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7 Days: The Yankee Takeover

"George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner, has said repeatedly that the team is not for sale. But the beauty of eminent domain is that for once the Boss' feel­ings don't matter."

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When Adam Moss stepped down as editor of New York magazine last month, it marked the end of an era. Since taking the helm of the august title in 2004, Moss had helped set the industry standard for magazine journalism, documenting the life of the city in all its highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable glory. 

Of course, as dedicated media-watchers know, much of the New York‘s DNA was apparent three decades ago, when Moss emerged from Manhattan’s media landscape as the 30-year-old wunderkind behind the much-loved, short-lived 7 Days magazine. Published by then-Voice owner Leonard Stern for two years bridging the ’80s and ’90s, 7 Days was a glorious failure, bleeding money, but minting the reputations for a generation of fledgling journalists

Flipping through the 7 Days archives today is an exercise in delightful discovery. There’s future best-selling author Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) writing the weekly crossword puzzle; a regular magazine-watching column from fellow future best-selling author Walter Kirn (Up in the Air); Peter Schjeldahl covering the arts scene; Joan Acocella on dance; and below, Jeffrey Toobin writing about the Yankees, long before he became the lead legal analyst for the New Yorker.

This next week, we here at the Voice archives will be sharing some of these treasures from the vault. Welcome to seven days of 7 Days.

Back in 1966, when the old Fifth Avenue Coach Line was doing a lousy job running Manhattan’s buses, New York City used its power of eminent domain to buy the company and start running the routes itself. It may now be time for the city to exercise that power once again to take over another troubled local franchise: the New York Yankees.

Of course, George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, has said repeatedly that the team is not for sale. But the beauty of eminent domain is that for once the Boss’ feel­ings don’t matter. George would have the right to squawk to a judge about the price the city pays, but if the city were successful, he couldn’t keep the team.

How would it work? Under state law, the city has an abso­lute right to acquire any local property it wants, which it does through a process called condemnation (certainly an apt term to apply to any team that calls Andy Hawkins an ace). New York usually uses this power to acquire real estate for things like roads or public housing. But the eminent-do­main prerogative has been extended in New York to include such less tangible forms of property as the bus franchise and the trade routes of a laundry.

Eminent-domain proceedings in New York follow a two­step process, says Robert Pfeffer, who runs the condemna­tion section of the city’s legal department. First, says Pfeffer, “the city goes to a court for an order authorizing it to condemn the property.” In that initial court action, the city would have to prove that its takeover of the Yankees was for a “public use.” Courts usually define use with vague phrases such as “a use that promotes the general interest,” a standard that the Yankees deal — even in a city now mostly concerned with the Mets — ought to satisfy. According to Leonard Koerner, chief of appeals for the city’s legal depait­ment, “The courts are pretty reluctant to substitute their judgment for the government’s on whether something’s a public use.” In other words, if city officials want to condemn property, the courts usually let them do it.

The second stage of the process, says Pfeffer, comes when “that same court litigates what just compensation the owner is due.” Taking title to the team would no doubt cost a pret­ty penny, but the city could go to the credit markets to raise the money. (Bomber Bonds? Pin-Stripe Paper?) Alas, under New York City law, a judge — and not a jury full of grouchy Yankees fans — would determine Steinbrenner’s just compensation.

As bizarre as the process sounds, it’s been tried before. Both Oakland and Baltimore made legal plays in the ’80s to keep their football teams from relocating; the Raiders to Los Angeles, the Colts to Indianapolis. Though the courts spurned both cities, they did not reject the idea of using emi­nent domain to take possession of sports franchises.

Of course, the primary benefit of New York’s purchase of the Yankees would be to end the Steinbrenner era (and with it, presumably, the chance for any more Billy Martin curtain calls). But public ownership also would give a welcome goose to the political life of the city. Who would appoint the man­ager? Perhaps, as the president is allowed to pick the cabi­net, the mayor would have the honor, but subject to the “ad­vice and consent” of the City Council. But who would have the right to decide on trades? Or the purchase of free agents? The conflicts might give a new, literal meaning to the term turf battles.

Think of the possibilities. A mayoral candidate’s platform includes education, mass transit, and returning Dave Ri­ghetti to the starting rotation. Mario Cuomo speaks at Notre Dame on the morality of a municipal baseball team stealing its opponents’ signs. The City Planning Commission votes a ban on the hit-and-run. With one out in the seventh, the City Council convenes an emergency session to order Steve Sax to sacrifice Jesse Barfield to second. The mayor vows a veto. Into the breach steps . . . Andy Stein.

Maybe Steinbrenner should keep the team after all.

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