Unfriendly confines – Visitors have it rough lounging in an antiquated clubhouse

BY NEIL HAYES nhayes@suntimes.com

The way it’s perched on a catwalk above the concourse where hot dogs and souvenirs are hawked makes it seem more like a treehouse than a clubhouse. Players making their first trip to Wrigley Field might believe they’re getting close to the visitors’ dugout when they reach the bottom step. Veterans know better.

”If a player wants to go to the bathroom, he has to take a taxi,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said.

The long and winding path from the visitors’ clubhouse to the first-base dugout at Wrigley includes 77 strides, 28 steps and five turns, and it’s one reason why the Cubs’ storied ballpark, while it might be a Mecca for baseball fans, is one of the least-favorite venues for visiting teams.

Chicago’s latest clubhouse controversy began when Guillen said he wants to ”puke” every time he goes to the Cubs’ home. He was exaggerating, but his words always strike a nerve with Cubs fans and others who believe everything about Wrigley Field is sacred.

The truth is, much about the ivy-colored walls, red marquee and old-time scoreboard are timeless reminders of what baseball was and should forever be. Tour the ballpark from a visiting player’s perspective, however, and it’s like seeing granny without her makeup.

”A lot of people talk about Wrigley Field. Yankee Stadium is almost the same age, and it got torn down,” Guillen said. ”It’s a new era, a new way. You’re supposed to have a weight room, you’re supposed to have a cage, you’re supposed to have a lot of things they don’t have. I don’t blame the Cubs organization. That’s the way this ballpark is. It’s not the fans, it’s not the Cubs, it’s the building. It’s uncomfortable to play in the building.”

No one wants to hear millionaire players and managers whine, given America’s employment woes. How hospitable, after all, do the Cubs want to be to visiting teams? It’s fair to say, however, that the ballpark building boom has created a standard that the league’s second-oldest ballpark fails to meet — by a mile.

To sit in the same dugout where Babe Ruth sat and to walk down hallways where all-time greats walked is an experience most fans would relish, even if many opposing players are more concerned with pregame lifting and hitting routines that are virtually impossible to maintain at Wrigley.

”Nowadays you have weight rooms, hydrotherapy rooms, cafeterias,” Sox slugger Jim Those said. ”As much as I love the history, that’s the unique thing about our new age of baseball. It has given young players such a great opportunity to get better. You hope they look around and appreciate all the amenities.”

If they don’t before a trip to Wrigley, they will after. Modern clubhouses — even visiting ones — have evolved into roomy, plush accommodations where players have access to everything they need to improve their performance or relax and watch TV.

The rectangular visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field, on the other hand, is 22 strides long and 10 across. In the middle of the cramped room is a plastic table surrounded by folding chairs. There are two big-screen TVs, a stereo and a small table where players can use laptops. There is also a small kitchen area and training room.

Players who want to get in a few swings between at-bats are out of luck because the hitting cage is located beneath the right-field bleachers.

The clubhouse dimensions are similar to what visiting teams find at Fenway Park. The difference is, Red Sox officials have remodeled facilities in recent years while Wrigley has remained much the same. Given that Tribune Co. is in bankruptcy and the team is being sold, there are no immediate plans for upgrades.

”They’ve done a lot to Fenway to make it better,” said Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a frequent Wrigley critic. ”They put a new cage in. They put in a new lounge area for the players only. They have done a lot at Fenway to try to improve. Here they haven’t done anything. They try a little bit more there.”

As much as Guillen likes to stick it to Wrigley, how much different is it than old Comiskey Park, which he once called home, or Tiger Stadium or any of the older generation of stadiums that now exist only in our memories?

”The one thing about old Comiskey was [the clubhouse] was closer to the field,” Guillen said. ”That’s the biggest difference.”

Walking from the clubhouse to the dugout is like walking through an ancient tomb. Taller players must be weary of low-hanging pipes. The floor becomes increasingly damp until puddles form as you get closer to the dugout, prompting one Sox employee to grumble: ”I see they didn’t fix the pipes so they wouldn’t leak, but they did open a new bar.”

The one thing that Guillen does like about Wrigley is the intimacy. Fans are closer to players inside and outside older stadiums, which can lead to interactions like the one he had when he was met by a Cubs fan wearing a blue-and-red mask outside Wrigley on Wednesday morning. The fan had a stack of T-shirts depicting the manager mowing the outfield grass at Wrigley with the scoreboard in the background and the words, ”Ozzie Mows Wrigley.” Guillen laughed and later donned the shirt in the clubhouse.

Regardless of whether you’re a Cubs or Sox fan, or what you think of Guillen, it’s fair to say that Wrigley looks better from the outside in than it does from the inside out, which doesn’t make it any less special — unless you’re a visiting player.

”My kid loves to come here,” Guillen said. ”It’s good for the fans, but when you come to work every day it’s not an easy facility to work in.”

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