Between The Lines Online: Field Of Dreams For Sale

We've seen advertisements placed on hubcaps, in toilet stalls, even on pants. Fine. This is America. But in Wrigley Field? Is nothing sacred? The Tribune Co., corporate parent of the Chicago Cubs, is quieting weighing whether to desecrate its own temple with the same eye pollution found in every other baseball park. This must be stopped-not just for the fans, but for the sake of the suits who own the team.

Now I'm not exactly a dispassionate person on this subject. I grew up on Chicago's North Side in the 1960s and 1970s, six blocks from Wrigley Field. Starting when I was 9 years old, my mom would pack me a brown-bag lunch and give me $1.50 for some listlessly performed chores, and I'd head to the park with my friends Billy and Casey in time for midmorning batting practice.

Bleacher seats cost one dollar, which for many years left enough money for both peanuts and a "Frosty Malt" ice cream. I was both corrupted and enlightened by well-lubricated and highly philosophical "Bleacher Bums," the undying (and often unemployed) fans later immortalized in a play by Joe Mantegna.

"The Cubs are heaven in '67," Ernie Banks would chirp. Then: "The Cubs are great in '68." When I was 11, fully expecting the Cubs to "shine in '69," the team blew a big lead and lost the pennant to the New York Mets. I'd walk home from the ballpark each afternoon after the Cubs dropped another one, storm into my room, slam the door and not emerge until dinner.

To me, Wrigley Field was a second home; to other Chicagoans-and thousands of visitors from out of town-it has become a kind of shrine to old-fashioned values. The Cubs haven't won the pennant since 1945; the World Series since 1908-the longest dry spell in professional sports. Box seats now go for $30 apiece, and the Tribune Co. added lights in the 1980s. But there remains something pristine about Wrigley that makes it unique in Major League Baseball. The team draws huge attendance there even when it stinks. I'm not the only one who sees this unspoiled urban green space as a real-life "field of dreams."

So should there be ads in Kevin Costner's Iowa cornfield? Ads in the Grand Canyon? Ads in Notre Dame Cathedral? If they were owned by the Tribune Co., the answer might be yes.

Until now, the Tribune has been a fairly respectful team owner, even on the subject of advertising. In 1986, two Budweiser ads that for three seasons had hung beneath the park's scoreboard were removed. That left ads only in the concourse and atop neighboring apartment buildings, not inside the ballpark itself. In a baseball world where practically every inning is sold to corporate sponsors, this has been a big part of Wrigley's charm.

Then the Tribune Co. got sneaky. When it released its renderings last week of a proposed $11 million dollar renovation of Wrigley Field (mostly adding some seats), there was no mention of ads. In fact, news reports said explicitly the team would do nothing to alter the scoreboard, which is legendary not only because it is the last hand-operated scoreboard in sports, but because it is the only one that is ad-free.

But then the Chicago Tribune's marketing columnist, Jim Kirk, reported that the company believed it could get as much as $10 million a year in revenue for adding signage inside the park. This was leaked at a moment when the Cubs are clinging to a lead in the National League Central Division, despite an anemic offense. The suggestion was made that $10 million could buy the Cubs another slugger to back up Sammy Sosa.

To Cubs fans who have suffered 93 years without a championship, that's like something out of "Sophie's Choice." It's the Tribune Co. saying: "We'll give you a World Series if you let us ruin the ballpark." Or conversely: "You can keep your charming park-and stay losers."

Blair Kamin, the Tribune's Pulitizer Prize-winning architectural critic, had the guts to criticize the idea in the newspaper. But he offered a compromise that lets his employers off the hook: allowing signs-behind home plate, for instance-aimed at the television audience, not the fans in the park.

This would ruin the "ivy shot" that immediately identifies a game at Wrigley and, more important, send the team on a slippery slope to full-fledged commercialism. Each year, management would add another sign here, another there, and soon enough, Wrigley Field would be older but otherwise no different than the other cozy ballparks built in its image.

Anything can be rationalized. I'm sure someone in the Tribune Tower is making the argument that the "Wrigley" in Wrigley Field is named after the chewing gum company that owned the team for many years. If ads are introduced, attendance won't fall off immediately. But little by little, Wrigley Field will lose its singular luster. Then, one season when the Cubs are back in the cellar, the owners will ask themselves why the fans aren't coming to the park the way they once did. The answer will be on the scoreboard, but not where the wins and losses are tallied.