Since I had a few days in Chicago, and by luck both the Cubs and the White Sox happened to be playing at home on July 4th weekend, I had to check out both. While Wrigley Field had the historic charm and the surrounding neighborhood going for it, I have to say U.S. Cellular Field (the "Cell") was not too shabby.
Before visiting the stadium, I had heard bad things about the Cell. That the neighborhood was terrible. That the stadium was boring and generic. That the folks were unfriendly. All these things turned out to not be true. My wife and I absolutely loved the place.
First off, it's just such a comfortable place to take in a ballgame. There is a relaxed vibe, breathing room (which was appreciated on the 90 degree day), myriad food options, great merchandise stores, friendly folks, funny quirks and great fans.
We drove over to the South Side to get to the ballpark. Driving over from the Wicker Park neighborhood where we were staying was quite easy. You can, of course, take the train over as well, but we had taken way too long at brunch to bother with that. As we drove up 35th, we decided to park a little ways out from the stadium, paying $10 to park in the lot of a hot dog joint and walking a few blocks.
The walk was pleasant, as the neighborhood is pretty quiet and residential, in stark contrast to the bustling Wrigleyville.
The area definitely has a grittier vibe, but it's pretty clean and kept up well. There are freight train tracks adjacent to the parking lot. The stadium is pretty shiny from the outside, but somewhat weird looking, a juxtaposition of modern office building architecture with the Roman Colosseum shape. I am not a fan of the beige cement look but the way a ballpark looks from the outside is not very important to me. There are some cool features, like retired numbers, statues, and bricks bought by fans that make it inviting from the outside.
Frank Thomas was the best. I loved his 2006 with the A's of course, but even before that, when I was a kid I had a White Sox hat and was a fan of the slugger. The strong presence of the Big Hurt may have been my favorite thing about the Cell.
We walked in and started making our way over to the bleachers. The concourses were wide and spacious, and like the Coliseum you could see the field from there which was nice. Before we went to our seats I saw a sign that said "Chicago Sports Depot" and decided to check it out. You walk on a pedestrian bridge and it sort of feels like you're leaving the stadium (which you can do via that path). However before you'd actually leave, you run into a giant, two story sports apparel store featuring gear for every Chicago sports team (except the Cubs, of course). The Depot was pretty awesome. In addition to a massive selection, they had a number of designs they could screenprint for you.
So…still haven't made it to my seats, and I still won't, because I run into some big head mascots. They're celebrating the 10th anniversary of their 2005 World Championship, so I'm treated to Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye. We pick up a frozen lemonade (they have alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions) and head to the bleachers.
The bleachers there are pretty much right on the field. We got to see it first hand as JB Shuck robbed a homer late in the game. Earlier in the game (before the five White Sox errors that turned the game into a complete laugher) we were in Melky Cabrera's corner. You're pretty close there.
Unsurprisingly, the White Sox fans did not continue the ridiculously stupid "Melkman" thing.
The game was getting pretty ugly, with Baltimore doing whatever they wanted as the White Sox kicked the ball around. That gave me plenty of time to walk around the field. The park itself is generally symmetrical and devoid of many of the quirks you see in the newer ballparks. I didn't mind that. As a fan of baseball, I don't need stupid outfield dimensions, hills, trains, and other distracting shiny objects.
The fans were really cool. You had fans of all races and ages, families and crusty old dudes sitting by themselves heckling players. I especially liked one dad lecturing his ~7 year old son about how the White Sox are a bad baseball team, they are terrible at everything. They can't hit. They can't pitch. They can't field or even throw the ball. It was funny. The frustration of the hardcore fans was evident in the blowout error-ridden loss.
Even without the quirks, I think a casual fan would be very satisfied with the comfortable atmosphere, great views, and the bevy of food and beverage options. There's a bar in centerfield, lots of sit-down type places (not necessarily with waiters, but not straight stands either), good customizable nachos, classic Chicago fare (Chicago dogs and deep dish), a fair number of dessert-only stands, and also creative yet familiar items like a bacon avocado sandwich, Irish Nachos (potato wedges instead of chips), fried pickles, mac n cheese bites, all sorts of hot dogs, soups, salads, you name it. Basically, an all around upgrade from your standard hot dog, nachos, fries, and whatnot, but of course those standard items are there as well. Also, all the food and drinks were very fairly priced, cheaper than the Coliseum and Wrigley, and moreover most items actually looked like they were decent quality.
There were also a lot of cool statues of the all-time ChiSox greats around the park, including the Big Hurt and Charles Comiskey. The Comiskey family owned the White Sox for years. Unfortunately the Sox were always plagued by cheap ownership…Comiskey used to make the players pay to launder their own uniforms! Predictably, they didn't win a title for a very long time until the epic drought ended in '05.
Given the summer heat and humidity in Chicago, one of the most fun features of the park was a shower, sponsored by the local plumbers union. you walk in, pull a string, and get doused. I saw people from age 2 to 70 taking advantage to this for some relief from the heat. Good times. The line was about 20-40 people long the entire game. If it's a summer day game, wear your swimsuit!
There are a couple of drawbacks with the ballpark. For example, the scoreboard is super old. They still have our old buddy Diamond Vision (which, thankfully, the A's finally put to pasture). That needs to be upgraded. Also, I think the seats may be a little too spread out; they could have done better by keeping the seats a bit closer together and at a closer angle to the field to create a more intimate feel.
Nevertheless, I thought it was an excellent place to take in a ballgame. Of course, the White Sox have a tough time drawing even with what I would say is a very nice stadium, good fans, plenty of amenities for both casual and hardcore fans, good transportation, easy parking, and a fun game day experience. This is obviously because of the fact that Chicago is a two team market. As A's fans, we're familiar with the predicament. For the White Sox, the location and history seem to work against them when juxtaposed with the Cubs. While I was duly impressed by Wrigley, if I was going to 25 games a year as I do with the A's, I'd probably prefer to go to U.S. Cellular Field because it's more relaxing. I like to chill out and enjoy lazy days at the park. But I can see why apparently most people don't choose U.S. Cellular over Wrigley. While it's a bit unfair to compare the White Sox in a down year to a winning Cubs team, even when the scales are tipped the other way the Cubs are far more popular.
The lesson to me in relation to building a new A's ballpark is that in a two team market, especially when you're the "second" team, simply building a nice, convenient, modern stadium with all the amenities you could want is not enough. I mean, frankly it is lame that the White Sox are the second team. They've been there since 1900! I guess that shows the power of branding. The stadium is a big part of that brand.
If the A's want to hold and build some market share in the Bay Area, I strongly feel that razing the Coliseum and building a nice ballpark in the same location is not going to successfully compete with the Giants and AT&T park. The location has to be better, and the park can't just be comfortable; it needs to be charming. While I pretty much have no complaints about U.S. Cellular Field, it's definitely more "functional" than charming. And that's a problem when you have the ultra-charming Wrigley Field across town (or the "jewel" of AT&T Park across the Bay).
Click here for more pics of both Chicago ballparks.