CHICAGO -- Almost six years have passed since Tom Ricketts and his president of business operations, Crane Kenney, sat in seats atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park to watch the Cubs drop the opening game of an Interleague series.They were there on a scouting mission, taking in all the
CHICAGO -- Almost six years have passed since Tom Ricketts and his president of business operations, Crane Kenney, sat in seats atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park to watch the Cubs drop the opening game of an Interleague series.
They were there on a scouting mission, taking in all the ways that the Red Sox have improved their crown-jewel stadium. Their cover was blown when Kenney grabbed a home run crushed by Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
But these days, it is Ricketts and his staff who are hitting home runs -- not just with the drought-breaking championship last November, but in their transformation of Wrigley Field.
After three offseasons of massive work done in often freezing weather, they're closing in on completion of the overhaul they tagged the 1060 Project.
Fans will see the progress for themselves on Monday night, when the Cubs open the gates and raise a sparkling new World Series banner.
There was still a construction-site feeling to the ballpark on Saturday afternoon when I walked around it. But workers were polishing railings and adding the finishing touches to the new plaza on the west side of the park, officially known as The Park at Wrigley.
The new west gate at Wrigley will be in use for the home opener against the Dodgers. Those should ease the congestion for fans entering and exiting games, as it will be possible to get into and out of the upper deck without joining the crowds in the main seating bowl.
The plaza spreads out from south of the team's new office/Hall of Fame/retail building, where the Cubs' store occupies the ground level. The team is in the process of transitioning into its office space there, but the plaza will become fully operational next week. There's a video board where games will be shown, as well as a lawn that will be used for farmer's markets, music and other neighborhood activities.
The biggest part of the work this winter came in digging down 24 feet to lay the foundation and build the walls that frame the new club that will be below the home-plate seats. Work couldn't begin until after Game 5 of the World Series, but the club was always seen as a two-year project -- so it won't make its grand opening until 2018. Demolishing and rebuilding the best seats in the park was plenty of work for one winter.
The most visible change on Monday will be that bullpens have been moved from down the outfield foul lines to newly built areas under the outfield bleachers. Relief pitchers will be warmer and drier than in seasons past, but maybe not as fully engaged as they've been throughout Wrigley's 103-season history -- which dates back to the Chicago Whales of the Federal League.
There was a romance that came with fans being able to carry on conversations with players in the bullpen, which even Hall of Famers felt.
Phil Niekro always considered Wrigley among his favorite parks.
"I'd go out there just to smell the place," Niekro said. "You'd smell beer, popcorn, catsup, mustard. ... Sometimes when I wasn't pitching, I'd go down and sit in the bullpen just to enjoy the park, the people. I'd stick my hand behind my back and somebody would give me a little popcorn, maybe even a hot dog. What a great place."
None of the recent work at Wrigley has been as visible for fans as the construction two years ago, when the outfield bleachers were torn down and rebuilt to accommodate video boards. The heavy lifting last winter was on the Cubs' clubhouse, which -- like the American Airlines 1914 Club -- was scheduled over two years because it involved excavating before the construction.
While some finishing touches remain -- the biggest being the relocation/expansion of the visitors' clubhouse -- the work to be completed in the ballpark is minor compared to the ongoing construction outside. A hotel and other residential/retail buildings are in progress on the west side of Clark Street and south of Addison Street.
It's amazing that Ricketts and his staff have been able to renovate Wrigley without having to play some regular-season games elsewhere, like the Yankees borrowing Shea Stadium in 1974 and '75. The scale of what has been done every winter is audacious. But season after season, it's been completed in time.
The only thing that moved faster was the rise of Theo Epstein's team from doormat to champions.
There's a lot for the Cubs and their fans to celebrate next week, and I'm pretty sure they will.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.