The novelist Kevin Baker likes to tell a story about almost being mugged in a dark corner in Manhattan. "Got to have the money," said the would-be mugger, his right hand jammed into an overcoat pocket. "Meaning no disrespect," said Baker, "this is New York. First you gotta show me the gun." Crestfallen and cursing, the man without a gun walked away. Baker might make a good mayor. For years now, George Steinbrenner has been bullying New York by threatening to move the Yankees out of the city, and so far, no one in power has had the guts to ask to see his gun.
Right now, as the Yankees glide through the postseason, few fans are seriously thinking about the team's leaving Yankee Stadium. This will change very quickly. Nowadays in professional sports, the champagne corks have scarcely hit the locker-room floors before talk of money and politics starts up again. Florida Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga was rationalizing the upcoming fire sale of his 1997 world-championship team before the Marlins' victory celebration was over; in June, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson was dodging questions of his departure before he had a chance to talk about Michael Jordan's game-winning shot. When the Yankees win the World Series, how long will it take George Steinbrenner to resurrect his demand for a new stadium? (If they lose, he'll be talking about it even sooner.)
Steinbrenner, of course, has promised to be good and not raise the subject -- if he gets his way. Back in July, with the Yankees on pace to break their 1988 regular-season-record attendance of 2,633,701, George promised publicly to keep the Yankees in the Bronx -- if attendance passed 3 million and he could be "guaranteed similar attendance in the future."
Actually, he didn't exactly promise. He said if he got the 3 million this year and in the future, how far into the future being unspecified, then he'd be "willing to talk about staying in Yankee Stadium." Conveniently for George, this season's final tally was 2,949,734.
There has already been plenty of talk about a new ballpark on Manhattan's West Side, much of it in the form of Rudy Giuliani and Mario Cuomo's debating who can bend over more to please Steinbrenner. So far, among New York City political figures, only City Council Speaker and gubernatorial candidate Peter F. Vallone has had the gall to openly defy Steinbrenner and the mayor by suggesting a referendum on whether public money should be used to build a new ballpark for one of the two or three most profitable franchises in all of sport. Governor Pataki has also entered the fray, stealing some of Vallone's thunder by announcing his own support for keeping the team in the Bronx.
But no one, not Vallone or Pataki or Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, the strongest advocate for keeping the Yankees where they are, has played the city's trump card and told George Steinbrenner what he needs to hear: that he can't move the Yankees out of the Bronx, and that whatever concessions he gets out of New York from here on had better be tied to giving something back to the fans.
In other words, it's time to call Steinbrenner's bluff. This is New York: He's got to show us the gun.
Steinbrenner's greatest ally (even more than Mayor Giuliani and Mario Cuomo) is the ghost of Walter O'Malley, the late owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who moved his team to Los Angeles at the end of the 1957 season and who talked New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham into moving to San Francisco.
By raising the specter of the departed Dodgers and Giants, Steinbrenner is ignoring -- or pretending to ignore -- one important fact: Failing an earthquake that creates a new coast, there are no major markets left for Steinbrenner to move the Yankees to. Pro-football teams can follow the lure of new stadiums to smaller markets while actually increasing their profits, because NFL (and NBA) teams derive most of their income from national television contracts that are divided up evenly among the franchises.
But baseball's revenue pyramid is reversed: The national TV deals account for only a small portion of the gross; most of the money comes from local-TV and ticket sales, particularly the former. Neither the Yankees nor the Mets could move to Florida or anywhere else without taking a huge cut in gross revenues. In 1996, the year the Yanks returned to prominence and won the World Series, they took in, by one estimate, almost $70 million from TV and radio -- nearly twice as much as any team in baseball.
So any discussion between George Steinbrenner and the city of New York should begin with the understanding that the Yankees can't leave the New York area. Of course, as Steinbrenner makes clear at every opportunity, the New York "area" still includes New Jersey.
The loss of the football Giants and the Jets to the Jersey Meadowlands is constantly referred to -- why couldn't the same thing happen with baseball? But in truth, New Jersey didn't steal the Giants and Jets so much as find them abandoned on her doorstep. A pro-football team has to fill its stadium only eight times a season, and most of the tickets are presold to corporations. Most New York football fans have never seen a Giants or Jets game in person and scarcely know when they turn on their TV sets that the teams have moved across the river.
Football teams play eight home games a year, nearly always on Sundays. Baseball teams play 81, including 50 at night -- most of those weeknights. George has never really explained how a stadium in New Jersey, no matter how attractive it might be, will solve the logistical problems endemic to baseball's schedule -- how are fans in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, never mind Long Island, Westchester, and Connecticut, going to get home at a decent hour from night games that begin at 7:35 and often last three and a half hours? One has only to conjure up the image of the ensuing midnight traffic jams in the Lincoln Tunnel and on the George Washington Bridge to realize that George Steinbrenner has never seriously thought about moving the Yankees to New Jersey.
Steinbrenner's bluff on this front is possible only because of New Yorkers' absolute ignorance of attitudes west of the Hudson. A new poll conducted by the Newark Star Ledger found that 80 percent of Jerseyites don't want the Yankees if the deal includes giving Steinbrenner any public money. But of course the deal would include public money -- every stadium deal ever made has included public money -- and New Jersey voters, particularly Governor Christine Todd Whitman's constituency, aren't going to be fooled if she offers tax breaks instead of a straight handout. Also, even if that mood were to change, a Jersey deal would have strings attached that would be unacceptable to Steinbrenner. As Richard Aregood, editorial-page editor for the Star Ledger, wryly suggests, "For Steinbrenner to even begin negotiations for a new stadium out here he'd have to agree to put nj on the caps."