By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
What's the worst baseball season in New York history?
Most fans, if asked that question, wouldn't cite the really bad years, the worst losing seasons—they rationalize those away by wrapping them up in jokey images. Yankees fans snicker about the "Horace Clarke era," inexplicably named for the undistinguished second baseman of the late 1960s and early 1970s, conveniently forgetting that Clarke's career batting average, .256, is above what current Yankee second baseman Robbie Cano is hitting this year (.252 as we go to press).
Most fans, if pressed to name their worst season, would recall the years of their biggest disappointments, and for fans of both New York teams, that means 2007. The Yankees suffered yet another humiliating postseason loss, ending the era of Joe Torre, the winningest and best-liked manager since Casey Stengel. The Mets, just an extra base hit away from the World Series in 2006, thought they were finding redemption during the first five months of 2007, only to suffer the shock of the worst September in major-league history. Fans—and the franchise—still haven't recovered from that trauma.
Yes, 2007 will do as the worst New York baseball season ever. But here's some good news: Before the 2008 season is over, Yankees and Mets fans may well be ready to say: "Come back, 2007—all is forgiven."
To go by the media coverage, you'd think it's the dawn of a golden era. Both the Yankees and the Mets have created cash cows by—to mix both metaphors and barnyard animals—killing the golden geese. You kill the old birds and cash in on the nostalgia for them while stuffing a new platinum goose just across the street.
By and large, the media has chosen to portray this blatant market manipulation as some sort of fans' choice. As front-office homer Michael Kay phrased it in an early-season Yankees broadcast: "The fans are showing up at Yankee Stadium this year, and they're already buying tickets in bunches for next year, so by and large, you'd have to say they approve of what's being done."
No, we don't have to say that. The fans weren't consulted on this, and there's no indication that they wanted Yankee and Shea stadiums replaced. Filmmakers and rabid Mets fans Kathy Foronjy and Joe Coburn—creators of the documentary on Mets fans, Mathematically Alive—are both skeptical about whether fans will even be able to identify with the new corporate-named Citi Field. Moreover, there's no indication that those fans in favor of the new ballparks will approve of the deal they're actually getting.
"Having seen a number of ballparks all around the country," says Coburn, "I can't deny the obvious blemishes on the surface of Shea: the sight lines, the bathrooms, the flight paths, etc. But many fans have essentially grown up in Shea, and they choose to embrace the flaws. In those flaws, we find the charm. Citi Field may end up being an amazing place to watch a game, but it will take a while to feel like home." Foronjy adds: "Seeing the beauty in Citi Field will be easy. Forgetting what I and many others saw in Shea will be much more difficult." Especially if many of those who grew up in Shea don't get to see a game in Citi Field.
Alex Belth of the Bronx Banter website points out something that has been left out of the equation in the game plan for the new parks: "The upper-deck culture, the regular Joes squeezed together in that classic New York fashion which forces you to co-exist with your neighbors as if you were on a packed rush-hour subway—all of that will be disappearing in both the Bronx and Queens. By next year, the crowds will be composed almost entirely of upper-class suburbanites." Or of those given an occasional party favor from corporate season-ticket holders.
Forget the working class: They've already been priced out of the equation. The new stadiums aren't designed to bring more people in, but rather to keep them out. With fewer seats and higher ticket prices, an increasingly rare element in our new ballparks will be the middle class. Going to a major-league baseball game in New York will be a once-a-year big family event, like going to a pro-football game.
Half a century ago, New Yorkers watched in sullen silence as the wrecking balls went to work on Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. Fans of the Dodgers and the Giants lost both their stadiums and their teams. For most Mets and Yankees fans, is what's happening now any better than what happened in the late 1950s? For many fans, the new Yankee Stadium—which Yankees COO Lonn Trost proudly describes as "a five-star hotel with a ballfield in the middle"—and Citi Field will be as exotic and remote as Los Angeles and San Francisco were to fans of the Dodgers and Giants. Most will have no closer relationship to their teams than a television set—and if it's a choice between 162 games on a giant flat-screen HDTV in an air-conditioned living room with beer at 80 cents a can, and paying an arm and a leg to these already ridiculously profitable teams for the privilege of entering their new commercial temples on a regular basis, it's hard to blame them.
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.
Nearly all of Willie Randolph's choices worked out pretty much as they could have been expected to, given the level of talent available to him—and the man with the primary responsibility for providing that talent was Minaya, with a reputation last season as a smart baseball man. If the Mets GM couldn't be expected to provide a Koufax or Mize, then why, with the team's newfound resources, couldn't he at least have given Randolph a better bullpen and bench than you'd find on an average Triple-A franchise?
Common sense says yes, Minaya could have provided these if allowed to, but the Wilpons wouldn't let him spend the money. They did loosen the purse strings on the big deal for Johan Santana, but Johan's salary is largely offset by increased ticket sales at higher prices.
The Yankees' failure to fortify themselves is even more indefensible. After giving up 24 runs in four games while losing the AL Division Series to the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees pretended to make a serious bid for Santana, but according to Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "The whole thing was probably smoke and mirrors. Most sources at the Twins organizations indicated that the Yankees never made a serious offer." Instead, the term "fiscal responsibility" was bandied about, and the front office declared that it would stay "in-house" and produce aces out of the organization's supposedly strengthened farm system. That plan has so far resulted in a combined 0-7 record for Phil Hughes (currently in rehab) and Ian Kennedy.
After losing their No. 1 starter, Chien-Ming Wang, for what might be the season, the Yankees blew more smoke about making a deal for Cleveland's 2007 Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia (19-7 last season), and then balked on a second straight deal for an ace lefty, again declaring they would stay "in-house." So far, "in-house" has meant Darrell Rasner, Sidney Ponson, and—shudder—a third try for Kei Igawa. Last Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers made the deal the Yankees wouldn't, sending three nondescript "prospects" (none of whom have played an inning in the major leagues) plus a player to be named later for Sabathia. If the Yankees' farm system is flourishing, as the front office insists, why didn't the team make the deal with Cleveland? The obvious answer is that they could have, but the Brewers were willing to shell out the salary and the Yankees were not.
Thirty-some years ago, when free agency was new and superstars signed long-term contracts, old-fart New York columnists like Dick Young complained that players, having received their big money, would slack off and underperform. There's no evidence that that ever happened, but the flip side—that team managements, once they got their long-term cable and stadium deals, would pocket the profits at the expense of quality of play—has never really been examined. As Marvin Miller, the first head of the players' union, used to say: "Watch out when you hear baseball executives say 'fiscal responsibility.' It's code for 'profit before winning.' "
If there's one basic way to compare the new Steinbrenners with the old one, it's this: Of all the sins that George was charged with over the years, no one ever accused him of "fiscal responsibility." The easiest way to determine that he's no longer calling the shots is that Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia aren't in Yankee pinstripes. Looking back on 2008, we may recall it as the time when the Mets were finally content to be the No. 2 team in New York and the Yankees resigned themselves to being No. 2 in their division, behind the Red Sox—or, God help us, the Tampa Bay Rays. The consolation for this planned mediocrity is supposed to be the big party that the Mets, the Yankees, and the City of New York will be throwing next year for their new five-star hotel/shopping- mall ballparks. It's a party that most fans will only be able to watch on TV.