The Houses That Ruthlessness Built

Welcome to middling baseball in sleek new cathedrals

So far, contrary to the way the sports press has presented it, there's no indication that fans are joining in on this "Come celebrate with us as we tear down our stadiums" nostalgia crap. They certainly aren't joining in the love fest at this year's All-Star Game on July 15, the fourth and final to be played at Yankee Stadium. New York fans are supposed to be flagrant partisans when it comes to the All-Star vote, but this year just one undeserving local—Derek Jeter—made the starting lineup. Alex Rodriguez is the only other player on either the Yankees or Mets to finish at his position; Mets fans are so disgruntled that they didn't even place their best player, David Wright, in the top five.

Attendance at Shea has been up about 2,500 a game over last year—but much of that should be attributed to the days on which Johan Santana pitches. And 2008 attendance is actually slightly below the 2007 numbers at Yankee Stadium. What is true is that revenue for both teams is up—way up—but that's because they both raised ticket prices this year, the Mets by 20 percent (best estimate), and the Yankees, reportedly, by slightly over 18 percent.

Another revenue stream—actually, river might be a better term—is the huge slice of cash that the Yankees and Mets received from MLB's revenue-sharing funds earmarked for teams building new stadiums. In addition, both are guaranteed revenue boosts in the form of increased ticket and concession prices next season. Baseball economist Andrew Zimbalist estimates: "The Yankees will probably pull in $45-50 million in new revenue in their first season, with the Mets' take only slightly less." In other words, the Mets and Yankees have actually been paid by MLB to tear down their old stadiums while reaping windfall profits.

One might argue that to the millions who follow the Yankees and Mets in the tristate area and only go to one game a year anyway, all this really doesn't make much difference—or at least it wouldn't be very important if the baseball itself reflected the teams' profits. But both the Yankees and Mets seem to be sliding into a swamp of mediocrity, with aging rosters, stagnant farm systems, and front offices that specialize in crisis management and double-talk. Both teams seem not so much mismanaged as non-managed, not so much on a wrong course as simply drifting.

Every day in the papers and on radio talk shows and blogs, arguments rage over whether Hank Steinbrenner or GM Brian Cashman or team president Randy Levine is making the baseball decisions for the Yankees, or whether the Wilpons or GM Omar Minaya is calling the shots for the Mets. Everyone's asking who's in charge, but it looks more and more like no one is. More to the point, the Yankees' and Mets' decisions seem to be based on the bottom line, not on putting the best team on the field.

This year, both clubs were in a superb position to erase the ugliness of 2007. Instead, we've gotten one of the worst baseball summers in memory, with both teams more or less hovering around .500 as they limp into the All-Star break. Yet the Mets, loaded with mad money, made no substantial roster change except for the acquisition of Johan Santana, and the Yankees made no substantial roster changes at all—according to ESPN, they actually went into the 2008 season with a payroll $9 million less than last year.

The Mets, coming off the year everyone wants to forget, made Willie Randolph the scapegoat for Black September, citing mismanagement. After his first three seasons, in which he racked up a win-loss percentage of .551, Randolph was poised to challenge Davey Johnson (a .588 W-L in New York) as best Mets manager ever. (For the record, Bobby Valentine was .534 and Gil Hodges just .523.)

With Ryan Church injured and a bullpen operating at the same level of ineptitude that precipitated last year's collapse (eighth in the NL in ERA last year, seventh so far this year), the Mets were just one game under .500 when Willie got the ax. Why wasn't he given more of a chance—or at least better material to work with? Mets GM Omar Minaya was kind enough to grant us a few questions on this:

Voice: Did the decision to fire Randolph come from your office or from the Wilpons?

Minaya: It's not quite that simple. These matters are discussed back and forth and involve exchanges of information and opinion. We need to be in sync.

Voice: Was it your feeling that Randolph should be fired?

Minaya: I thought that we needed closure. I thought it was time to dispel the uncertainty and move forward.

Voice: Did you have any fundamental disagreement with Willie's decisions— his game strategies, for instance?

Minaya: I'd say that there were some times when I disagreed on his choices of starters and relievers and sometimes pinch hitters in certain situations.

Minaya's responses are maddeningly evasive; certainly the Wilpons approved of or even initiated Willie's termination for PR purposes. But Omar is certainly correct in his last criticism: Randolph did make some poor pitching decisions. He went with Óliver Pérez (4.62 ERA so far this year) instead of Sandy Koufax, and gave 20 relief chances to Jorge Sosa (ERA 7.06 before his release in May) instead of Mariano Rivera. He repeatedly sent up Marlon Anderson, Damion Easley, and Endy Chávez to pinch-hit (a combined .194) when Johnny Mize and Dusty Rhodes would have been much more effective.

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