Stadium Cheating

Wild pitch: Why does George Steinbrenner want to tear down the house that Ruth built?

In July 1998 the New York Yankees were threatening to break their 1988 regular-season attendance record of 2,633,701, and a jubilant George Steinbrenner quelled rumors that he was planning to take the team out of New York. Well, he didn't exactly promise he wouldn't. If attendance surpassed 3 million and he could be "guaranteed similar attendance in the future"—how far into the future wasn't specified—he said he'd be "willing to talk about staying in Yankee Stadium."

Yankee fans didn't keep their part of the bargain: The Yankees, despite having what was probably the greatest team in baseball history, clocked in with an attendance of just 2,955,193. The Boss must have been satisfied, though, because talk about moving the Yankees ceased for a while as ticket sales continued to soar. Over the last three seasons, the Yankees have shattered all their previous attendance marks. In both 2002 and 2003 they played to better than 3,465,000; last season it was an incredible 3,775,292. They have led the major leagues in average attendance per game for the last two seasons. Steinbrenner's response has been to shift his focus from moving the Yankees out of New York to a new stadium in New York. And if attendance falls this year, as it inevitably will if the 2005 team continues to tank, you can bet the new stadium plan will accelerate quickly.

To go by recent news stories, a new Yankee Stadium is already a done deal. As far as Rudy Giuliani and Mario Cuomo are concerned, it was already a done deal as far back as 1998, when the two were all but publicly campaigning for Steinbrenner. Almost the only one to stand up to Steinbrenner's bluff—and it was a bluff—was Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Now that, apparently, has changed: The latest plans for a new Yankee Stadium have the blessing of the current Bronx borough president, Adolfo Carrion.

The new deal, which is to be presented any day now, proposes a stadium just north of the current facility, which will be composed of two separate structures, one an exterior wall designed to replicate the original Yankee Stadium, and the other an interior stadium rising over the top of the exterior. Both the materials on the outer structure and the latticework in the stadium are intended to make people feel as if they were in the original Yankee Stadium, which calls to mind Groucho's line to Margaret Dumont: "Everything about you reminds me of you . . . except you."

The natural question ought to be: If they are going to take such pains to remind us of what Yankee Stadium was like, why not just keep Yankee Stadium? Well, supposedly because a simple renovation wouldn't bring the Bronx so many new perks. According to a statement released by Carrion'soffice a few weeks ago, "The Yankees and the community agree that it is time to make some long overdue investment in this area. As long as the Yankees and our state and city governments commit to a partnership with the community that addresses local business, jobs, improved parkland, transportation upgrades, and an education facility, it will be a home run for everyone."

Exactly how much of this partnership the Yankees will commit to isn't clear at present, though common sense would indicate that better parking facilities and improved train access would be integral to any deal. Even less clear, though, is where all of this money is going to come from. So far, estimates are around $1.1 billion for the whole complex, with $800 million paid by the Yankees and "only" $300 million by the city and state, much of that to go for a new Metro-North station. But these estimates, in the manner of all such estimates, are extremely fuzzy. First of all, the Yankees won't be paying all of the Yankees' share: Much of their bill will be picked up by the money earmarked for new stadiums in Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing plan. How the Yankees would finance the rest of their share has not been specified; presumably the city would get money from the new parking garages, but parking revenue alone could take decades to put a dent into the debt. There's also talk of increased sales tax on concessions, but this defers the costs to the fans.

In any event, we all know that the costs will end up being more, far more, than $800 and $300 million, and it's about time to start asking who will benefit from all of this spending. We certainly know that the Yankees will. One of the main purposes of a new stadium from the Yankees' point of view is the addition of luxury suites—50 to 60—all of which, presumably, will be purchased by corporations, and— surprise!—the average fan is going to get stuck with significantly higher ticket costs. Proposals for the new stadium have indicated that the seating will be reduced from its current 57,000+ to between 47,000 and 50,000. Why fewer seats? Because the law of more demand for fewer seats dictates that the price of tickets will rise significantly.

All this should come as no shock to anyone. George Steinbrenner is a businessman, and the primary motivation for the new ballpark will be, and should be, profit and not some nebulous concept of partnership with the community. But what is everyone else's excuse for all this unjustified enthusiasm? People should ask the question that so many were asking in the late '90s: Why do the Yankees even need a new ballpark? Yes, better parking, more trains, and better food would be great, but if the Yankees are already the richest franchise in sports and leading the major leagues in attendance, what's wrong with Yankee Stadium right now? A few years ago it was still possible for Steinbrenner to make his give-me-a-new-ballpark-or-I'll-move-the-team bluff, but now everyone is too educated in all the counter-arguments for that tactic to work. A ballpark in New Jersey or Connecticut wouldn't solve any of the Yankees' logistical problems, and their taxpayers wouldn't buy the Yankees a new stadium even if it did. Steinbrenner no longer has any cards left to bluff with. He has no choice but to keep the Yankees in New York and in their current stadium if the city insists.

Why, then, does everyone appear to be so accommodating to a proposal that will make the super-rich super-richer and that would create no benefit to those who must pay for it? It's a question that fans, politicians, and the media had better start asking, and soon, before the house that Ruth built becomes the house that George tore down.


Allen Barra's latest book is Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries (St. Martin's).

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