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IN THE BALLPARK

Way to Go, Ohio
By Neil deMause

These words are hard to write.

On August 16, 2006, under a bright blue Bronx sky, sixteen shovel blades descended toward the earth of what, until a few days earlier, had been Macombs Dam Park. As a crowd of invited celebrities from Yogi Berra to Billy Crystal to Freddy "the Pan-Banger" Schulman looked on, George Steinbrenner and his fellow dignitaries grabbed the shovels with bat-shaped handles and overturned a patch of symbolic sod.

After twenty years of waiting, the shipbuilder from Cleveland, who bought the Yankees in 1973 for $10 million, had at last gotten his way. In a little more than two years' time, the House That Ruth Built will be razed to the ground.

It's a turn of events unlike any of the other stadium controversies that have shaken the baseball world over the last couple of decades. Yankee Stadium was not a half-empty building blamed by its tenants for driving away fans; the Yankees broke the American League attendance record in 2005, and were poised to do so again in 2006. And the Yankees could hardly complain that they were hurting for money; even with a piddly nineteen luxury suites and not a single food court shilling sushi and garlic fries, George Steinbrenner's club managed to rake in $277 million last year—$70 million ahead of their nearest competitor, and more than the Devil Rays and Blue Jays combined.

The reason the Yankees needed a new stadium, explained Mayor Michael Bloomberg last summer when the plan was announced, is that their current one "fails to reflect the glamour of the club."

 

It was late June of 2005 when the Yankees' Bronx neighbors first heard about the new stadium plans. Flyers began going up along the Grand Concourse and River Avenue, telling of an upcoming community board meeting to discuss how Macombs Dam Park, where local kids went to play soccer and baseball and local grandmas took daily walks around the running track, could soon be paved over to make way for a new stadium for the Yankees. Aghast, a bunch of neighborhood residents, including a large contingent of middle-aged women from the once-fashionable Art Deco apartment buildings along the Grand Concourse and Jerome Avenue, formed Save Our Parks to try to fight City Hall.

Even before the flyers went up, though, the biggest decision about the park's fate had already been made. A mere eight days after the press conference announcing plans for the new stadium, the city council signed off on the "alienation" of Macombs Dam Park, effectively decommissioning it as parkland. The state legislature, recently anointed with the title of "most dysfunctional in the nation" by NYU Law School, approved the alienation bill within three days—before most of its members even had time to read it.

It was, as one park advocate later noted, the fastest parkland alienation in history.

It was also a stark contrast to the failed plan for a Jets football stadium on Manhattan's West Side, where state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver had single-handedly stopped the multi-billion-dollar plan in its tracks. But there, Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden, had poured tens of millions of dollars into lobbyists to oppose the deal. In the Yankees' case, the only visits legislators received were from representatives of Powers & Company, a firm run by the Republican operative who put both Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki in public office; Steinbrenner paid the firm at least $200,000 to lobby the state on behalf of a new stadium.

Adding insult to injury, it was later discovered that the Yankees had billed their lobbying costs to the city as a "stadium planning" expense. The taxpayers of the Bronx had helped pay to convince the state to take away their own parks.

With the parkland turned over, the Yankees needed only the approval of the city council for $160 million to tear down the old stadium and build replacement parks that would be scattered around the neighborhood. (The Yankees would also receive hundreds of millions in rent and tax breaks, but these could be accomplished with no more than a wave of the mayor's hand.) The city's land-use process, instituted in the 1970s to ensure local input into planning decisions, kicked into gear, with a nine-month window to debate the project's pros and cons before the council could act.

Bronx residents packed community hearings, jeering borough president Adolfo Carrion for having signed on to the Yankees deal. Carrion, who in his inaugural address in 2002 had declared that "New Yorkers need schools and not stadiums, and I will never abandon that fight," chastised the boo birds, declaring that "the purpose of a public hearing is for people to ask questions!" He then abruptly called that meeting to a close, still clutching the sign-in sheets of audience members who had yet to be heard from. Yankee president Randy Levine, who as deputy mayor in the 1990s had tried to help the team move to Manhattan, denounced opponents as "professional protesters." At one hearing, called by Carrion, locals arrived at the assigned time to find all the seats already taken by pro-stadium construction workers who'd been bused in from other parts of the city for the occasion.

Night after night residents filed up to microphones to denounce what they saw as a needless land grab. "The city wouldn't be trying to build a stadium in Central Park," they said, again and again.

The local community board voted 16 to 8 to oppose the Yanks' stadium plan, but its vote was only advisory. The City Planning Commission, filled with mayoral appointees, unanimously endorsed it. The stage was set for the final council vote.

On the day of the deciding council hearing, as a freak April snowstorm swirled outside the windows of City Hall, I cooled my heels with impatient reporters from every outlet in the city as the scheduled start time was delayed, and delayed again. The members of the Democratic caucus, it was said—in New York, virtually all council members belong to a single party—were downstairs being whipped into line by their leadership. (It's established city council tradition for the speaker to punish members who vote the wrong way by removing them as committee chairs.) On the council floor, one councilmember gave an impassioned speech decrying the undemocratic rush to alienate the parks—then voted for the plan. Of the entire Bronx delegation, the only member to cast a no vote, Helen Diane Foster, publicly apologized for listening to her constituents and not her party leaders, saying, "I tried to find a way to say yes [but] I don't believe this is the best deal for the community. I believe it's the best deal for the Yankees."

One council member's entire statement before voting was: "I have always liked the Yankees, and I will like them even more now." The bill passed, 44 to 2.

A handful of other hurdles still remained. The National Park Service had to approve the new parkland, much of it across a highway from the neighborhoods it was meant to serve, as of equal "value and utility." And the IRS had to sign off on the complex and unprecedented tax-exempt financing plan that would save the Yankees $172 million, mostly at the expense of federal taxpayers. By late July, however, the feds had given their blessing as well.

Somewhere in the Yankee front office, an order was placed for sixteen bat-handled shovels.

 

Given all that was at stake in the Yankee Stadium battle—more than $400 million in public money, a century-old public park, faith in democracy—it seems almost petty to focus on the loss of the building itself. But for baseball fans, that's what will matter in the end. Come April of 2009, visitors looking for "Yankee Stadium" will find only an HOK-designed replicant, with 100-foot-wide shopping concourses and an upscale restaurant in the center field bleachers—and a bit of architectural trim to remind people of what stood across the street for eighty-five years. Like Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, Yankee Stadium will have stopped being a place; it will become merely a brand name.

Of course, there are those who say that Yankee Stadium is already gone, or at least not what it once was. In 1973, with the Yanks threatening a move to New Jersey, the city of New York had embarked on a $25 million modernization of the old place, only to end up with a stadium that would be unfashionably concrete-and-cinderblock in the age of retro steel and brick—and with a final price tag of $119 million. (Cost savings were found elsewhere, such as by axing the community improvements that had been promised to surrounding Bronx neighborhoods.) As stadium historians Bill Shannon and George Kalinsky wrote in 1975 of the then-ongoing reconstruction: "It will leave us with a great sports landmark structurally mauled somewhat beyond need in our view. But some Yankee Stadium is better than none, and that seemed to be the alternative choice."

It's the same rationale that the current Yankees management uses now: at least the new one will still be in the Bronx and will still have the famous frieze (now twice-copied from the copper original), and there will still be those monuments in center field, even if they will hallow different ground. If the stadium boosters never seemed to get their story straight about why this was necessary—the old one doesn't have enough Ladies' rooms, they argued at one community board meeting—they could always fall back on the tried-and-true: it was "progress."

 

I was too young to make it to more than one game at the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium—my faint memories include a cavernous dark barn of an upper deck, and Jerry Kenney playing third base—but the Steinbrenner-era stadium was my stomping grounds. As soon as I heard that they'd let you into the bleachers for a mere $1.50—add in the price of a roundtrip subway ride, and a day at the park would cost a mere three bucks—I was hooked.

I wound up being there for plenty of headline-grabbing events. I was in the upper deck for the "Pine Tar" game, with a photo of George Brett going nose-to-nose with ump Tim McClelland to prove it. I missed Dave Righetti's no-hitter and the perfect games by the two Davids, Cone and Wells, but I was there for a pair of no-hitters, emotional in their own way, by the oddly tragic figures Jim Abbott and Dwight Gooden. I watched Derek Jeter's "Mr. November" homer clear the outfield wall, and Wade Boggs climb moist-eyed onto a police horse after the 1996 World Series win that ended the longest Bronx championship drought since the team had relocated from Manhattan.

But those are baseball memories, not Yankee Stadium ones. Among the scenes I'll always remember from the big ball yard in the Bronx will be climbing over the low bleacher wall when the Yankees won the strike-spawned division series in 1981 and running toward the infield, only to stop halfway there, boggled by the immensity of the sea of grass before me. And spending entire summers in the bleachers, where Frank the Little League ump, still dressed in his uniform, would take up a collection and then disappear into the Bronx night, returning with Chinese food, where Grandmaster Melle Mel would entertain Section 39 nightly with his Stevie Wonder impressions, and where that quiet guy Danny keeping score in Row H would turn out to be another member of the Furious Five; where Emi the Japanese newspaper reporter would come to cheer on Dave Winfield and escape the stuffiness of the press box; and most of all, where the revered fan Ali Ramirez would spark rallies and calm fistfights with a few clangs of his trademark cowbell.

Perhaps my most vivid Yankee Stadium memory is from the day before the one-day strike of 1985, the end of an amazing four-game series with the White Sox that included Carlton Fisk tagging out two runners at home plate on the same play, and Tom Seaver's 300th win. (The latter also featured a pregame salute to Phil Rizzuto in which the Scooter was given a cow named Huckleberry—which promptly knocked him over.) With no idea how long the work stoppage would last, I'd turned up early to stoke up for an indefinite hiatus without baseball. And there out on the field, an hour or so before game time, I spotted White Sox second baseman Julio Cruz casually playing catch with a fan in the upper deck—hitting his man with precision every time.

Much of that is already gone, of course. Ali died in his native Puerto Rico in 1996, his passing marked by a brief message on the center field scoreboard. And with bleacher seats now $10 a pop (roundtrip subway fare is $4), much of the casual bleacher camaraderie has been pressed out of existence by a flood of frat boys, thrill seekers, and people simply priced out of the rest of the park. As Yogi would say, nobody goes to the bleachers anymore—they're too crowded.

Yet the stadium is still the Stadium. In 1995, when Don Mattingly stepped to the plate for the first time in a postseason game, the grandstand shook beneath my feet, and one of the loudest roars I've ever heard from the throats of human beings surged around the stadium bowl. And when Barry Bonds, in his second game ever at Yankee Stadium, hit a ball that landed just a few rows from the top of the right field upper deck, stadium historian John Pastier could still calculate whether, if Barry had hit it in pre-remodeling days, the ball would have been the first since Josh Gibson's historic blast to travel clear out of the park. (His answer: yes, though it would have bounced on the roof first.)

The new stadium, with its gentle inclines, wide-open spaces, and lack of the old-fashioned cantilevering that suspends the decks virtually on top of one another, won't shake, and it won't roar. The upper deck, set back thirty feet so that the patrons in the club seats below aren't in shadow, will be too distant for any future Julio Cruzes to reach with a throw—not that those seated there could likely be convinced to toss the unexpected souvenir back. And even if the plaque that now marks Ali Ramirez's seat in Section 39 somehow makes the move to the new stadium, it will have changed from a memory to a memorial. Contrary to what Joe Torre says, the ghosts won't move across the street.

Trading history—sloppy, unprofitable, intangible history—for comfort and cupholders is all the rage right now. And I have no doubt that the Yankees will sell out their ersatz Yankee Stadium for years to come, at prices that would make a scalper blush—and make my old thirty-games-a-year bleacher habit impossible. (The city's economic projections put the average ticket price in the new stadium at $57, with bleacher tickets setting fans back $21.) But I wonder if, eventually, once the sheen has worn off the Yankees' new toy, someone will write of Yankee Stadium as John McCarron did in the Chicago Tribune eight years after Comiskey Park had been torn down: "Though certain suits will never admit it," the old stadium "should have been saved and rehabbed; . . . the old neighborhood around it should have been renewed, not removed. But it's never too late to use your imagination. Just close your eyes and remember how it used to be."

Those will also be hard words to write.

—EFQ

NEIL deMAUSE is the co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, which will be re-issued in a new edition by the University of Nebraska Press in 2008. He used to be a Yankee fan.

© 2006 Neil deMause

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