Tech boom presents new wrinkles for Wrigley Field

During a recent game at Wrigley Field, John Weber was using a pencil and score card to expertly track the game between his hometown Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 86-year-old retired transit worker figures he is an increasingly rare kind of baseball fan.

“Look around, do you see many people keeping score?” he asked.

No indeed. Between batters and between pitches, most fans in the stands at Wrigley — and everywhere else in the majors — take their eyes off the game to peck away at smartphones, phablets, tablets and iPads. Few bother to figure out the baseball hieroglyphics that Weber and other purists lovingly scrawl on their cards.

The Cubs are hoping to add a massive video scoreboard to Wrigley as early as next year in what would be the biggest renovation at Wrigley since lights were installed more than a quarter century ago. The plan has stirred plenty of opposition, with many wondering if modern electronics will rob some of the mystique that surrounds the venerable ballpark, which hosted its first game on April 23, 1914 — 100 years ago Wednesday.

The scene in the stands illustrates how Wrigley is already a modern park and in fact got there faster than some of the newer, shinier stadiums around the country. The Cubs were the first to install a moving walkway back in the 1950s (it was removed a few years later) and in 2012 were one of the first teams in the majors to offer Wi-Fi.

“The Cubs were ahead of their time and, frankly, ahead of the league,” said Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB Advanced Media, the league's interactive branch.

The lack of a video scoreboard is a glaring reminder that the Cubs have some catching up to do. That is even more obvious this year thanks to a new instant replay system that allows teams to challenge umpires' calls.

“With this replay for our fans, 75 million of them at the games, get to see what everyone sees at home,” Bowman said.

Except at Wrigley, where fans have to wait until they get home or watch the television monitors while they're in line to buy a hot dog or beer.

“How ridiculous is that?” asked Marc Ganis, a sports consultant with SportsCorp Ltd. in Chicago, who once advised the Cubs' prior owner, the Tribune Co. “The only time you see it is when you're not in your seat.”

The lack of a video board is only the most visible example of some of the differences between Wrigley and other parks. Rather than ordering food and drink on a hand-held device and having it delivered right to their seats, fans at Wrigley get things the old-fashioned way: By yelling at vendors roaming the aisles or making a trip to the concession stands.

The Cubs can't do it any other way because Wrigley Field is so small that food must be prepared off-site. A proposed $300 million renovation project includes construction of commissary, though team spokesman Julian Green said a final decision hasn't been made.

The Cubs are also examining whether to join the roughly 20 teams that have customized Major League Baseball's At the Ballpark app to give fans access to information about ballparks as they enter, from seat location to specials on merchandise. One thing the Cubs say they won't be doing any time soon is allowing fans to upgrade their seats via their hand-held devices.

“There are a lot of great innovations happening at new ball parks but Wrigley has magic (and) we need to be careful that we don't implement technology that takes away from the experience of Wrigley, the experience of what it has been like for sons going to games with their fathers, and their fathers' fathers,” said Andrew McIntyre, the Cubs' senior director of information technology.

Many fans do worry that the Cubs' embrace of technology could change the atmosphere at the friendly confines for the worse. They want to see the park as they imagine past generations saw it.

“Any modernization, you risk losing what made it special,” said Todd Jezierski, a 32-year-old Oregon resident. He said when a friend heard he was coming to Wrigley, he excitedly told him he just had to visit the restrooms and see the ancient urinal troughs.

Charlie Tausche, a 75-year-old retired attorney, has less of a problem with a massive video board than with the technology-toting young people who will flock the Wrigley in greater numbers once school lets out.

“They stand up in front of you in the middle of the game and take their selfies,” he complained.

The oldest stadium in the majors, Boston's Fenway Park, is awash in video boards and still remains one of the jewels of baseball at 112 years old. And — this is a big one for long-suffering Cubs fans — it has fielded three World Series winners in the last decade.

Robert Garcia, a 38-year-old Chicago teacher who came to a recent game decked out in a Cubs hat, jacket and clutching a score card and pencil he just bought, said the essence of Wrigley will remain with new technology.

“When you come in and look down you still see the ivy, you still see the bleachers,” he said.

Even Darryl Wilson, who has been working the manual scoreboard for 23 years, has no objection to all the new technology, including a new video scoreboard.

“I hope they don't think I can keep up with that scoreboard,” he said.

The only electronically operated part of Wrigley Field's iconic scoreboard displays the number of the batter and the number of balls, strikes and outs. Associated Press
Rick Fuhs operates a panel in the press box behind home plate that sends an electrical charge into a panel of half ball-shaped "targets," causing specific ones to flip so that they add up to form the number of the batter, and the number of balls, strikes and outs on Wrigley Field's iconic scoreboard during the April 10 game between Pittsburgh Pirates and Cubs. Associated Press
Brian Helmus changes scores from inside of the scoreboard at Wrigley Field during the April 10 game between Pittsburgh Pirates and Cubs. Associated Press
John Weber keeps score with a pencil and scorecard as he watches the April 10 game between Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The 86-year-old retired transit worker figures he is an increasingly rare kind of baseball fan. Associated Press
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