hand-operated scoreboard in center field is the best in baseball. It gives you the score of every game in baseball, plus the triple crown stats of each batter, which, as my friend Scooter says, is all you really need.

How good is the Wrigley scoreboard? If the team would pay a crew to operate it when the Cubs are out of town, I would gladly buy a ticket just to sit there and watch the scores from the rest of the country go up inning by inning. 4.5

11. Quality of public address system: It's clear, it's loud enough and the Cubs use it so sparingly you would think they were being charged by the decibel. Which is a nice change of pace. 3.5

12. Fun stuff to do besides the game: There's not a lot besides the game but here's one not-to-miss ritual. Get to the game early, stand on Waveland Avenue and battle with the ball hawks as they scramble for home runs hit out of the park during batting practice.

There also are other occasional distractions. Bill Murray stopped by the game to throw out the first pitch. He took the mound, overtly and repeatedly shook off his catcher, wound up elaborately and ... tossed the ball over the backstop. And for good measure, he clutched his rotator cuff as he walked off the mound. 3.5

13. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: The prices inside the park are criminal but the best memorabilia shop in baseball is open across the street. That store has it all. Replica jerseys for virtually every current or former Cub this side of Glenn Beckert. Great "1908 World Champions" and "Wrigley Field: Since 1914" T-shirts for $15 (the latter sells for $25 inside the stadium). Waveland Avenue street signs. Harry Caray bobbleheads. For all I know, they also have Gabby Hartnett's homer in the gloamin' for sale somewhere.

(By the way, at various concession stands, you can get Fred McGriff T-shirts for $5.) 5

Jim Caple
The only person feeling that pole? Jim Caple.
14. Friendliness and helpfulness of usher staff: Here are the country's three best jobs based on their office sites. The guy who checks the mikes on the Dave Matthews Band tour. The guy who selects the beaches for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot. And -- best of all -- the ushers who get paid to watch games at Wrigley Field. No wonder they're so old -- why would you retire from a job like this?

It sure beats sitting in a cubicle between Michael Bolton and Samir at Initec. 4

15. Trading-up factor: It's always difficult to trade up at the stadiums with big attendance but I was able to turn my standing room ticket into a seat that would have satisfied Ferris Bueller by the eighth inning. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Cubs were losing badly and fans were bailing early, but then again, that's often the case at Wrigley.

And I'm giving the Cubs extra points for their bleacher policy, which is the opposite of everywhere else. Here, you have can't get into the bleachers without a bleacher ticket. 4

16. Seat comfort: Maybe it was because I was standing the entire game but my seat sure felt comfortable when I finally sat down. Not bad for an 89-year-old stadium. 3.5

17. Knowledge of local fans: And now, because I haven't written it for at least three weeks, here is Lee Elia's famous 1983 screed against the fans at Wrigley Field.

"Eight-five percent of the people in this country work. The other 15 percent come to this park and boo my players. They oughta go out and get a ----ing job and earn a ----ing living. Eighty-five percent of the world is working. The other 15 percent come here. ----ing playground for the ----suckers."

Unlike Elia, I love the fans at Wrigley, even though many are there not because they love (or know) baseball but because it's THE place to be. But I'm telling you this right now. I've never had a home run hit anywhere near me at a big-league game but were I ever lucky enough to catch one at Wrigley, there is no friggin' way I would throw it back onto the field. This is the worst tradition in sports. 3.5

THE GRADES
Grades for ballpark we've visited so far on our summer tour:

Pac Bell (Giants): 93
Camden Yards (Orioles): 92
Edison Field (Angels): 84
Kauffman Stadium (Royals): 84
Wrigley Field (Cubs): 84
Dodger Stadium (Dodgers): 82.5
Comerica Park (Tigers): 82
Fenway Park (Red Sox): 81.5
Safeco Field (Mariners): 81.5
Jacobs Field (Indians): 81
Turner Field (Braves): 81
Pro Player Stadium (Marlins): 78
U.S. Cellular Field (White Sox): 74
Yankee Stadium (Yankees): 73.5
Bank One Ballpark (D-Backs): 72
SkyDome (Blue Jays): 67
Qualcomm Stadium (Padres): 58
Tropicana Field (Devil Rays): 56
Veterans Stadium (Phillies): 53.5
Olympic Stadium (Expos): 49

Complete rankings by category

18. Take Me Out to the Ballgame moment: Built in 1890, New York's Carnegie Hall has hosted more than 85,000 events, including concerts by George Gershwin, Marian Anderson, Toscanini, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the Beatles. The largest of its three auditoriums seats 2,800 and its acoustics are so superb that Isaac Stern calls "the Hall itself an instrument -- it takes what you do and makes it larger than life.''

The greatest stage an artist can perform from, however, is the window of the radio booth at Wrigley Field during the seventh-inning stretch when guests lean out to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." 5

19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: There are so many terrific bars around Wrigley -- the Cubby Bear and Murphy's Bleachers just to name two -- that not even Chris Farley could have drunk his way through them in one season. Though I'm sure he tried. 5

20. Wild Card: On second thought, this place is better than Disneyland or Yosemite. Babe Ruth never played in Disneyland and he never hit one out of Yosemite Park. 10

TOTAL SCORE FOR WRIGLEY FIELD: 84