Monday, September 22, 2008

Damn Yankees

Even though I am anything but a Yankees fan (I am the fan of two teams, to paraphrase a quote the provenance of which I can’t remember, I am a fan of the Dodgers, and I am a fan of whichever team is playing the Yankees), I could not help but watch the ESPN broadcast of the final baseball game to be played at Yankee Stadium with a heavy heart. Simply known as “The Stadium” in metropolitan New York, it is—or was, I should now say—a living piece of history, a working facility that could provide present enjoyment alongside a palpable link to the past. Even with the terrible mid-Seventies remodel, seeing a game at Yankee Stadium still felt like spending a few hours in another era. You could look around and recognize tableaus from old newsreels and videotapes; you could feel like you were part of the history, not just of baseball, but of American popular culture.

Listening, however, to the broadcasters detail that history, not just of the stadium and the Yankees, but of the team’s majority owner, George Steinbrenner, I grew not only heavy of heart, but also sick of stomach. Talking about the Yankees’ marketing might without talking about what it has done to the economics of baseball is absurd; talking about “The Boss” (as Steinbrenner is unaffectionately known) without talking about the crimes he has committed—against individuals, baseball, and the United States of America—is offensive.

There is much to be said about Steinbrenner’s authoritarian, bullying management style that could still be dismissed as a subjective evaluation, but here is a point that is inarguable fact: George Steinbrenner is a crook.

In 1974, Steinbrenner was indicted on fourteen counts relating to his large, illegal under-the-table contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. General George copped a plea—guilty of an illegal campaign contribution and guilty of obstruction of justice—and got off with a five-figure fine. Then Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn banned Steinbrenner from the game for two years—later cutting that penalty to 15 months. Ronald Reagan did Kuhn one better, granting Steinbrenner a full presidential pardon in the waning hours of the Reagan Administration.

Around about the same time as the pardon, George Steinbrenner grew weary of his all-star outfielder Dave Winfield, a player he had signed after the 1980 season to a ten-year, $23 million contract (the largest in the sport to that point). Or, more accurately, Steinbrenner got cheap. Having reneged on a contractual obligation to donate $300,000 to Winfield’s charity for poor, inner-city youth, The Boss was sued by Winfield. Steinbrenner’s response was to pay $40,000 to known gambler and all-around slime-ball Howard Spira in exchange for dirt on Winfield that could be used to derail the lawsuit.

This move got Georgie banned from baseball “for life.” In 1993, Fay Vincent, that era’s baseball commissioner, decided “life” meant “three years.”

I’m telling you this now; the good folks at ESPN mentioned none of it. Instead, they talked about Steinbrenner’s inevitable induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame. They’re probably right, but considering there are poor players who were banned from baseball for being caught hosting small-change crap games in their hotel rooms, and others that have been kept from the Hall for taking tiny bribes to supplement slavish salaries, Steinbrenner’s induction would make a mockery of the institution.

But all of this would just be inside baseball, as they say (well, except that he violated federal election laws, but, gosh, he was pardoned for that), were it not for the cause of Sunday’s lamentations and celebrations. Across the street from the old House that Ruth Built now rises the New Yankee Stadium. The old one will be torn down before next season to make room for a parking lot.

The Yankees didn’t really need a new stadium. The historic old one was more than serviceable, and has in recent years drawn over 4 million visitors a season. But in the last decade or so, as the Yankees were winning title after title, leveraging their brand, and increasing their revenue even faster than their payroll (much, much faster, really), George Steinbrenner neglected The Stadium, allowing for some very visible cracks and crumbles, making minimal repairs, and complaining about his plight all the way to the bank.

Steinbrenner demanded a fresh stadium. He threatened the city. He wanted a new ballpark, and better access roads for suburban commuters, and more space for parking, or else he’d take the New York Yankees out of New York.

New York City, faced with this manufactured crisis, eventually gave in. . . and gave in big, issuing hundreds of millions in tax exempt bonds to finance construction of the new stadium, along with pledging city funds to improve transportation and infrastructure around the area, seizing park land by imminent domain to make way for more parking, and over-valuing the land under the new stadium in order to facilitate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes arrangement.

Negligence, a manufactured crisis, a gunless holdup, greed and corruption at every turn—sound familiar? You and I are not the only ones who think so. I was surprised and impressed to hear Bill Moyers close the Friday broadcast of his weekly show with an essay making some of the same observations—and doing so in harsh terms:

This last couple of weeks, ordinary mortals below could almost hear the ripcords of golden parachutes being pulled as the divinities on high prepared for soft, safe landings. All this while tossing their workers into the purgatory of unemployment, like sacrificial lambs.

. . . .

But let's change our metaphor for a moment. Let's go to our sports desk. Because if religion is no longer the soul of capitalism, we have to look somewhere else to understand this new gilded age. And there it is, just a few miles north of Wall Street, the "House that Ruth Built". . . . Yankee Stadium, as fabled a place to Americans as Ilium was to the Greeks.

But believe it or not, this Sunday — weather permitting — the Yankees will play their last game here. The stadium's being demolished, to be replaced next year with a brand new one. What a history to disappear down the memory hole.

. . . .

[Yankees] owner, George Steinbrenner, is one of the country's richest tycoons, among the Forbes 400. But when it came to paying for the new pleasure dome costing $1.3 billion, the millionaires on the field and King Midas in the skybox came up with some razzle-dazzle plays to finance their wealth machine. Tax-free bonds, requiring ordinary citizens to subsidize the construction, and hundreds of millions more for new parking garages, a train station and parks. Those parks, by the way, will supposedly replace the ones seized by the city to make room for the new stadium. The little league games that used to flourish on sandlots just outside the old ball park have been moved miles away, sent down to the minors on a long road trip.

That's okay, you may think, there will be plenty of room for the tax-paying public to come root, root, root for the home team — even the coliseum in ancient Rome had bleachers, for the commoners. But in fact there will be 5,000 fewer seats in the new stands.

And while the Yankees reportedly have promised that half of what's left will cost $45 apiece or less, those seats that used to cost $250, right behind the dugout, will cost you $850. And if you want to be near home plate, you'll have to cough up $2,500...per game.

Meanwhile, there will be more luxury suites and party rooms where the fat cats gather, safely removed from the sweaty masses. Corporations and wealthy individuals will be able to rent the luxury suites for anywhere from $600,000 to $850,000 tax deductible dollars a year, assuming they haven't filed for bankruptcy this week.

. . . .

Why aren't the fans and tax payers giving the Yankees a Bronx Cheer? They are. But city officials rolled over them while making sure local politicians stay in the line up. The pols are getting their own luxury suite at the new stadium for free and first shot at buying the best available seats.

And so this Sunday evening we will bid farewell to dear old Yankee Stadium, and await the new colossus to rise from its ruins. It will cast its majestic shadow across one of the country's poorest neighborhoods, whose residents will watch from the outside as suburban drivers avail themselves of 9,000 new or refurbished parking spaces. Never mind all the exhaust, even though in this part of town respiratory disease is already so high they call it "asthma alley."

Not that the well-to-do in the infield seats will have to hear that wheezing. They'll have access to a private club, a private entrance and a private elevator. Totems of this Gilded Age. Let the games begin.

Moyers is wonderfully on point, but as hard-hitting as this commentary is, it actually misses the chance to land an additional punch. . . or two. Perhaps Moyers didn’t realize, or perhaps he just had to edit for time, but missing from Friday’s story was an even more direct link between the meltdown on Wall Street, and the teardown in the Bronx.

Almost all Yankees games are broadcast in New York on the YES Network, a cable station formed after the Yankees and the NBA’s New Jersey Nets got into a pissing match with their previous television home and some of that station’s owners. The Nets have since landed in the pocket of wealthy real estate mogul Bruce Ratner, but the Yankees restructured the company with a new partner and kept YES a growing concern. Today, the television network is believed to be worth $1.5 billion (about $200 million more than the Yankees themselves).

Oh, that new partner in the YES Network? That would be Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Sachs is one of the last two of the once “big five” independent investment banks. . . wait, what’s that? Goldman Sachs is now not an investment bank? This just in: Sunday night, during that Yankees game, or there abouts, Goldman and its only remaining rival, Morgan Stanley, sought and got permission to change themselves into full-service banks. They will argue that this makes them more competitive in these new tough times, but, in point of fact, they did this today because it will mean that they can partake of a much larger slice of the pending federal bailout. But, I digress. . .

Goldman Sachs, majority owner of the YES Network, is also the institution that gave us current Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (as well as Clinton Treas-Sec Robert Rubin). Paulson is the architect of the proposed financial sector bailout—a bailout that is an even better example of the shock doctrine than the New Yankee Stadium.

Paulson’s substantial portfolio is now in a blind trust, but it is more than possible that it still contains plenty of shares of both Goldman and YES. Inside baseball, indeed.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home