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Fenway, Wrigley remain as cathedrals

Fenway, Wrigley remain cathedrals

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One hallowed old park in the Bronx is closing Sunday, but the oldest ones left that host Major League games still remain.

As the scene shifts next season from "The House that Ruth Built" across 161st Street to the "The House that Steinbrenner Erected," fans in Boston and on the north side of Chicago can be content that their cozy little yards named Fenway Park and Wrigley Field still remain.

"I'm very nostalgic about preservation of old things," Hall of Fame reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage said on Tuesday from New York where he's already arrived for Sunday's closing of Yankee Stadium. "Everybody's into tearing things down and building something new. It's not good enough. But these old parks, they're just treasures."

Gossage pitched in all of them either as an opponent or a member of the hometown team. He pitched for the Cubs in 1988 and the Yankees from 1979 to 1983. As a member of five American League clubs he toiled at Fenway often, ending one of perhaps the greatest games there -- the Bucky Dent one-game playoff for the American League East title in 1978.

With the Yankees leading 5-4 in the ninth, the tying run on third and Carl Yastrzemski coming to the plate, the Goose turned to look at Fenway's famous Green Monster left-field wall and took a deep breath.

"I figured what's the worst thing that can happen to me? Tomorrow I'd be home in Colorado," said the right-hander, who was born and still lives in Colorado Springs.

Yaz popped out, the Red Sox lost and another page in Fenway's lore was written.

There are no worries about Fenway's future in Boston. After talks to build a new ballpark across the street from Fenway fizzled about a decade ago, current ownership has invested more than $100 million into expanding Major League Baseball's oldest ballpark internally and externally. Seats were added above the signature 37-foot Green Monster and in the bleachers, plus the small upper decks were expanded. In recent years, capacity has increased by 10 percent to about 40,000.

To put that monetary renovation figure into perspective, Fenway opened on April 20, 1912, and the cost of construction was $650,000.

Farewell Yankee Stadium

"Some of these places begin dating themselves sooner rather than later," Tony Clark, who played for the Red Sox in 2002 and is now with the Diamondbacks, said on Monday at Chase Field. "But if there's a way of updating the existing ballparks you've got to go ahead and do it. As a player, there's certainly an allure to stepping into the same batter's box as Ernie Banks or Babe Ruth or Ted Williams."

To be sure, the nooks and crannies of Fenway are basically the same as they were almost 96 years ago when the park was named by then owner John Taylor, "because it's in the Fenway section of Boston, isn't it?"

"There's still always something kind of special for me about coming back to this baseball field," actor Ben Affleck, a Boston native and devoted Sox fan, said a few years ago. "It reminds me of watching baseball games with my father when I was six years old. About a mile from here is where I grew up, back when bleacher seats were $3.50."

In Chicago, it may be a different story. With the team and stadium on the market there's talk about revamping Wrigley under new ownership. Already the bleachers have been upgraded and expanded, but this time the concept of a $400 million renovation has been floated for a park that still doesn't have a video board, an electronic scoreboard or advertisements, rather than ivy, covering the red-brick bleacher walls.

Those factors, of course, are part of its inherent charm and make it a throwback to another era. The first night game wasn't even played there until Aug. 8, 1988.

"The essence of Wrigley has been preserved better than the other old parks that remain," said Hall-of-Fame Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, reached on Tuesday at Wrigley where he was attending that night's game against the Brewers. "It's really hard to imagine the Cubs not playing their home games at this Wrigley Field the way we know it today."

Wrigley's future may depend on whether the ballpark and club are sold as a single entity -- which is MLB's preference -- or if the two are sold separately. The Tribune Co., purchased last year by real estate magnate Sam Zell, has been studying the issue and has yet to submit a buyer to MLB's ownership committee.

"I know nothing lasts forever," said Sandberg, who starred for the Cubs from 1982 until his retirement after the 1997 season. "There may be a day when Wrigley Field will need a little upkeep, a little tune-up, if you will, just to make it state-of-the-art and safe for the years ahead of it. As long as they do it in the same location and try to duplicate as much as they can without all the modern distractions put in, I think that would be a great thing."

Sandberg is among the legion of players, fans and celebrities who adore both ballparks complete with their history of jinxes, hexes and lost chances at pennants and World Series titles.

For instance, the Cubs have never won a World Series at Wrigley Field, which opened on April 23, 1914, not for the beloved Cubby bears, but for Chicago's entry in the Federal League. At first, it was named Weeghman Park, after Charlie Weeghman, who owned the lot on which the original 14,000-seat structure was built.

Oct. 14 will be the 100-year anniversary since the Cubs won their last World Series in five games over the Tigers. Their home for the 1908 season and until 1915 was West Side Grounds. The first National League game wasn't played in the current yard until April 20, 1916, after the short-lived Federal League folded.

The name of that baseball palace on Sheffield and Addison was changed to Cubs Park in 1919 and finally to Wrigley Field in 1927, to pay homage to then owner Phil Wrigley of the famous chewing gum company.

Since playing there, the Cubs have lost the World Series six times and haven't even been in it since 1945 when a fan of Greek ancestry named Billy Sianis placed the famous "Billy Goat Curse" on the north side nine. Sianis became incensed when he and his pet goat were ejected by Wrigley himself during Game 4 of that World Series after a rain storm. The reason given was "objectionable odor of wet goat."

The curse has lasted since then and hearts have been broken several times with the Cubs on the precipice of the World Series: In 1969, the year they hovered in first place for much of the season, but lost a big September lead to the Miracle Mets. In 1984 when the ball scooted through first baseman Leon Durham's legs sending the Padres instead into the Fall Classic. And most recently in 2003, when fan Steve Bartman interfered with a foul pop down Wrigley's left-field line starting an epic collapse that resulted in the Marlins playing in that World Series.

Bill Murray, comedian and a life-long Cubs fan, once mused that the collapses are better than playing meaningless games in September, which the Cubs have done in many a season.

"I used to go to Wrigley Field in September and October, and people had small bonfires in the right field bleachers back in the 1950s and '60s, before they had that great season in '69," Murray told Chicago writers in 2007. "It was empty after Labor Day, once people went back to school. So I know what it's like when your team is out of it."

But the nexus for both the Cubs and Red Sox might have been the 1918 World Series won by the Red Sox with Babe Ruth pitching.

After the 1919 season, owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees to finance a Broadway show and thus the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" was born. The Red Sox wouldn't win it all again for 86 years.

From 1918, in fact, through 1966, the Red Sox only won the pennant once, losing to the Cardinals in the 1946 World Series. In 1967, it would take Yastrzemski winning the Triple Crown, a pitcher named Jim Lonborg winning 22 games and a rookie manager named Dick Williams for the Red Sox to again ascend to the World Series.

"We had to play Minnesota the last two games at Fenway and we had to win them both," said Williams, a Hall-of-Fame inductee himself this summer, when reached at his home Tuesday in Las Vegas. "It was such a thrill to win on that field after so many years and in my first year managing in the Major Leagues. It was unbelievable. The town went wild."

The old town has been in that state of mind for much of the last half of the current decade. Old transgressions are now a thing of the past: Dent's infamous home run, the ball that scooted through first baseman Bill Buckner's legs, sending the Mets on to a come-from-behind victory in the 1986 World Series.

Now, Fenway Park is the home of champions with the Red Sox having won the World Series twice in the past four years and six times since the old park opened on what is now called Yawkey Way. Cub fans can only hope and pray that their turn is next.

"I love both Wrigley and Fenway," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who played many a game at Wrigley as a Major League catcher and managed the NL in the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway. "What you like about the older ballparks is that's what they are, they're ballparks. They're conducive for fans to enjoy baseball. They're fan friendly. Fans love going there to watch a ballgame. It's vital that we preserve these ballparks that have so much history."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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