Ed. note: I got a little long-winded explaining everything, so if you’d rather just see the pictures and video, skip to the bottom. My goal was to share the experience with all of you, though, so I wanted to include as much detail as possible. Even so, there’s probably plenty that I overlooked. That said, please feel free to ask any questions in the comments.
When it comes to amenities, Wrigley Field has never really been state of the art, probably not even when it was state of the art. That’s one thing for fans who yearn for that same old-timey feel they can share with generations past, but quite another for players who have had to prepare for games in a cinderblock bunker that made underfunded high school locker rooms look like Shangri La.
Such had been the case for the Cubs, whose 10,000-ish square foot clubhouse was unbecoming of a team that was fast becoming the envy of baseball. The Cubs are not only a big deal these days, they are also big, literally. Have you seen Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, et al? You wanna try to shoehorn all those guys into a space that even Ryan Theriot thought was cramped?
The recently completed upgrade of the Cubs clubhouse was about much more than square footage, though even if they had stopped at simply trebling the space it would have been a huge improvement. Rather than just expand, the Cubs added a new locker room, strength and conditioning center, training and hydrotherapy areas, media interview room, offices, and a player lounge/dining room. They even put in a new batting cage and a party room in the spaces that had previously been occupied by the old clubhouse and player “lounge.”
If you’re familiar with the old setup, you’re probably wondering where the team found all that extra space. After all, there weren’t many options when it came to putting the new digs under the ballpark itself. Instead, they opted to do some digs, literally. That meant excavating a space that now sits 22 feet below what was once the parking lot/plaza on the Clark St side of Wrigley and that will now house the retail/office expansion currently underway.
It also meant some serious engineering, as the space had to be shored up within a veritable sea of Lake Michigan sand. The result is the only clubhouse in Major League Baseball that isn’t actually in or beneath the home ballpark itself. It’s also the most expensive clubhouse in baseball history. As VP of the Wrigley Field Restoration and Expansion Carl Rice explained it, owner Tom Ricketts basically gave carte blanche to proceed as necessary in order to give the team the best clubhouse in the business. We may not see the real value for quite a while, but from what I saw it’s hard to argue with the choices they made.
I got the chance, along with various other members of the Chicago media and Cubs blogging community, to tour the same home away from home the players themselves just saw for the first time Sunday night. When I first got the invite, I was admittedly reluctant to make the seven-hour round trip just to spend 90 minutes checking things out. Thankfully, my wife helped me to realize that there are some things you just can’t pass up. After all, how many times does Dr. Strange invite you into the Sanctum Sanctorum or Superman fly you to the Fortress of Solitude? What’s more, we were being allowed to take pictures, the only time that privilege would be granted all year.
So, armed with my phone and camera and a healthy helping of intrigue, I stepped through Gate K and into Nirvana. Oddly enough, it smelled more like Old Spice than Teen Spirit. Either way, it was awesome. Our gaggle of writers and photogs headed in just as Kyle Schwarber was hobbling out on crutches with a big walking boot covering his lower left leg. Kind of a melancholy way to begin the tour, but my sadness was far from infinite.
We were led down a couple flights of industrial-looking stairs and corridors and into the real deal. High-def photos and chrome accents adorned the walls of the main clubhouse and everyone stopped to snap pictures and video as we shuffled into the interview room. VP of Communications and Community Affairs Julian Greene made a few brief statements before turning things over the business and baseball bosses. Crane Kenney and Theo Epstein addressed the crowd and then handed the reins to Rice, who took charge of the tour.
Our first stop was the video room, which wasn’t necessarily the sexiest part of the new setup. In fact, one local scribe in particular seemed more than a little miffed to have been forced to spend more than 30 seconds there. I ain’t no rat, so I won’t be giving up names here. However, I’m willing to give you a clue if you promise to keep it between us: his name rhymes with Schmesse Schmrogers. In any case, it’s obvious that this will be a much better space for players, coaches, and scouts alike to put in a little film work.
Next up was Joe Maddon’s office, which was essentially a bar with a few baubles and corporate-sponsored trinkets strewn about amongst the wine bottles. One of the skipper’s requirements for the space was a wine fridge, which is reportedly well-stocked by the fine folks at Binny’s Beverage Depot. Speaking of, I need a booze biz to sponsor Cubs Insider. I was at least able to swing by 3 Floyds for cases of Gumballhead and Zombie Dust on my way to Wrigley, so there’s that. Seriously, I’d love to add some more static advertisers. End shameless solicitation.
From Maddon’s House of Booze we headed to the creme de la creme of the expansion, the circular locker room. You probably already saw the video and photos of the posh space featured in those videos from the weekend, but let me reiterate that this was no beer-and-fried chicken setup. No, these Cubs are all about the wine. Seriously, there were wine bottles everywhere. I would have taken Lackey for a Chianti man, but I believe he had a 2012 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon from Groth Vineyards. I’m sure it’s still quite good with liver and fava beans though. Anyway, back to facts.
Epstein talked about the layout, how it was one of only two circular locker rooms in baseball (San Diego is the other), which was spawned from Maddon’s ethos to foster a spirit of equality. Just like the Knights of the Round Table, the Cubs sought to avoid having any sense of hierarchy. I asked Theo whether that made Maddon King Arthur, to which he replied, “I’ll let you answer that. You guys spin the narratives.” Had I thought about it for another half second, it would have been obvious to me that Maddon is actually Merlin. Dammit, Evan!
Among all the other little nuances of the new clubhouse, the one that struck me the most was that the diameter of the locker room is exactly 60 feet, 6 inches. That’s the kind of esoteric little nugget I just love. Oh, and that Cubs logo on the ceiling? They put it there specifically to avoid the same problem the Blackhawks have with people having the gall to step on the the Native American head on the floor. Because, you know, why would someone walk on the floor? I also dug that the saying on the wall in the entry “When it happens” became “Where it happens” in the weight room, not to mention that the W’s were stylized flags.
We proceeded on to the weight room, training room, and hydrotherapy room (where Jake Arrieta was enjoying some quality father/daughter time on his off-day, Kenny Williams be damned), none of which were really crazy. Well, everyone got a kick out of the float pod. Also called a sensory deprivation tank, the enclosed tub can be used for post-game relaxation or rehabilitation, enabling the user to float in a saline solution while zoning out and sort of leaving the world for a while.
Talk of the float pod and hyperbaric chamber then led to a brief conversation between Epstein and Kenney that involved a scenario in which the latter would be cryogenically frozen in order to have his body married up to Ted Williams’ head. I can’t make this stuff up. If, as I suspect, the resultant amalgam required a fair bit of physical therapy to back into game shape, it would be in luck.The Cubs worked with ATI Physical Therapy and their training staff to design the workout and recovery aspects of the clubhouse, all of which should allow Kyle Schwarber and others to remain in Chicago for rehab rather than convalescing away from the team in Arizona.
Moving from room to room, I was struck over and over by how much detail had gone into every aspect of the planning and execution of the new space. From the memorabilia stretching back to the 19th century to the Maddonisms stretching across the walls, the care that had gone into putting this all together was evident.
Nowhere was that more true than the meal prep area and player lounge. As Epstein explained, the game of baseball has evolved and the players are much more cognizant of their overall health and eating habits. Gatorade provides all kinds of drinks and snacks and there were various protein powders and additives along one wall. Instead of bringing in fast food, chefs prepare healthy meals to the players’ specifications on demand. It’s gotten to the point where guys will even order meals and then take them home to eat.
Immediately adjacent to the cafeteria was the lounge, replete with plush leather recliners positioned in front of massive TVs and between ping pong, shuffleboard, air hockey, and pop-a-shot machines. There was even a Golden Tee arcade game in one corner. Guitars hung from a pillar off to the side, just waiting to be plugged into one of a pair of amps against the back wall, one of which even had a tambourine resting on it. Maddon might not want his players showing up too early, but good luck keeping them out of this place. From what I understand, this stuff has actually caused the skipper to soften his stance on the early arrival thing.
Because the lounge is the players’ personal space, it was one of two areas in which we were not allowed to take pictures. The other, the party “room,” was the last stop on the tour. Adjacent to the disco ball and strobe light was the new batting cage that took up the space that once housed the locker room. Think about that: the place where players used to spend most of their time at Wrigley getting prepped to play a professional sport is now a batting cage, and not even a very big one.
The idea of a team disco party after wins was one those endearing little footnotes in a season that had many of us falling in love with the Cubs all over again. Monday’s home opener gave them a chance to break in the new space, which was actually pretty utilitarian, kind of like a middle school gym being used for dances. There were drains in the floor, which was made of easily-mopped rubberized material in a dull gray. The point of the whole thing is just to let them blow off steam and keep everything else clean, though, so aesthetics weren’t a priority.
I was standing near Epstein when the lights went down and I tried to cop a quick feel, but then the music started bumping, the strobe and disco lights pulsed, and the smoke machine belched out celebratory clouds of vaporized glycerin/water. My moment lost, I felt like I was in junior high all over again as I shifted my camera bag to the front and skulked away.
All told, the new clubhouse was incredibly impressive across every conceivable level. While this team is certainly talented enough to win games without all the fancy accoutrements, the new digs won’t hurt. There’s no conceivable way to quantify the impact, but I’m willing to bet that having a space that allows for peak physical and psychological conditioning right there at Wrigley is going to pay dividends. It’s also going to help the Cubs land players in the future.
No longer are the facilities a detriment to luring or retaining free agents. And the Cubs can actually host players in Chicago rather than keeping them from seeing the dump they’ll call home until after they’ve signed on the dotted line. It’s just nice to know they can not only stop trying to sugar-coat a polished turd and sell it as a giant Raisinet, but that they’ve got a legitimate calling card to sweeten what’s already an organization players are taking less money to join.
Getting the opportunity to walk through the clubhouse and get all those details firsthand was well worth sitting in the I-94 parking lot for a couple hours on the way back. The only way I can imagine the experience being better would have been for me to have gotten that dance with Theo, but c’est la vie.
Below you’ll find a photo gallery and a video compilation from the tour. Enjoy.