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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

A Better Ballpark for Sox Fans!

Part 3.  Chicago's Ballparks.

During the 2000, as the Sox were tearing apart the American League and the Cubs were again taking on the role of  perennial National League doormat, the media repeatedly asked the same question about White Sox fans: "Why don't they show up at Comiskey Park when the Sox are winning?"

Conventional wisdom had it that all it would take for Sox fans to forgive and forget their beefs with ownership would be awinning team. When it became apparent that the club would win the AL Central, and the fans still didn't show up in the numbers many expected, the question became, "What will it take for the fans to come to Comiskey Park?"

Numerous theories arose. "The upper deck is keeping the fans away." Never mind that Comiskey's lower deck seatingis as good or better than what is found in most major league ballparks. "Comiskey Park is in a bad neighborhood." This theory received a lot of play on WGN radio which happens to be owned by the Tribune Co., owners of the Cubs, and which
happens to be the Cubs flagship radio station. And incident involving sportstalk Bill Simonson, in which he claimed to have been beaten up by neighborhood goons didn't help, especially since he used the Sox flagship station, WMVP (ESPN-1000) as his forum for criticizing the neighborhood and its residents. Never mind that the "Wrigleyville" area has a higher crime rate than the Bridgeport neighborhood that adjoins Comiskey. About the only theory that made sense was the Sox fans' hatred of owner Jerry Reinsdorf. After the 1993 strike, during which Reinsdorf was one of the leading "hawks" and the "White Flag Trade" in which two starters and the Sox closer were traded for prospects in late July when the Sox were only 3.5 games behind the Indians, this made sense to a lot of Sox fans who were also wondering what it would take to make it back.

The Cubs, meanwhile, drew their usual 2.8 million fans. This just convinced the "experts" what they had "known" all along - that Chicago is a "Cubs town." Of course all of this flies in the face of the fact that the Sox attendance of 1,947,799 was their best attendance since the division title year, and that the attendance was an increase of over 600,000 from their
terrible 1999 attendance.

Most Sox fnas knew what would happen. The afterglow of the successful 2000 season would cause an increase in ticket sales for 2001. The pre-season sale of season tickets seemed to bear this out. Pre-season publicity indicated that season ticket sales were at about 12,000. The individual game sales would be up, too. Of course the dismal 14-29 start the Sox had in 2001 killed off any boost in sales. Meanwhile, their crosstown rivals again drew their automatic 2.8 million attendance.

2001 was the year of Phase 1 of Comiskey Park's three-year renovation plan. The owners weren't about to sell, the "White Flag Trade" was looking pretty good with Lorenzo Barcelo, and Keith Foulke all in the bullpen, and the character or the neighborhood surrounding the park wasn't going to change. The only choice Reinsdorf had was to swallow his surveys that supposedly said the problem wasn't with Comiskey Park, to quit denying that the fans saw Reinsdorf's pet project as a liability and to renew it.

The first changes were to the most visible part of the ballpark to TV cameras. The bullpens were rotated 90 degrees and placed in front of the outfield seats. More seating was added to put fans nearer the field down the foul lines, ostensibly to replace the seats that would be removed during Phase 3, the redesign of the upper deck.. A patio was put in above the Bullpen Bar. Fans expressed approval, but the team's terrible start offset the improvement. Sox attendance dropped off by about 200,000 while the Cubs attendance at their venerable old ballpark again hit the automatic 2.8
million mark.

Then something strange and wonderful happened. The Tribune Co. decided it wanted to expand Wrigley Field by adding more bleacher seats. To do this, the bleachers would have to overhang the sidewalk outside of Waveland and Sheffield Avenues., and those bleachers would have to be supported by posts. Those posts would have to go into the sidewalks on those streets. To top things off, the current agreement allowing eighteen night games at Wrigley was about to end. The Cubs wanted to add more. The reason for both of these moves was to increase revenues which would help
the Tribune Co. field "a competitive team."

The result was a firestorm. Preservationists cried that Wrigley Field is a historic landmark and shouldn't be tampered with. Owners of the bleacher seats erected on the rooftops of several buildings cried that the expansion would block the view of their paying customers. Other residents decried the increased public urination that would inevitably result from more fans and more night games. Mayor Daley was against it. The alderman from the neighborhood was against it. You would have thought the Tribune Co. was asking to spray graffiti on all of the neighborhood walls.

The Tribune Co. regrouped its forces and presented an alternative design for the expansion that would have fewer posts.  They put into the design a window where people could look in for a second and see the game as they passed by. A referendum was held during the March elections to get a sense of what the neighborhood wanted. The result was a resounding defeat for the Tribune Co.

Then in what seemed more like a petulant fit than the sound reasoning of a multi-billion dollar corporation, the Tribune Co. announced just before the Cubs' first homestand that it was "declaring war" on the owners of the rooftop bleachers. They correctly pointed out that the rooftop viewers were viewing games that the Cubs were playing for profit, and that the Tribune Co. was not receiving a single dime from this.

The result was the announcement that the Wrigley Filed would now have a new feature. Where there had been only chain link fences ("Hey! Hey! There goes one over the fence!") behind the bleachers, a screen would be added. Helium balloons would float over the fence and screen. The Tribune Co., after saying that it was declaring war on the freeloaders, then had the audacity to say that this was "for security reasons," invoking memories of 9/11. You have to worry about snipers in the windows of those buildings and in the bleachers on the roof, you know. The aesthetics of these changes
were, to say the least, an abomination.

As it stands now, the Tribune Co. has a face full of eggs and yet another miserable team on the field. One question now facing Cubdom is, "Has the Tribune Co. exhausted whatever goodwill it had from its neighbors?" The answer is an obvious "Yes!" You know things are bad when Mayor Daley goes on a rant, and in the one he had for the Tribune Co., he was especially sarcastic. "They should put a thousand foot high curtain around Soldiers [sic] Field to keep people from... high rises from seeing the Bears games!"

Another important question is, "Has Wrigley Field lost some of its charm." Again the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" That black screen flapping in the wind outside the ballpark looked like a slapdash solution that has made a classic ballpark look tacky.

The most important question is, "Will any of this keep Cubs fans away from Wrigley Field. The answer here is, "Probably not, at least as long as there is beer flowing and young women continue to wear halter tops. However, seeing how the Tribune Co. has treated the centerpiece of its baseball operations (you didn't think it was the actual team put on the filed, did you?), it gives one pause. Perhaps this faceless entity has finally gone a step too far and people will think twice about who their money is going to. Naaaaah! These are Cubs fans! What was I thinking?

As opening day approached at Comiskey Park, the buzz was that the renovations were far more profound than those of Phase 1. We had the opportunity to see them for the first time on April 13. Nearly two years ago in this column we proposed the Sox take a cue from Detroit's Comerica Park and cover some of that gray concrete with brick to give the concourses a warmer feeling. We'd like to take credit for the Sox doing this, but the fact is we don't know why they chose to do this. No matter the reason, the brick on the walls and posts in the lower concourse really does make the park feel a lot more like a building designed for humans and not a warehouse.

The signage outside the park and throughout the lower concourse also looks much better than what had previously been there. The dark green reminds one of old Comiskey, and the lettering reminds one of that on Sox uniforms from the second Bill Veeck era.

But the piece de resistance is the new batter's eye. What before looked like a corrugated steel shed now is a terraced structure sporting evergreen bushes and ivy. The ivy will take a while to fill in, and when it does, I don't think it will remind anyone of Wrigley Field, at least not from the design of the walls in the new structure. Behind the batter's eye there is now a little plaza area with picnic tables and a green screen that fans can stand behind to watch play while still being hidden from the view of the hitters. This is also a nice touch.

The big question on the South Side now is, "Will the fans take to the new look, and will this, coupled with what appears to be a Sox team in resurgence, bring in fans?" Jerry Reinsdorf is banking on the fact that it will. The only setback so far is that there appears to be no funding available for Phase 3 which would reconfigure the upper deck. Talks with potential
corporate sponsors fell through, and these plans have been put on hold. Can you hear the whiners crying, "But the upper deck is still horrible," and "The seats are still blue!"?

Now comes the O. Henry style twist. Some readers of this column have expressed the view that there has been far too much negativism here concerning Sox management. Well, when it comes to the renovations at Comiskey Park, that's far from the case. Jerry Reinsdorf saw a perceived problem, and he has done something about it. Comiskey Park is now a lot better looking ballpark than it was just two years ago. Reinsdorf has listened to you, Sox fans.

Now it's your turn. Go to the ballpark. Support this Sox team. Put money in Reinsdorf's coffers so he can spend more.   He's listened to you. Now show that you really meant what you said about Comiskey Park: "If they rebuild it, I will come!" Now it's time to put up or shut up.

Part 1.  Tribune vs. Reinsdorf:  the early years.

Part 2. A Ballmall for Chicago?


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at nsmf@aol.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

Have a Thought about
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hica



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