Derrek Lee did not hit the ball off the best part of the bat at Wrigley Field Saturday, with his team down two runs and the bases loaded with two outs in the ninth inning. He watched the flight of the ball, but without his usual bop out of the batter's box. Despite the seven years in which he plied his trade at Wrigley, he was not sure the ball was gone until it nestled itself into the basket atop the wall in deep left field.
Perhaps what made the ball so hard to read for Lee was the stark backdrop into which it sailed. The bleachers at Wrigley on Saturday were as empty as ever in recent memory. They may never have been more barren. A long rain delay played a role, but only a small one. Home attendance for the Chicago Cubs is dropping fast.
Because a large number of tickets are gobbled up as soon as they go on sale each year, the numbers do not tell the story—though even by that oversimplified metric, Chicago is drawing some 2,000 fewer fans per game than they were in 2009. The real numbers—the count of those who come through the turnstiles, watch the ballgame and spend their money on souvenirs, merchandise and concessions—are far worse than that.
Once charming, the Cubs' ancient ballpark now feels a bit outdated. When the rains came, fans had little choice but to retreat to dreary, closed concourses with few good places to pass the time. In modern parks, those fans would be able to easily watch the field, absorb the afternoon drenching while sitting at a picnic table or drifting from one artful exhibit about their team's history to another.
It's high time the Cubs made some changes. Most importantly, of course, they need to field a more competitive team. Failing that, though (and it looks like they will fail to do that in 2012, and maybe 2013), they need to change their direction. Renovations to Wrigley are long overdue. The recent overhauls have been rather piecemeal in nature, not anything especially coherent or aesthetic.
It's time for more and better lighting in the concourses. It's time for a better tribute to Cubs legends inside the ballpark than the current series of hanging, forgettable banners that line the lower concourse. It's time for the team to make use of the ramps that lead to the stadium's upper deck by setting up walk-up bars at the turns or showcasing the southward view of the city skyline behind the grandstand on the first-base side.
It's time to reconfigure the bleacher entry and allow fans with tickets to other parts of the park to walk along below the bleachers, where the most fascinating stadium club and other fan facilities could be set up.
Obviously, much of that is currently impossible as a result of spatial limitations. In order for most of these renovations to occur, the team needs to move now on the long-awaited Triangle Building project. The Ricketts want public financing for it; they will not get it. The window of opportunity to keep Wrigley Field viable, and to make it a cash cow again, will close in about five years. Further delay is unacceptable.
Once upgrades are made, though, the Cubs still need to work on their public image. Their reputation for blowing leads and rising and falling through the standings like the tides has damaged the feeling of general good times around the park. They need a new culture, as they are so fond of saying, but it need not be a competitive one; it has only to be a marketable one. They need to re-inject fun into the neighborhood and reinvigorate the park by livening it up without selling its soul.
Wally Hayward's two seasons on the job as the Cubs' marketing guru have been abject failures. He needs to be the next head to roll in the new era of Ricketts accountability. With whom they replace him is a question for another time, but right now, the Cubs need to focus on rehabbing their image and promoting their brand much more effectively than they have since John McDonough left the team in late 2007.