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Saturday, November 18, 2017

By Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

With opening day on the horizon and the Wrigley Field bleachers resembling an erector set, some denizens of the most famous seats in sports are wondering if life will ever be the same.

The bleacher season ticket holders are temporarily without a home, and some blame the Cubs for catering to a younger crowd that drinks more and pays more attention to its smartphones than the game itself.

“It’s all about the party,” veteran bleacherite Linda Eisenberg said.

The Wrigley bleachers have been gutted this offseason to add lucrative patio sections, two jumbo-sized video boards and advertising signage as part of the Ricketts family’s $575 million renovation plan.

Team management misjudged the effects of a harsh Chicago winter on the construction timeline, ensuring the bleachers would not be ready for the start of the season April 5 against the Cardinals.

The Cubs insist the left-field bleachers will be ready by May 11, with the right-field bleachers slated to open sometime in June. Bleacher season ticket holders were offered refunds, down payments on next year’s tickets or relocation to seats in the “bowl” area, which some found lacking.

“The seats that were available weren’t that good — either upper deck or back of terrace,” bleacher season ticket holder Donna Wakefield said.

So what to do?

Wakefield, who is part of a group that calls itself “Bleacher Refugees” and has had buttons and T-shirts made with the moniker, took the money. Tim Shockley, another bleacher season ticket holder, said most of the bleacherites he knows also opted for refunds, figuring the early games are played in miserable weather anyway.

“If it was in the middle of summer, I’d really be (ticked),” he said. “There are more night games affected than day games, and we’re not big fans of night games — it’s a different crowd.”

After getting her $440 refund for 15 games, Eisenberg, a right-field regular, will miss her first Cubs opener in so long, she can’t remember the last time it happened.

“This totally (ticks) me off, and I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid that this is the year,” she said. “If you have to fix the ballpark, why are you starting in the bleachers? The bleachers were redone ten years ago, and now they’re redoing them again?”

Speaking Monday night at a reception at the Mid-America Club at Aon Center, Ricketts said: “It is about a five-year project and it’s largely done in the offseasons. This year a couple of things were in the way against us in terms of construction….We’re trying to do things the right way, just make sure we don’t take any shortcuts.”

Season ticket holder Rich Skinner also opted for the refund and wishes the Cubs had done more to appease the refugees.

“Some benefits or some type of incentives would’ve been great,” he said. “We have not seen that yet….Now there are all these rumors floating around that they won’t be open until even later, and they haven’t really communicated that information back to us. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll be watching any games in the bleachers this year.”

Wakefield has been sitting in the bleachers since the 1970s and has had a season ticket there for 18 years. Like Eisenberg, she believes the renovation will “lead to more drinking and partying” in a section synonymous with drinking and partying.

“Getting angry isn’t going to do me any good,” she said. “I wasn’t happy with the (2006) renovation, but I dealt with it. This isn’t a restoration, not when they’re doing this much. They’re really going for ‘Let’s see how much beer we can sell and how many partiers we can have, and who cares about the game?’

“That’s really how (the Rickettses) see the bleachers. They forget there is a group of us who’ve sat there 20, 30, 40 years who pay attention to the game, keep score, and sit there because we feel it’s the best view.”

Things change, but Cubs fans don’t. In the 1980s, fans upset about the idea of Tribune Co. adding lights wore bright yellow “No Lights in Wrigley!” T-shirts.

The end of the bleachers as we knew it arrived in 1985, when the Cubs announced they would sell the $3.50 tickets in advance for the first time. The success of the ’84 Cubs, who ended a 39-year postseason drought, had fans lining up before dawn for seats. President Dallas Green changed the day-of-game bleacher ticket policy for “security” reasons as traditionalists moaned.

Cubs fans survived, but the “end of the bleachers” happened again later that season when the team added a no-alcohol “family section” near the left-field foul pole, and again on opening day in 1988 when it banned beer vendors from roaming the section. Last rites for the bleachers were held once more in 2006 after a $13.5 million renovation project added 1,790 seats, and again in 2012 when the Cubs added an exclusive patio section and LED board in far right field.

The latest renovation plan has endured several delays, and even after winning city approval last year, the Cubs face a lawsuit from rooftop owners.

Will the influx of patio dwellers change the bleacher atmosphere for good? Shockley says the “patio-ites” are overwhelming the bleacherites and spend much of the game “looking at Waveland or Kenmore, the opposite direction of what’s going on.”

But he said he’s “realistic” about the changes and believes everyone will get used to the changes.

“At first, everyone was freaking out and screaming bloody murder: ‘This is outrageous, it should be like it was in the ’60s,’ ” Shockley said. “I’m like, ‘No, we (stunk) most of the ’60s.’ A lot of people don’t want to move on and upgrade (Wrigley). But, hey, you need revenue to make investments (in the team), and you need more seats for new revenue.

“As far as I’m concerned, they have good baseball management now and we just have to change with the times. It’s like a mom-and-pop store going national. It’s up to you whether to still buy the product or just stay home and pout.”

For better or worse, Wrigley 2.0 is coming, and the bleacher refugees eventually will return to their natural habitat.

Photo: Chuck Berman via Chicago Tribune/TNS