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The Globe and Mail

Quaint Wrigley Field about to lose part of its charm with video scoreboard

Their vantage point from Murphy's Bleachers gives Emily Lowe and the graduating law class of Loyola University a sweeping vision of 99-year-old Wrigley Field, a ballpark slated for a $300-million renovation by the Chicago Cubs' principal owner, the Ricketts family.

The rooftop stands are erected on top of brownstones along Sheffield and Waveland Avenues, letting fans from outside the actual stadium watch the Cubs play. There's nothing quite like this in all of major-league baseball, but with new giant video boards to be installed as part of the modernization, the views from the rooftops are likely to be obstructed or blocked altogether.

The scoreboards have become a trigger point in the citywide debate about the owners' intentions for Wrigley. In much the same ballpark atmosphere from one generation to the next, fans have watched Hack Wilson, Rogers Hornsby, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins and Ryne Sandberg among other greats. Change comes, regrettably.

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Situated in the city's gentrified North Side, surrounded by expensive condos and trendy restaurants, Wrigley, the second oldest stadium in the majors, is the last holdout among baseball stadiums against the jumbo video boards, with the oldest, Fenway Park in Boston, having received one two seasons ago. At Cubs games, spectators receive the inning-by-inning accounts of runs scored, hits and errors from a hand-operated, heritage-protected wooden board in centre field. Part of the stadium legend is that no ball has ever struck the scoreboard, though Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates came close in 1959 with a home run launched out of the stadium and onto Waveland Avenue.

Harry Caray announced the games here, and his caricature is drawn onto a sign above Murphy's. He would scream, "Cubs win! Cubs win!" and after one of those victories, a white flag with a blue "W" is still hoisted above the iconic scoreboard, while after a loss, a blue flag with a white "L" goes up.

The Cubs last won a World Series title in 1908, six years before Wrigley opened, in the same year Ford Motors introduced the Model T.

During today's era of $25-million sluggers and $20-million pitchers, club chairman Tom Ricketts argues that greater revenues must be generated within the baseball park, in order to finance competitive player payrolls in the future. A 6,000-square-foot video scoreboard would go up over the left-field stands and a 1,000-square-foot video board would be erected in right to show replays and highlights, games, player statistics and crucially, advertisements. An industry expert estimates that the boards would generate more than $5-million annually in advertising sales.

"If this plan is approved, we will win the World Series for our fans and our city," said Ricketts, dangling the carrot.

With a new physical plant, the experience of watching a ball game at Wrigley Field would be altered dramatically. Minus the video boards, Wrigley remains a throwback to "traditional Americana, and what it means to relax, to watch a slow-moving game and to ... be free of big screens," says Aimee Morrison, University of Waterloo professor of English and a specialist in new media studies.

Lowe, the law student, beer in hand, said people are conflicted on the issue.

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"This is great out here, and at the same time our stadium is really outdated so it needs some renovations," she said. "I would like to see a scoreboard. There's a really great relationship that they have with the rooftop owners but at the same time modern amenities are lacking in our stadium."

Stadium video boards keep growing in size and improving in pixel quality, topped this season by a new monitor at Safeco Field in Seattle measuring more than 11,000 square feet.

"Ten years ago it was nice to have a board," said Barrett Davie, vice-president and founder of InStadium, a Chicago-based firm that places advertisements on more than 500 such boards around North America. "Today you've got to have one. You need the content as a vibrant, entertaining means of engaging fans. ... It doesn't change the speed of the game. It adds an additional component to the entertainment environment."

Sitting in Wrigley's first-base stands now, the eyes of 40-year-old probation officer Brian Modjeski and his two young sons may drift to the third-base coach to wonder about the sign he's flashing, toward the outfielders to see how they're adjusting to the next hitter, to the bullpen to detect stirring. For some, this is the beauty of baseball as a spectator sport, having the luxury of time to consider what's next from pitch to pitch, out to out, inning to inning.

"I've been a fan without [a video board] for so long, and you don't know what you're missing if you don't have it," Modjeski said. "I'm here to watch a game, not to have the bells and whistles. But these young boys, they have all kinds of things to do these days and at other stadiums, it's become like a carnival during the games. They'll want to be entertained."

Once those boards are installed, even the hardened third-generation Cubs fans in Wrigley will be magnetized as a matter of physiological response.

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"You're having your attention directed by the video board with replays and flash stats," Morrison said. "It's like magic. You're looking at where the magician wants you to look and missing everything else."

In a sense, baseball contradicts the societal evolution hastened by the surge of modern information delivery and maybe that's why some deride the sport as 'dad's game.'

"Twenty years ago, between pitches people would look for signs or slight shifts in the defence. These days they look at their phones," Jay Pratt, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, wrote in an e-mail.

The Ricketts paid $845-million for the Cubs in 2009 and the renovation, if approved, is to be financed without taxpayer dollars. While the Cubs don't need big monitors to lure fans, the boards generate cash based on attendance and these days, franchise owners such as the Ricketts worry that large-screen digital televisions in homes and sports bars will mitigate their take at the gate. The stadium boards are seen as enhancements to the game-day experience.

The Wrigleyville Rooftop Owners, midway through a 20-year contract with the Cubs, are threatening litigation if the boards block sightlines but the talking point is really about tradition.

"I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a few years ago and I told someone there that I work in a bar next to Wrigley Field," said John Long, the Murphy's manager. "First thing the guy asked me, 'have you ever been on a rooftop?' Yea, I said, we have one. ... It's been a great relationship but now they want to change everything. It'd be a shame to lose something so unique to Chicago."

Wrigley got lights and night games starting in 1988. Twenty-five years later, time's come for another change on the North Side of Chicago, and it won't come easy.

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