Thursday, March 20, 2008

Don't Zell Wrigley Field

You're wrong if you think the latest big news story is that New York Governors can't stay out of hotel rooms. No, the Big Story is that the new owner of the Chicago Cubs, Sam Zell, might sell the "naming rights" of Wrigley Field to the highest bidder. He might change the name of Wrigley Field. If you're not a baseball fan or have never lived in Chicago, why should you care about this? You should care because it represents two of the most insidious afflictions in our society: greed and greed's brother, commercialization.

Commercials for products and companies are inescapable these days. In recent years, all kinds of facilities have been branded with company names. Often, these names seem completely inappropriate. No matter where you live, it wouldn't surprise me if your hometown has things like the Taco Bell Opera House, the Motel 6 Religious College, or the Cialis Center for Boys and Girls.

The names of sports stadiums used to sound like they were sports stadiums. Now they just sound like a list of stocks and bonds. The San Francisco Giants play in AT&T Park. The Washington Redskins play in FedEx Field, not to be confused with the FedEx Forum where the Memphis Grizzlies play. The Carolina Panthers Play in Bank of America Stadium. The Philadelphia Phillies play in Citizens Bank Park. Considering the state of the economy these days, it's probably not a great idea for the next stadium that sells out to commerce to be named for a company in the financial world. Not that long ago, the Houston Astros played in Enron Field. Fortunately, no major sports team played in something called Bear Stearns Ballpark.

Sam Zell got control of the Cubs and Wrigley Field when he recently purchased the Tribune Company, the previous owner. The Tribune Company also owned the Los Angeles Times which, so far, Zell still calls, "The Los Angeles Times." When he first got the Cubs, there was a rumor that he might sell the Cubs to one owner and Wrigley Field to another. That would be interesting. Suppose you bought Wrigley Field and didn't feel like letting the Cubs play there: "No way. I bought this place, and I just want my family to use it for picnics." And now, the latest possibility is that he may auction off the name of where the Cubs play.

Zell keeps reminding his critics that as the owner, he has the legal right to do whatever he wants with the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. But what he doesn't seem to understand is, he may be the owner, but the Cubs and Wrigley Field belong to the people.

There are Cub fans all over the world. People make pilgrimages to Wrigley Field to see what an old-fashioned ballpark looks and feels like. If you've seen only one game there, you know what a special place it is. A visit there is a history lesson, a sociology course, and just plain fun.

It seems to me that after someone acquires a couple of Brinks trucks worth of cash, he might want to adopt the motto, "noblesse oblige," rather than, "I still want more." When a zillionaire buys an institution like the Cubs, he should see himself as a steward of their tradition. It doesn't always have to be about what he can do, but also about what he should do.

The ballpark on the North Side of Chicago has been called "Wrigley Field" since 1926. Please don't write me that "Wrigley" is the name of a gum company, and therefore, the field has been commercialized since its inception. It wasn't named for the gum. It was named after the Cubs' owner, William Wrigley Jr. who happened to be the founder of the gum company. There were never any big signs advertising gum or anything like that. It has been Wrigley Field because of a man named Wrigley, and it should remain Wrigley Field because of all that has happened and all that hasn't happened there.

This year will mark the 100th year since the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series. Maybe they'll win it again this year. They're bound to win it some year. And wouldn't it be a shame if when they finally do, they win it in a place called something like "Preparation H Field?"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Name Shame

I had an odd experience the other day. So that nobody will get into trouble, let's just say I went to a restaurant that will be nameless next to an ocean that will be nameless. When I arrived, the parking guy came over to my car and welcomed me. His name tag read, "Bob," and below that, "Mississippi." I knew immediately that something was amiss. I said, "You don't sound like you're from Mississippi." He replied that he wasn't. He was actually a "local," but he was new to the job. They hadn't gotten him his real nametag yet. I started to walk into the restaurant when I turned to him and said, "Wait a minute. You're probably not even Bob." He replied, "No, I'm Keith." In other words, it was so important to the restaurant management that their employees have nametags that they'd rather have them wear phony ones than none at all. Imagine what that did to my faith in my fellow man and woman. Imagine what that did to my appetite.

Why am I making such a big deal about this? Partially, it's because I tend to obsess about things. But it also just seemed so wrong. Here was a symbol of friendliness, and it wasn't even real. We get betrayed so often in life that you'd think we could at least take a break from deception at a fish place.

Nametags are everywhere these days. You go to a ball game, and the ushers have nametags. You go to get new tires, and the mechanics have nametags. The only place people don't wear name tags is the only place I wish they did: at social events where I get introduced to people and then forget their names two seconds later.

Marketing studies must have determined that customers would like to know the names of people who serve them. I don't know why. It's not as if I'm ever going to write any of them a letter. Businesses must believe that this is a way to show how friendly they are: "You can trust us. This is my name." For a long time, I placed it in the same category as those waiters and waitresses who say things like, "Hi, I'm Celeste, and I'll be your waitress tonight." In other words, I found it slightly annoying.

But I got used to it. There are even times when I think it's helpful. Let's say the person waiting on you in the shoe store has his back turned for a moment. Instead of waiting for him to turn around, you can say, "Excuse me, Brent. Do these look okay?" Or after you get home from shopping and you call the store to double check a price, you can say, "But that's what Francine quoted me." So, I tried to accept this informality and friendliness. What was so bad about these people telling me their names? I convinced myself that it was kind of nice, a departure from people having to call each other "Sir" or "Ma'am."

More recently, the nametag has evolved to often include the name of the place where the wearer is from – just like the infamous "Bob from Mississippi." I might be buying light bulbs from someone whose tag says she's Kirsten from Switzerland or socks from Wolfgang of Austria. I knew it was probably a marketing ploy to try to make me think that people came from all over the world just to work in the store that I was visiting. Yet, I often fell for it. I'd ask them about their homeland or hometown. It added an interesting element to the retail experience. Until... The Incident at The Restaurant.

Now I know that both the names and places that are on so many chests that I've looked at might be just as phony as some of those chests.

And let's face it: "Bob from Mississippi" can't possibly be an isolated case. I wonder how many other people that we deal with every day aren't really who they claim to be. The only silver lining in all this is that it's a good thing our political leaders don't wear nametags. Otherwise, we might not be able to trust them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

They're Giving Money Away

America's economic problems are just about over. As we get closer to April 15, I'm getting more and more excited about the administration's "economic stimulus package." I know it includes incentives to businesses and other things that I don't understand, but the most exciting aspect of the "package" are the $600 "recovery rebates." $600 may seem like a drop in the bucket for people in financial trouble, but it's better than nothing, isn't it?

Of course, the naysayers are cynical about the plan. They point out that the idea is to give money to those who need it most in the hope that they won't save it. Government economists want people to spend it: buy things whether they can afford them or not. Get that money into the economy. The doubters ask, "Isn't that how people got into debt in the first place?"

Putting that bit of killjoyism aside, let's not look a gift rebate in the mouth. Not everybody is going to get $600. Some married couples will get $1200. Higher income people will get less, and some won't get any at all. But the money will be given to the lucky people with low enough incomes to qualify. And since the figure of $600 is the one we keep hearing about, let's just deal with that.

People are soon going to have this influx of cash, and they will be overwhelmed. The cry of, "What am I supposed to do with all this money?" is going to echo across this land as an estimated 130 million people utter it simultaneously. I've done a little research, and I think I can help them with this problem.

For $600, you could get a nice, big HD TV -- if you can get together with four friends who also have refunds. Maybe you could have a rotating system so each of you gets the TV for a month or so, then it goes to the next friend, then the next. That seems a lot more practical than putting the TV outside, midway between all the owners.

In major cities, you won't be able to pay for an entire annual physical with all the tests for $600, so just hope there's nothing wrong with you in the areas that the doctor won't be able to examine.

I just checked, and you can buy about 395.70 Euros with $600. Oops! I checked again. It's down to 395.26.

You can get the cheapest iPhone and still have $200 left for accessories. So, if you don't actually call anyone or use the internet on it, you'll be able to afford one with the $600.

You can buy a new washing machine, but you'll still have to use the old dryer. You can fill up your car with gas about 12 times. You could buy 60 home bedpans or 6 shiatsu massage cushions.

You can buy 300 Viagra pills. Or you could buy 300 condoms. Maybe the sensible way to go would be 150 Viagras and 150 condoms.

You can get one or two dents fixed on your car. You won't be able to buy an entire new mattress, but again, if you're willing to share with some others who got the $600, you'll be fine.

Whoa! Now, you can only get 395.00 Euros for your $600.

Maybe you'd like to buy a lot of little things with the $600. You could buy 200 jars of pickles. You could buy 60 of those light bulbs that stick on the wall without having to be plugged in. You could buy 100 12-packs of toilet paper, about 600 containers of tic-tacs, or if you're feeling festive, you can get 870 packs of those Easter "peeps."

The point is, it doesn't matter what you buy as long as you buy. And spending all that newfound money is somehow supposed to help everybody economically. I know it doesn't seem to make sense, but I guess we're supposed to just accept what these professional economists tell us. Although, I do wonder what they're buying with their money. Oops! I just checked again, and now that $600 will only get you 394.66 Euros.

New Bob Newhart Video

Check out Bob Newhart's first internet video by