Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news:

Cubs owners bankroll opponent to alderman they’re still mad at for denying them a bigger Jumbotron

If you were following the Chicago Cubs‘ battle over renovations to Wrigley Field a few years back, you’ll probably remember Tom Tunney, the alderman who squabbled with the team owners (and even himself) over the size of video boards and other minor issues. The Cubs’ owners sure remember him, because now they’re apparently trying to use their billions to get him thrown out of office:

Elizabeth Shydlowski, one of Tunney’s rivals in the Feb. 26 vote, is funded primarily by donations from Cubs management. The team also has clear links to a dark money group that in recent months has papered the ward with anti-Tunney mailers.

Regardless of what you think of Tunney — I, for one, haven’t followed his positions on more important issues than video board size, because it’s outside of the scope of this blog — that is some serious 800-pound-gorilla vengefulness to fund an entire campaign challenger just because you’re mad at someone who caused you minor headaches half a decade ago. Though the more we find out about the Ricketts family, the more that vengeance seems to be one of their defining motivations.

As for Shydlowski, she criticized Tunney for owning the Ann Sather’s restaurant chain — okay, Tunney’s other interests are outside the scope of this blog aside from his cinnamon rolls — and hence having to recuse himself from lots of council votes, which is pretty hilarious for someone who’s hoping to be responsible for lots of votes involving her main funder. She also chimed in on the “Joe Ricketts is a serial Islamophobic email forwarder” controversy, saying she disagreed with Ricketts’ statements but that she wouldn’t be returning his money, because voters only “care about not having rats in the streets.”

Anyway, this has been today’s reminder that the rich are very different from you and me: When they think their local elected official is a self-interested hack, instead of calling his office or writing a letter to the editor, they simply buy him an opponent. Next time any journalists ask me why local politicians are so eager to placate sports team owners, I’m just pointing them to this post and leaving it at that.

How Joe Ricketts Cost Himself $300m in Stadium Subsidies By Forwarding Racist Conspiracy Theories

This is going to take a minute to get to the stadium connection, so bear with me:

Joe Ricketts, the patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, and also the man who started the news site DNAinfo and bought my current part-time employer Gothamist before shutting them both down in a hissy fit when they unionized, recently had a cache of his old emails leaked to the news site Splinter (which is owned by Gizmodo Media Group, whose site Deadspin I sometimes write for). The whole series is well worth reading — I’ve previously mentioned here the revelation that Joe’s son Todd once suggested moving the Cubs in a hissy fit after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel bragged about refusing to give them public money for stadium renovations — but today’s installment, collecting all the racist and/or crazy email memes that Joe Ricketts shared with his family, includes this invaluable nugget he forwarded in 2011:

It appears Barry fled New York to Chicago using his new identity to get a job . He likely ordered a fake diploma to bolster his new identity as “Obama”. Fake diplomas were very big in the 80s and diploma mills were even being used by federal workers to get promotions. There is evidence his alleged attendance at Columbia was faked (Barry never attended Columbia) and Barry lied his way into Harvard (he had no transcripts to get in)… Including telling the Saudi royal family he was fighting in Afghanistan with the Muslim Jihad against the Russians, so they would help him get into a law school.

“Barry” is Barack Obama, and the rest of it is the conspiracy theory that the then-president was secretly a Muslim and faked his birth certificate and maybe was a male prostitute and … you may have heard the rest from a certain then-presidential candidate.

Fine, so Joe Ricketts believes unverified things he reads on the internet, like a lot of people. Unlike a lot of people, though, shortly thereafter he also considered spending $10 million on an anti-Obama attack ad, only to have to pull it when people started canceling their accounts with his brokerage TD Ameritrade. But Emanuel, who prior to being elected Chicago mayor had served as Obama’s White House chief of staff, was reportedly “livid” about the proposed ads, and stopped talking to Cubs officials entirely about nearly $300 million in public money he’d been considering providing for the Cubs’ private renovations to Wrigley Field. Ricketts never got his public money, ended up spending his own money on Wrigley renovations, and now people are blaming that for the Cubs not wanting to spend money on Bryce Harper this winter. (Though it doesn’t make any sense economically — if anything, spending lots of money on a renovated stadium creates more of an incentive to spend money on a winning team in order to fill those more-expensive seats with more expensive fannies. And there are plenty of other explanations why the Cubs, and everybody, haven’t signed Bryce Harper.)

Ricketts apologized yesterday for some of his emails, though he didn’t specify which ones — he also had written that “Islam is a cult and not a religion” and replied “good one” to an anti-Muslim Star Trek joke, so there’s a lot to choose from. Anyway, just one more week before pitchers and catchers report to Cubs spring training! Feel the excitement!

Cubs co-owner once got so steamed at mayor for refusing subsidy demands that he suggested selling or moving team

This doesn’t quite rise to the level of news per se, but it’s getting lots of attention and it’s a Deadspin scoop and they’re nice and pay me money to write for them, so what the heck: Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts once got so mad at an interview where Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel bragged about refusing the team’s stadium subsidy demands that he suggested moving the Cubs out of town.

Having received a final proposal for the Ricketts investment in the Cubs, Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune [in 2013]:

When I first started this discussion, the Cubs wanted $200 million in taxpayer dollars. I said no. Then they said we’d like $150 million, and I said no. Then they asked whether they could have $100 million in taxpayer subsidies, and I said no. Then they asked about $55 million in taxpayer subsidies. I said no. The good news is, after 15 months they heard the word ‘No.’”

Todd Ricketts, a prominent Republican fundraiser and the current finance chariman of the Republican National committee, forwarded the story to his father and siblings, writing:

I think we should contemplate moving, or at least recognize that we are maybe not the right organization to own the Cubs.

That’s pretty weak tea, but it is amusing to see that the hissy fits thrown by rich dudes come off just as petty in private emails as in public statements. But then, Todd Ricketts is a guy whose dad, according to another part of the email cache that Deadspin’s sister site Splinter has uncovered, once sent his entire family a list of bullet points about how great rich people are, so it only makes sense that he’d respond to being told “no” on his subsidy demands by threatening to take his ball and go home. He didn’t do it — the Cubs are the third most valuable team in baseball precisely because they play in Chicago, so presumably either his siblings talked him down or he came to his senses — but as a first reaction, that’s so very Ricketts.

Friday roundup: Crew claps back at Modell Law suit, Cincy mayor thinks his citizens are dumb, Wrigley Field is a construction zone again

This week brought thundersnow that led to a fireball in a subway tunnel, but the stadium and arena news was reasonably exciting too:

  • Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt says the lawsuit to force him to offer the team for sale to local owners before moving it to Austin is groundless, since he made “significant investments” in the team “both on and off the field” and yet the team isn’t making money hand over fist like he’d like it to. I would have gone with “fine, you can buy the team if you want, my asking price is one quattuordecillion dollars,” but that’s why Precourt pays himself the big bucks.
  • Oakland Raiders management says it has identified room for 27,000 parking spaces within 1.5 miles of its Las Vegas stadium, and 100,000 spaces within three miles. “Now, obviously, people don’t want to walk three miles, so you have to have a pretty strong infrastructure program and transportation plan in place,” said Raiders president Marc Badain. “We’re working on all of that.” Cool, get back to us!
  • Residents of the West End opposed to building an F.C. Cincinnati soccer stadium on the site of a revered high school football stadium there are all about “maintaining disinvestment, maintaining the status quo and not closing racial and economic gaps but keeping them divided,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said this week. “I think that’s wrong.” But enough with the pandering to your constituents, Mayor Cranley what do you really think about them?
  • Because no arena project can truly be cost-free for the public, the new Muni Metro stop being built at the Golden State Warriors‘ new San Francisco arena has now risen in cost to $51 million, and the city of San Francisco hasn’t figured out how to pay for $17 million of that yet. Not that a new mass transit stop isn’t a public benefit for people other than Warriors fans, but just saying.
  • This is what Wrigley Field looked like as of a couple of weeks ago. There’s still time before opening day, so hopefully this renovation will go better than the Chicago Cubslast big one.
  • Does an “asteroid the size of a sports stadium” zooming past Earth count as stadium news? It does to my custom RSS feed for “stadium” news, so enjoy!

Cubs giving high-priced Wrigley fans own private bar, bathrooms

Speaking of stuff sports teams owners build because they think it’ll help them make more money, the Chicago Cubs ownership has revealed the next renovations to Wrigley Field coming down the pike:

As part of the 1060 Project, an overhaul to the stadium and the area surrounding the venerable ballpark, the Cubs revealed plans for the first of four “premier experiences” Tuesday and launched a priority list for those interested in plopping down a $500 deposit to secure their spot for the right to some exclusive amenities.

The American Airlines 1914 Club is scheduled to open for the 2018 season underneath the club box seating bowl between the home and visiting dugouts.

After the last out of the ’16 season, crews will begin tearing apart the lower bowl behind home plate to build the shell for the club, which will not provide a view of the field but will give fans with tickets in the area a place to go before and during games for upgraded food and beverage options, shelter from the elements and private restrooms. The re-done seating area will be ready for the ’17 season and construction will continue underneath.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is paying for this out of his own pocket, so at least there are no worries about public subsidies going to create what will effectively be an upscale private bar in a baseball stadium. And as far as the Wrigley Field experience goes, the effect should be minimal: The dugouts will be moved a little bit farther down the lines, but probably hardly anyone will notice otherwise.

Mostly, it’s a reminder of what “state-of-the-art” is all about in stadium construction: ways to sell well-off people stuff that can justify sky-high ticket prices. Cubs VP for sales and marketing Colin Faulkner told the Chicago Tribune, “They’re paying up to $350 a ticket in that area and the value that we’re providing them right now is not in line with what they expect.” Apparently what makes people who can afford $350 a ticket feel like the expense is worth it is some marble tabletops to sip their top-shelf liquor at, and not having to go the bathroom next to the hoi polloi. Strange world we live in.

Cubs’ new images of Wrigley’s “Brand Plaza” are just as depressing as that sounds

The Chicago Cubs owners have released new renderings of what the outside of Wrigley Field will look like after the next round of construction projects, including one of the new “triangle building” and public plaza that will sit next to the ballpark’s third-base side:

81364_1448899663_2015_11_30_cubsbrandplaza-largeThe saddest part of this for me of this isn’t the blandly generic architecture that does nothing to complement baseball’s second-oldest ballpark, or even the fact that Cubs fans appear to be milling about aimlessly on a grassy lawn while the Cubs players celebrate some kind of victory on a garish video board looming overhead. Rather, it’s that the building’s name is still given as “Brand Plaza,” in a your-ad-here moment that looked just as awful when it was included on a sketch of a planned pedestrian bridge:

20131121BrandI guess it’s more honest than pretending signs will say “Wrigley Field” when they actually say “Budweiser.” Still, it’s all a reminder of how whereas the Boston Red Sox took pains to integrate more ad signage and commercial activity into Fenway Park in the least obtrusive way possible, the ongoing Wrigley renovations are first and foremost a way to rebrand the Cubs’ stadium as a retro centerpiece to a prefab “entertainment district.” It’s the attention to detail or lack thereof that can make all the difference in the actual fan experience; I still wonder what Janet Marie Smith could have done with the job, but I guess that’s water under the Brand Plaza arch now.

Cubs players not all in favor of pending Wrigley bullpen move

With the NLCS moving to Wrigley Field tonight, it’s time for everyone to write up feature stories on the 101-year-old ballpark’s renovations, including one of the lesser-reported upcoming changes: the move of the bullpens from foul territory to under the bleachers, scheduled to take place for the 2017 season. And as it turns out, even though this is supposedly for the players’ benefit (relievers less exposed to the weather, no more tripping over bullpen mounds while chasing foul balls), some players aren’t too happy about the move:

“I kind of like it,” reliever Jason Motte said [of the current setup]. “It kind of adds to the old school feel at Wrigley. I’ve always liked that about it. Being down the line, it’s one of those things I’ve never really minded…

“Places like Houston, you’re in a dungeon,” Motte said. “This is one of the only places you can interact with the fans, whether it’s at home or on the visiting side. You get to know the people.”

The real reason for the shift — which will place relief pitchers behind the ivy-covered outfield wall, with only a 12-foot-wide chain mesh fence to see out and for fans to see in — is buried in a single sentence in the Tribune article:

[Cubs spokesman Julian] Green said the switch also will add four new rows of seats on each side of the field where the bullpens are currently located.

Meanwhile, the Trib has another article on how the changes to Wrigley, in particular a new hotel and office building the Cubs owners are building across the street, has the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood on “the brink of a new era,” though it’s mostly about how the area has changed itself since the 1980s, when it was “pretty rough and tumble,” according to one local business owner. (My first visit to Wrigley was in 1989, and I remember it being pretty similar to today, only with fewer sports-bar-type businesses, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Cubs management says the new public plaza adjacent to the hotel could make Wrigleyville more like New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, which seems both unlikely and a curious goal since Rockefeller Plaza is largely an overpriced tourist trap surrounded by office buildings, but I guess when you’re trying to justify how an office building will enhance the busiest ballpark neighborhood in the U.S., you’ve got to go with what you can.

Ask another architecture critic: Why do Wrigley Field bleachers suck, and how can we fix them?

The assembled architecture critics of Chicago are really not happy with Cubs owner Tom Ricketts’ renovations of Wrigley Field, and they’re going to let him know about it. First we had Edward Keegan harshing on the blocked views and ugly steel beams in Crain’s Chicago, and now the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin has gone after the new video boards and what they’ve meant for the old hand-operated scoreboard in center field:

At night, Wrigley Field’s new video boards overshadow the old scoreboard, disrupting the carefully calibrated sense of place that makes the ballpark a national treasure.

In the darkness, the new boards project while the old one seems to recede. Much brighter than the old scoreboard and bursting with statistics as well as brightly colored ads that appear between innings, the new boards invariably draw the eye. The replays on the left-field board, a welcome concession to modernity, give fans another reason to turn away from the old focal point in center.

Together, the new features render the center-field scoreboard more ceremonial than useful, like an old clock on a fireplace mantle.

Ouch. But good point: Video boards are way more garish and in-your-face at night, and after all are designed to distract your attention away from other things (the center-field scoreboard, the game itself, your phone) to get you to look at their ads.

Cubs president Crane Kenney told Kamin that he’s looking at ways of lighting the old scoreboard better at night so that it’s not overwhelmed; Kamin suggests just using a darker green on the video boards at night and turning down their brightness. It’s all very reasonable, and hopefully the Cubs will make some adjustments. But it’s all a reminder that the whole reason for the new video boards isn’t to let fans see batters’ OPS against lefties during home night games, but rather to get fans to look at advertising during games at Wrigley. And if that’s not what you think Wrigley is supposed to be about, you should have gotten elected mayor of Chicago and appointed different people to the landmarks commission.

Ask an architecture critic: Why do new Wrigley Field bleachers suck?

The redesigned Wrigley Field bleachers are finally complete, and architecture critic Edward Keegan is here in Crain’s Chicago to tell you what he thinks of the new design. Perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t mind the video boards — the new right-field board is “slightly smaller than the old one and comfortably set as far from centerfield as possible,” while the larger left field board he “won’t quibble with as a 21st century necessity.” But he does complain about the new expanded bleachers blocking the views of surrounding rooftops (not from rooftops, mind you, but of them), and the way the new bleachers structure was designed in the first place:

Seldom noted is the essential early 20th century industrial nature that has always defined the construction of Wrigley Field’s grandstands. Columns are small—and created from elaborate confections of even smaller steel elements. Trusses that support the larger structures—the upper deck, the roof, and the old center field scoreboard—are likewise minimal and elegant in their industrial forthrightness. The Landmarks designation ordinance cites the “exposed structural system” as a protected feature and it should have provided the architects with a guide for the new work.

Instead, the new bleachers and video boards are designed with the bluntness of a highway with columns and beams that are immense in comparison to their predecessors. It’s the design equivalent of the Dan Ryan or Kennedy expressways slicing through old Chicago neighborhoods with complete disregard for their surroundings and their visual impact.

I’m having a hard time finding a photo of the new bleachers in their entirety for some reason, but here’s a photo from Bleed Cubbie Blue showing the big-ass video board support girders. It probably wouldn’t be the first thing I’d complain about, but Keegan does have a point:

IMG_1410.0Anyone who’s been to Cubs games this week care to comment, or share photos?