The Chicago Cubs owners have spent the last decade-plus trying to emulate the Boston Red Sox.
Whether it was hiring Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations, renovating Wrigley Field the same way as Fenway Park, signing free-agent pitcher Jon Lester, creating their own TV network or exploring the purchase of a Premier League soccer team, there seldom has been an idea out of Boston the Cubs couldn’t borrow.
If they could’ve gotten away with playing “Sweet Caroline” during Sunday’s 4-2, 11-inning loss to the Red Sox at Wrigley, you know the Cubs would’ve done it in a heartbeat.
“There is something flattering about it,” former Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino once told me of the copycat Cubs. “If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then we’ll take it.”
So it must’ve been a crushing blow Saturday to Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and President of Business Operations Crane Kenney when Red Sox rookie pitcher Josh Winckowski gave a thumbs-down review of Wrigley.
“A little underwhelming,” Winckowski said after being charged with the loss. “Fenway has a presence to it. I really didn’t get that here, to be honest. I said to my mom last night, this place is very stock standard.”
Wrigley Field? Underwhelming? A run-of-the-mill, “stock standard” ballpark?
That’s the worst insult one could hurl at the Ricketts family, which claims to have spent $740 million to renovate the ballpark in its 1060 Project. The Cubs called it the “preservation” of Wrigley and even slipped a Fenway Park photo into their renovation presentation to show how their video board would be integrated seamlessly into the ballpark.
Skeptics looked at all the changes as a way to rationalize sky-high prices, just as the Red Sox owners did at Fenway.
But even with all of the changes catering to the ultra-expensive premier clubs and Cubs sponsors, Wrigley Field still is considered a baseball mecca, a piece of Americana and — at the very least — a kind of cool place to watch a game.
That’s why Wrigley is on so many people’s bucket lists.
Comparing it to Fenway Park, the only major-league ballpark older than Wrigley, is a fool’s errand. I love both places, and any objective baseball fan who has been fortunate enough to visit both should feel the same.
Fenway bills itself as “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark,” which sounds a tad pretentious because it is. But like Wrigley it’s a unique and wonderful place with plenty of history to chew on during a four-hour game.
Whether it’s superior to Wrigley is in the eye of the beholder. Winckowski apparently prefers the Green Monster to ivy-covered walls, which is his prerogative. Of course he never has had a chance to spread out in the outfield basket in left field, as Epstein recently did during a “last hurrah” at Wrigley before moving back East.
After Red Sox beat writer Chris Cotillo of Masslive.com tweeted Winckowski’s remark Saturday, the Cubs Twitter account replied by tweeting a photo of a Cubs fan in the center-field bleachers being cheered on while drinking beer out of a shoe.
I’m not sure what message the Cubs were trying to convey, other than that Cubs fans don’t mind a little foot fungus with their $14 beers. But it definitely was anything but underwhelming.
The shot at Wrigley by the obscure 24-year-old pitcher obviously hit a nerve at the Cubbieplex, the nickname of the building housing the Cubs offices. Other organizations might have ignored being slighted by a rookie with 26 innings under his belt. But as the Cubs marketing slogan says, “It’s different here.”
So kudos to the Cubs Twitterati for defending their turf, even though a simple middle-finger salute would’ve sufficed.
Then again, is it possible Winckowski has a point?
Wrigley has adopted many of the standard-issue items seen in most major-league ballparks. It was the last video-free ballpark in the majors until the giant video board arrived in left field in 2015. The video board is popular with fans, who like seeing themselves on it, but a disappointment for those interested in seeing creative content once in a while.
While the video board forever changed the way Cubs fans watch games, that’s the price the Ricketts family paid for valuing advertising revenues over the unique qualities that made Wrigley a unicorn among ballparks.
Don’t look now, but the next Red Sox idea the Cubs are likely to copy is their recently launched stand-alone streaming service for NESN, which broadcasts Red Sox and Bruins games at the price of $29.99 per month. Sure, that’s much higher than what Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streamers charge despite having way more content than NESN. But the Red Sox seem to know what cable-cutting fans will pay to watch their team.
The Cubs might not be able to get away with charging $29.99 per month for this particular team, but if President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer can persuade Ricketts to sign free agent Aaron Judge in the winter, who knows what fans would pay to stream Cubs games?
Anyway, Winckowski’s “meh” review of Wrigley was the talk of the ballpark Sunday. The remarks even were endorsed by some fans, particularly those who live on the South Side. Wrigley is not for everyone. Some of my best friends won’t step foot in it, and that was before they knew Cubs fans drink beer out of their shoes.
But it always will be a special place, which is why the Cubs could draw 40,185 fans Sunday despite being out of contention since May.
As long as the ivy and the hand-operated center-field scoreboard stay untouched, the essence of Wrigley will remain the same, no matter what Winckowski tells his mom.