On a sunny September morning at Wrigley Field, Norichika Aoki walked into the corner of the visitors' clubhouse with a thin, blue mat and carefully laid it on the floor.
Brewers players stepped around and over the Japanese outfielder as he began his pregame stretching exercises. With nowhere else to go, Aoki chose a tiny opening between the entrance to the trainers' room and the only available exercise bike.
Aoki didn't seem to mind the disruptions, knowing it's just part of the Wrigley Field experience for every visiting player.
"It might be smaller than all the clubhouses in Japan," Aoki said. "And the guys over here are a lot bigger, too, so it seems even smaller."
Life in the most cramped clubhouse in the majors is always an adventure, and with September call-ups in the house, there's human gridlock before games until everyone heads to the dugout for batting practice.
A solution to the problem is in the works. But it's a Chicago solution, so it's probably going to take a while. The Cubs received permission from the city for a five-year, $300 million ballpark renovation, which includes an expanded clubhouse for the visiting team in the final year of the project.
But construction, which was supposed to begin Thursday, the day after Cubs' final home game, has been postponed indefinitely.
"The last I heard, any work done this winter will be structural -- infrastructure to put us in position to put us in position to make more significant changes," Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, said. "Assuming all those dreaded T's get crossed."
The Cubs have said they want assurances the rooftop owners won't sue, leaving the two "partners" at a standstill.
That means a new home clubhouse won't be in place until 2015, and the visitors' clubhouse ready in 2020. Epstein could be on to bigger and better things by then, having figured out the Cubs' sales pitch and reality were two different things.
But when the visitors' clubhouse does get built, it'll grow from 4,000 to 8,600 square feet, while the home clubhouse will be expanded by 47 percent.
Cubs spokesman Julian Green said the visitors' clubhouse will have its own strength room for the first time, as well as a batting tunnel, "since MLB rules require amenities be provided to both visitors and home (clubhouses)."
Skeptics naturally remain, especially among those who were once Cubs employees.
"My last year in the organization was in 2005, and I remember hearing about (renovations) then," said Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz, a former Cubs coach. "I don't know when they can get it done, but it would be nice. There is just no room. But I'm sure they'll get it done."
Kranitz snickered. It sounded a lot like the snickers heard whenever the subject of Wrigley Field renovations comes up in the visitors' clubhouse, as it often does.
At the Cubs Convention in January, Crane Kenney, president of business operations, said getting a home clubhouse done was "the first criteria" of the project. Kenney said the Cubs would start with the lower bowl in left field and the upper deck in right field, removing the concrete, digging out and rebuilding the clubhouse, adding underground batting tunnels and "having it ready when (the Cubs) return in April" of 2014.
One fan at the question-and-answer session told Kenney: "I want to make sure that visitors' clubhouse stays exactly like it is," referring to its cramped quarters. Fans applauded, knowing its reputation as a miserable place to be.
"Unfortunately, the major league rules require that we provide them batting tunnels if we have them," Kenney replied. "They will get the batting tunnels. They won't get the other things."
For the time being, visiting teams are on their own. Instead of using batting cages, they can swing at the air to get ready, as Babe Ruth did before hitting his legendary "called shot" home run at Wrigley.
Despite the lack of space and subpar working conditions, visitors to Wrigley Field managed to win 50 of the 81 home games in 2013, setting a Cubs record for home futility. A visiting team should be at a distinct disadvantage if it can't prepare for a game like it normally does on the road.
But former Cubs say that's not the case.
"They don't really have much of a clubhouse either," Marlins catcher Koyie Hill said. "What's the difference between dropping the net down from the ceiling and taking swings in the (home) clubhouse, or not taking any swings at all (in the visitors)?
"You go to some of these facilities and they've got a big video board of the pitcher you're going to be facing and different visualization drills and plenty of room to do all your physical stuff. This definitely is a time capsule ... of how things used to be back in the day. But over there, it's the same as this clubhouse. Just longer."
Pirates outfielder Marlon Byrd said the Red Sox made their home clubhouse three levels during the Fenway Park renovations, giving players a comfort level he said has never been in the home clubhouse at Wrigley.
"That was Theo," he said. "It can be done here, and you'd make it a place everyone wants to come and play. When you make home an advantage, that's when you're going to start winning. Chicago is the best city to come to every summer. Every player loves it. This should be a place everybody wants to come play, but it's tough."
The Cubs expanded the home clubhouse after the 2010 season, adding a lounge for players to relax and avoid the media swarm. Still, Kenney called it the "worst clubhouse" in baseball at the Cubs Convention, and general manager Jed Hoyer told fans the players simply need cushier surroundings.
"We're paying them a lot of money to preserve their bodies," Hoyer said. "We're expecting them to go out and entertain us every single night over the course of the summer. This is the way we should treat them -- as first-class athletes. And I think the better you treat your players and the more amenities they have, they'll certainly reciprocate in kind."
Moving around inside the visitors' clubhouse at Wrigley before and after games is done with extreme caution. During a recent Phillies series, manager Ryne Sandberg was stuck in his office after a game because Roy Halladay decided to conduct his postgame interview in a hallway outside Sandberg's tiny office instead of forcing his teammates to move.
After about 10 minutes, Sandberg finally decided to cut through the swath of reporters by ducking like a limbo dancer to make his way to the shower. A few days later, one of the Marlins employees found his uniform hung in a locker next to the washing machine in the laundry room.
"It's not comfortable to be here, especially now when you get the call-ups, the new coaches," Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. "And it's hard to get the work in because the gym is on the other side and the cage under the left-field or right-field (bleachers). I always say it's a good place to play a baseball game, but the clubhouse is not fun."
A small conditioning room near the Cubs' clubhouse is shared by both teams before games, but only the Cubs can use it during games, and it's always crowded. Former Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis, now with the Padres, said he had to get work in anywhere he could during his two-year stint with the Cubs.
"Personally, I took it upon myself to join a local gym to get a quality workout so I could accomplish what I wanted at (Wrigley)," Marquis said. "It was a program I ran through the strength coach, and he trusted me to do my thing. Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands to make sure you feel good and get prepared for your team and to win ballgames."
Since the visiting players can't get much pregame work in, some arrive at the park later than normal. Others just sit on the bench in the dugout to pass the time before batting practice.
Video may be the biggest challenge. The visitors used to have to set up their video equipment on a coffee table in the clubhouse so players could look at video with teammates and media members crowding them.
"Much better now," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. "I don't have to run all the way up here to see video."
Wrigley Field obviously predates the video age, and it made modern-day video needs for visiting teams seem like an afterthought. Coaches such as Walker and Kranitz like to watch a pitcher's or batter's video between innings but had to take a winding, two-minute trip through the tunnel, then walk up a flight of stairs just to glance at a pitch or two on DVD.
"You'd have to run all the way up the stairs, and sometimes it's not worth coming up," Kranitz said. "But it's close enough now that you can come take a peek at whatever."
That's because the Cubs gave up a storage room for video purposes.
"Yeah, I've seen signs pointing to the video room," Hill cracked, referring to a sheet of white paper reading "Video Room" with an arrow next to it, pointing to a room in the tunnel between the clubhouse and dugout.
But Wrigley's quirky deficiencies still have their charm. And not everyone is upset with what some consider prehistoric conditions.
Hill said it fosters camaraderie, which theoretically can help a team come game time.
"I feel like you go to some clubhouses and you could not see people for the whole day until the game starts," Hill said. "Here you have no choice. Everyone is on top of each other getting their work done."
Marlins manager Mike Redmond said "when you talk about Wrigley Field, you talk about how we all love playing here."
"Then you usually mention the clubhouse, like, 'We love it, except for the clubhouse ...'" he said. "Whatever. We do spend a lot of time here, but you just get used to it. It will be nice to see them fix it up, and whatever it ends up being, that (visitors' clubhouse) will end up being one of the biggest hits for the players, just to have a little more room. But we adapt to anything."
There is no guarantee a nice clubhouse will lead to more victories, though the Cubs never have won a World Series at Wrigley Field, no matter where they showered and hung their uniforms.
Modern amenities such as dugout batting cages and large weight rooms are fine, but Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney said believing a clubhouse really affects how a team performs is "an excuse" the Cubs can't use.
"It's definitely nice to have those facilities and nice to know they're working toward that," he said. "All that aside, there's still no better place to play than Wrigley Field. The idea of trying to be successful here is worth more than any new facility that could be built."
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