Paul Guggenheimer / Take me out to a real ball park

Now, even Wrigley Field is going electronic and getting all entertain-y

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One by one they have disappeared in my lifetime; Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, Crosley Field in Cincinnati, Tiger Stadium in Detroit and, of course, Forbes Field here in Pittsburgh. They were not only some of the best of the old ball parks, they were among the last links to the days of Honus Wagner, Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson.

Now only two remain: Wrigley Field in Chicago, home of the Cubs, and Fenway Park in Boston, home of the Red Sox.

The good news is that all signs indicate that both of these gems will be kept in use for several more years, if not decades. The bad news is that the owners of these century-old monuments to the origins of big-league baseball are making deals with the devil in order to keep them around (as have the owners of new old-style stadiums such as PNC Park, by the way).

Fenway Park officially opened on April 20, 1912, the same week the Titanic sunk. It's the oldest park in all of Major League Baseball.

John Updike was among those seduced by Fenway's charm: "Fenway Park is a lyric little bandbox of a ball park," he wrote. "Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg."

But whatever was left of Fenway's quaint atmosphere was obliterated prior to the first pitch of the 2011 Red Sox home opener with the unveiling of a new high-definition video system. It extends on three different display screens perched above the bleachers, from the right edge of the famed Green Monster wall, all the way across center field, right-center and into right field.

The Red Sox owners called it a "dramatic and noticeable improvement to the ball park." That's like improving a mint condition Model T by installing an obnoxious high-tech stereo system.

This left Wrigley Field as the only ball park unplugged. But not for long.

Chicago's city council just approved a $500 million renovation of Wrigley that includes a 5,700-square-foot electronic Jumbotron video screen above the ivy-covered left-field wall. The Jumbotron will be a first for the venerable 99-year-old ball park on the city's north side. It will ruin the atmosphere at the last big league park without subsidiary entertainment where the prime focus is what happens on the baseball diamond.

The first time I saw a game at Wrigley Field was in 1988. It was the last game of the regular season and the Cubs were playing the Pirates. I was struck by how much it reminded me of Forbes Field. Then, as now, there was the giant, hand-operated scoreboard above the center-field bleachers that had the inning-by-inning updates on every game in the majors. The only electronic display in the park was a small auxiliary scoreboard with a narrow strip of lights just below the grandstand. The only music came sparingly from the ball park organ. We could hear the chatter from the infielders. The real world was somewhere beyond those ivy-covered walls. Inside Wrigley, it felt as though, at any minute, Babe Ruth was going to walk in and call his shot.

Fifteen years went by before I saw another game at Wrigley. It was the 2003 National League Championship series between the Cubs and the Marlins and the place hadn't changed, except for the ivy which by this late October date had turned bright fall colors. During the seventh-inning stretch, Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." There was no video screen to watch him on, but it was just as enjoyable simply to listen to Corgan belt it out over the PA system from the press box.

It hurts to think about what a flashy Jumbotron, presumably accompanied by an ear-splitting sound system, is going to do to the old-timey feel of Wrigley. Worse yet, the true ball park experience, in which a fan could absorb the game without the distractions of everyday life, an experience enjoyed by generations, will be lost forever.

I'll certainly never forget seeing my first Pirates game at Forbes Field on the Pitt campus in Oakland back in 1969, the last full year of the park's existence. I remember sitting in the bleachers down the left-field line, close enough to wave to Willie Stargell and have him wave back, and to hear the sound of the ball skipping along the grass, and to giggle at a couple of Dodgers outfielders searching for a lost ball in the ivy. Old Forbes is where I learned how to keep score. Between innings a kid could actually take advantage of a few moments of inactivity to talk with his Dad -- about what just happened on the field or whatever else came to mind.

As much as I appreciate PNC Park, I can do without the between-innings commercials, the insipid sound bites from Pirates players commenting on such things as whether they believe in ghosts, and the mind numbingly tedious contests involving fans being interviewed by a dopey, Ryan Seacrest wannabe. There is a reason they didn't name the song "Take Me Out to the Variety Show."

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Paul Guggenheimer is host of Essential Pittsburgh on 90.5 WESA, the NPR affiliate in Pittsburgh.


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