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Unfriendly Confines

''Now batting, Osama bin Laden'': The Chicago Cubs take the field in the War on Terrorism.

4.10.02

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War is hell, we all know. And few Americans are more aware of that right now than the denizens of Chicago. Most of us are still getting accustomed to the campaign Bush and Rumsfeld and Co. have been prosecuting in the Middle East. North Siders in the Windy City, however, are finding that merely the second major fight to be concerned with.

The longer running and arguably more contentious contest pits one venerable institution, the Chicago Cubs, against the team's neighbors directly across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues from historic Wrigley Field.

One would be excused for thinking these to be completely separate fights. But last week the Cubs, and their corporate overseers the Tribune Co., revealed that the two are much intertwined, and that Wrigley Field is just the latest stop in our national war on terror. That's right. First the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Afghanistan next. Then Wrigley Field.

A little background is in order. At issue in this brouhaha, which inexplicably has drawn in Osama bin Laden and the one-eyed Sheik Omar, are the apartments beyond Wrigley's outfield bleachers. One of the charms of Cubs baseball has long been the team's neighbors watching games from the upper floors and rooftops of these buildings, looking directly over the bleachers and surveying the whole field.

The folks grilling and quaffing a few adult beverages up on the roofs have been as much a part of the Wrigley Field experience as the ivy-covered brick walls, Ernie Banks, day baseball, and routine second-division finishes.

But in recent years this has evolved into some pretty big business -- big business the Cubs don't have a piece of. The buildings' owners don't merely invite a few pals up to the roof; they build large grandstands and rent them out for corporate outings at more than $100 a head. Some have made millions over the years at the baseball equivalent of stealing -- and reselling -- cable.

The Cubs have grudgingly allowed these squatters to filch their product -- it helps the team market Wrigley as the "Friendly Confines" and lends to the allure of the historic park. But they haven't exactly been happy about what they see as lots and lots of lost revenue.

The Cubs have floated two ideas recently that have the residents of Wrigleyville up in arms. First, they would like to play more night games. The neighbors don't want all the nocturnal commotion. Worse, the Cubbies have proposed expanding their bandbox of a stadium and adding 2,000 more bleacher seats.

It's not too hard to guess who loses out in a situation like that -- those whose free view of the field would be blocked. So the property owners on Sheffield and Waveland have been leaning on the various neighborhood and municipal entities capable of stopping the Cubs' plans.

The Cubs themselves are playing hardball, as befits the organization's business model. On Opening Day last week they draped large green tarps along the screens behind the bleachers to block the view from the roofs. They have also threatened to hoist bunches of helium-filled balloons to further obstruct the sight lines from across the street.

A nice parry and thrust, but what ultimately makes the cut so deliciously satisfying is the explanation put forth by the club: terrorism. With a straight face -- and Scout's Honor -- the Cubs claimed the screens are a consequence of a thorough security review conducted after September 11.

Oddly named Cubs flack Mark McGuire told reporters from the Tribune, "What happens right now is you've got 1,000-plus people [on the rooftops] that we have no control over. The people entering our ballpark, we have a chance to screen the packages they bring in. If we lessen some of the views, we lessen some of the risks."

The chutzpah! The gall! The cojones it takes for the Cubs to make a claim like that! It's almost enough to make one admire that they did.

Naturally, local reaction has been one of outrage. Baseball historian and Wrigleyville author Peter Golenbock has blasted the action as "petty and cheap … beyond greed." Mayor Daley's folks, in their best George W. impression, have labeled the team's actions "unhelpful," while their boss joked he's going to erect huge screens around Soldier Field to keep residents of the lakefront highrises from sneaking peaks of Bears' games.

The Cubs are sticking to their guns. And to their credit it should be noted Wrigley has witnessed no terrorist incidents since last week. Still, they have sidestepped the obvious questions, such as what color Tom Ridge would assign to Wrigley Field, or whether Mohammad Atta and his brigades would even have known what Wrigley Field was, especially with a tempting target like the Sears Tower nearby to draw their attention.

But it's not clear how successful the Cubs have actually been in this latest skirmish in the Battle of the Midway. The Daily Herald, a suburban competitor to the Trib, interviewed one rooftop patron on Opening Day who "notes that while the screen does make some outfielders appear green, it barely affects the rooftop view." His buddy was quoted saying, "It's just like watching a scrambled porn channel."

True enough, but not nearly so interesting. The Cubs may have a legitimate argument about the rooftops siphoning off revenue that would otherwise fill the company coffers. It might be the case that those assembled on top of those buildings would otherwise pay to be inside the park. But if that's true, wouldn't the Cubs be better off keeping fans they've identified as potential terrorists outside the Friendly Confines?

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