Column: Wrigley Field’s drawing power means the Chicago Cubs need only the illusion of contending

18 July 2023

Back in the opening week of the 2006 season, in a Chicago Tribune article accompanied by cartoonist Rick Tuma’s illustrations, I offered some predictions of what a Wrigley Field experience would be like 20 years in the future.

“No one knows what Wrigley Field or the Cubs will look like 20 years from now,” I wrote. “But at this rate there will be far fewer day games, bleacher tickets will cost $400 and the manager still will be barking about his players’ fundamentals.”

The 2006 Cubs were 98 years into the franchise’s famous World Series drought and entering the final year of the Andy MacPhail era, which began with the ill-advised marketing slogan “We’re Working On It” and ended with the dismissal of Dusty Baker.

Though three years remain until 2026, I’ve given up on most of my predictions, some of which were purposely silly, such as “rent-a-glove booths” for fans and a section of the right-field bleachers officially designated as “Wooville,” followed by a proposal from an alderman to eliminate Wooville as a “neighborhood nuisance.”

I also predicted that in 2016 the Cubs would build a glass skywalk connecting the Addison Street L station to the ballpark — which I still believe would work — and that in 2023 the team finally would erect a statue of former slugger Sammy Sosa, which obviously won’t happen under the Ricketts family ownership.

I envisioned “pop-up Jumbotrons” arriving in 2012 to placate a generation of fans who wanted video replays at the old ballpark and four sportsbook kiosks — located in the bleachers, the left- and right-field concourses and under the neon marquee — after sports gambling would be legalized in 2018. (It was legalized in Illinois in 2019, so I missed it by one year.)

The only predictions that have come true are far fewer day games and the removal of the ugly concrete slabs that covered the brick exterior of the outer wall to restore its original look.

What I could not predict was a boutique hotel owned by the Cubs owners and located across the street from Wrigley with a suite that goes for $6,584.17 for three nights in July.

But that was the price Marriott’s website listed Monday for a Friday-Monday stay at the Hotel Zachary during the upcoming Cubs-Cardinals series. A daily $75 valet parking fee was not included, but presumably each room includes a free bar of soap — a luxury I recently discovered is not offered at all Marriott properties.

If the Rickettses can find some suckers from Missouri or downstate Illinois willing to pay that kind of coin to watch their last-place team play the sub.-500 Cubs, more power to them. No one has ever accused the Cubs owners of being dumb, with the one exception perhaps.

There are plenty of cheaper hotels downtown, but nothing can beat the experience of Cubs-Cardinals weekend. And guests are only a few steps from Bernie’s, so they don’t have to call an Uber after postgame drinking.

It’s a win-win-win for the Rickettses, the Cubs and Cardinals fans with tons of money to blow.

As summer hits its sweet spot in Chicago and the Cubs dangle between being buyers and sellers at the trade deadline, it’s as good a time as any to acknowledge the magnetic draw Wrigley has on baseball fans.

Some franchises need a winning team to sell tickets. The Cubs once needed only sunshine and beer. But after complaining ad nauseam they needed more night games to be competitive, now they really need only beer.

Marcus Stroman, who is set to earn a nine-figure deal when he opts out of his contract, doesn’t seem to understand why the Cubs might trade him or Cody Bellinger by Aug. 1 if they’re seemingly out of contention.

“Everyone is always putting this emphasis on ‘Oh, we need to play good in seven days, 10 days, and then we can be buyers,’” he said Saturday. “But I actually don’t believe in that. This division is wide open, and then if you even look deeper than that, as an organization why would you not want to be competitive for multiple years — year after year after year?

“Belli is a guy who changed our lineup. Why would you want him to get away? Why would you want a guy like myself (to get away) who goes out there and gives you quality starts in a league that’s incredibly hard to do?”

The answer is simple. The Cubs can replace Stroman and Bellinger with less expensive players, still play at a sub-.500 pace in a bad division and continue to draw just under 34,000 fans. Meanwhile, the hotel the Cubs owners built still can charge more than $2,000 a night for a series against an old rival.

Winning isn’t a necessity, even as the Cubs maintain they’re putting every dollar they make right back into the team. Contending is nice, but the illusion of contending is all that really matters.

If Stroman and Bellinger are gone on Aug. 1, the Cubs will start selling the promise of the prospects they got in return, just like they did when Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez were dealt during the Great Summer Sell-off of 2021.

The Rickettses surely want to win, but they know it’s not a prerequisite to keep the wheelbarrows full of cash flowing. Wrigley always will be a bucket-list destination for baseball fans, which is why it was smart for the owners to invest in the neighborhood, to monetize every nook and cranny of the ballpark, to hold rock concerts that can be heard from miles away, to build a sportsbook and to let paying customers hit golf balls from the upper deck when the Cubs are out of town.

Wrigley is their ATM.

Who knows what the Wrigley Field experience will be like 20 years from now? I’m done predicting. But I do know someone will be making lots of money off of fans’ love of the iconic ballpark.

Wrigley is the gift that keeps on giving.


Need help?

If you need support, please send an email to [email protected]

Thank you.