Yankee Stay Home

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.”

The New Jersey Yankees? It seems absurd. Any proposed deal for a new stadium will involve tens of millions of dollars for corporate use of the Yankees logo, but nj just ain’t worth as much as ny. And even if Steinbrenner did somehow cut a deal across the river, why would the city of New York allow the team to continue to wear ny on their uniforms? Peter Vallone, for one, says forget it.

“It’s unthinkable,” Vallone says. “That’s like Walter O’Malley saying to Brooklyn back in 1958, ‘Could we continue to call ourselves the Brooklyn Dodgers? It’s good for marketing.’ It can’t be done. You lose the city, you lose the logo.” Steinbrenner would like us to focus on the Giants and Jets, who play their home games at the Meadowlands while continuing to keep their ny’s. But the fact is that New York didn’t particularly want to pay to keep the Giants and Jets in the city, and were happy for the free advertising the football teams continued to provide after moving across the Hudson. If city officials had cared, a lawsuit would have prevented the teams from keeping their ny’s. It could never have happened without their consent.

One other influential group of men has no intention of seeing the Yankees change their name: George Steinbrenner’s fellow owners. Right now, no baseball executive will say anything that would keep Steinbrenner from blackmailing his way into the best deal he can get, but if it comes to action, Steinbrenner’s owner-colleagues would never let the Yankees leave New York. And, contrary to what most of the sports press seems to think, the other owners do have the power to prevent such a move.

Oddly enough, the Yankees have never drawn at home as they have on the road, where, since Babe Ruth, they have been the biggest attraction in baseball. The owners of the Cleveland, Kansas City, and Seattle franchises know that their fans aren’t going to thrill to the possibility of beating the New Jersey Yankees. They need the Yankees – the New York Yankees.

Marvin Miller, first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has spent decades dealing with the rulers of Major League Baseball, and there is no doubt in his mind that if the City of New York called Steinbrenner’s bluff, the other owners would back the city. “The example that’s usually cited is the NFL and Al Davis,” Miller says, “but those circumstances don’t apply to baseball. The NFL and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle, were unable to keep Davis from moving the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles, and this set the pattern for football owners to move to any city that offered a sweeter deal. But Major League Baseball is exempt from antitrust laws, and the commissioner, if he has the backing of a majority of owners, has enough power to keep a renegade owner in line.”

Miller notes that baseball mavericks, including former Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley and Steinbrenner himself, have been effectively slapped down by baseball’s commissioner. Steinbrenner needs no reminding of the baseball commissioner’s power: He was suspended by Fay Vincent from 1991 to 1993 for hiring gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. “The major-league owners are terrified of losing their antitrust exemption,” Miller says, “which gives them, in effect, a monopoly on professional baseball. If Steinbrenner moved the Yankees from the city, New York would lobby to have baseball’s antitrust exemption removed, and the media would join in until Congress took action. The owners would never let it come to that.”

Is there any city in the major leagues that shows less regard for its baseball fans? Yankee Stadium is the potential mecca of baseball, a place that ought to be attracting tourists daily by the trainload. But aside from the games, and the stadium itself, what’s there to attract people? Veteran sportswriter Ray Robinson, author of the recent Yankee Stadium: 75 Years of Drama, Glamour and Glory, says that “the Yankees are the most famous team in sports, but the closet thing to a museum of Yankee history is Stan’s souvenir and memorabilia shop under the train track.” Public transportation? New York could beef up its public transportation to the ball park. Why has no one in the mayor’s office even suggested a MetroNorth stop, or express trains from 14th, 42nd, and 59th Streets, and stops on the West Side of Manhattan?

Driving to the park? With a fraction of the estimated $1.1 billion proposed for a new Yankee Stadium, the city could improve both parking conditions and freeway access. More than 60 percent of Yankee fans drive in from Westchester and the northern suburbs, yet neither the Yankees nor the city seems interested in such fan-friendly niceties.

Food? Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Boston’s Fenway Park serve better food and a greater variety of it, and with far greater efficiency (Fenway has about half the interior space of Yankee Stadium, but with ingenious use of snake-rails in front of concession stands can move fans through twice as fast). And in the restaurant capital of the U.S., can anyone name a decent place to eat within walking distance of Yankee Stadium? Actor Joe Mantegna, an ardent Cubs fan, swears that he could “throw a ball out of the Wrigley Field bleachers and hit a better frozen-pizza place than anything you can find around Yankee Stadium.” He’s right; there’s not even a decent place to meet before the game. Seinfeld has given people the impression that they can all meet by the giant metal bat in back of the home-plate entrance, but try finding someone there twenty minutes before game time.

Mayor Giuliani’s solution – supported by Mario Cuomo and, undoubtedly, Steinbrenner himself – is a billion-dollar state-of-the-art stadium on Manhattan’s West Side. Though he can’t say so publicly – at least not yet – that’s what Steinbrenner really wants, since he can’t move to New Jersey.

The trend in baseball is corporate ownership – the Los Angeles Dodgers have already been bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and various other corporations, including Disney, control pieces of several teams. (Charles Dolan’s Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden, is reportedly interested in buying the Yankees.) What’s the best way to interest a corporation in your baseball team? With a new theme-park stadium. How much would a new stadium increase the value of the Yankees? By one estimate, the very existence of Camden Yards in Baltimore, paid for almost exclusively with public money, nearly tripled the market value of the Orioles, from $70 million to $207 million.

Steinbrenner won’t pay for the stadium himself, so New Yorkers would have to fork over at least half a billion dollars – which doesn’t include the inevitable cost overruns – for his luxury-boxed corporate jewel. We pay, he profits.

What makes Giuliani’s push for a pricey West Side stadium all the more puzzling is that no politician ever suffered political damage from the loss of a sports franchise; the departure of the Dodgers and Giants to California in 1958 made scarcely a blip on Robert Wagner’s popularity.

But there is a potential bonanza for the politician who can make Yankee Stadium more fan-friendly at a bargain price – and that’s the strategy being pursued by Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, who last week proposed a $535 million renovation of Yankee Stadium and the surrounding area. That’s half the price of a new stadium. “Why,” says Ferrer, “would Rudy Giuliani or anyone else, in all conscience, ever dream about wanting a ballpark anywhere else?”

Ferrer’s own plan would include open-air restaurants in a mall area where families could sit down together and fans could meet before games. In other words, the emphasis is on upgrading the neighborhood. The plan allows for gradual renovation and improvement of Yankee Stadium, particularly in the area of more efficient concessions and cleaner, more modern rest rooms. It includes more than 3,000 new parking places; a new Metro-North stop (which, according to Ferrer, would bring up to 5,000 additional fans per game); improved exits from the expressway; a new terraced restaurant in the outfield; and, yes, 140 luxury boxes.

Right now the Yankees are the hottest ticket in New York, but that won’t last. Suppose by next summer the team has dropped to, say, second place? What if attendance falls off 10 percent? Count on it – George Steinbrenner will ask for a new deal. And he deserves one; the Bronx deserves one. We all do. But before agreeing to anything, New York City should wake up to the fact that in these negotiations, George Steinbrenner isn’t the one holding the gun.

Yankee Stay Home