Tradition. More than any other team in professional sports, the New York Yankees epitomize it.
The House that Ruth Built. The 33 pennants. The 22 championships. Gehrig. DiMaggio. Mantle. The dozen retired numbers, displayed in Monument Park. Larsen’s perfect World Series game. Maris’ 61 homers. Whitey. Yogi. Reggie.
Tradition. Team officials warn it may not be enough to keep the Yankees in the Bronx ballpark where they’ve ruled for 70 years. Not unless it’s augmented with 4,000 new parking spaces, upgraded mass transit, luxury boxes, improved access--oh, and a better neighborhood.
“The Yankees have long played in the Bronx. By the same token, that’s not going to cut it,” said team counsel Melvyn Leventhal. “That’s not enough to keep the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.”
Despite a pennant race that’s raised some of the stadium’s long-dormant ghosts--the Yankees’ last World Series was in 1981--tradition has struck out and economics is hitting cleanup. The past is in the past; the future may be in New Jersey.
With a jealous eye toward Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Toronto’s SkyDome (with their 3 million-plus attendance), Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wants a state-of-the-art ballpark of his own. Gov. Mario Cuomo, among others, thinks it won’t be in the Bronx.
“I believe the Yankees intend to move,” the governor said. “I am doing everything I can to persuade them to stay.”
The idea of a Bomber-less Bronx ignited a summer of insults and infighting, turning a baseball stadium into a political football. Borough President Fernando Ferrer accused the Yankees of undercounting attendance. Steinbrenner charged Ferrer was driving his team out of the Bronx. Ferrer replied that Steinbrenner should be pitied.
New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio indicated the Yankees could find a home in his state. Cuomo and Mayor David Dinkins vowed to fight for the Yankees, raising the possibility of a new stadium in Manhattan. The city unveiled plans to revitalize the stadium neighborhood and the adjoining Hunts Point Market; the Yankees dismissed that as rhetoric.
Crime statistics were trotted out to show the stadium was unsafe. Or safe. The most recent numbers, for July, showed more arrests inside the stadium than outside for assault (1-0) and petty larceny (5-3).
The number of parking spaces--everyone agrees there aren’t enough--took on the importance of the prime rate. The Yankees’ attendance, their best in five seasons, was still too low, the team said.
Tradition? It’s an afterthought. Which has Yankee greats like Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle shaking their heads, amazed that the ballpark could go the way of the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field.
“The New Jersey Yankees?” Ford asked. “That doesn’t sound right. You can’t have the house that Babe built in Secaucus.”
Wrong, Whitey. The Bergen Yankees--the deep pockets of Jersey willing--are a real possibility. The team has a lease in the Bronx that runs through 2002, but it can be broken if the city breaches the contract. The Yankees believe the contract has been broken.
Ferrer says a move from the Bronx would leave its beleaguered residents both economically and emotionally shellshocked.
“There is no way to calculate the psychological impact,” he said. “That’s a fact. To this day, Brooklyn still hasn’t gotten over the Dodgers leaving.”
The Yankees, using catch phrases like “perception of crime” and the need for a “first-rate environment,” are telling the city to clean up the South Bronx neighborhood. The city, with its Bronx Center plan and condemnation of the crumbling Hunts Point market, says it’s moving in that direction.
Ferrer said the money is there to appease the Yankees, but he does not want a repeat of the mid-1970s stadium renovation. Earmarked at $24 million, the work cost more than $100 million, and the surrounding neighborhood was ignored, he said.
“That stadium sucked up all the dollars, all the resources,” Ferrer said. “The neighborhood got nothing.”
Ferrer, like Dinkins and Cuomo, said the city is willing to work with the Yankees. Leventhal said the Yankees are hopeful the city can manage to keep the team in the Bronx, although “we’re not optimistic in light of the track record.”
Fans are of two minds, although tradition means a bit more to them than to the team they love.
The Yankees can produce sheaves of letters from fans urging a move. But 80% of the callers to an all-sports radio show favored staying in the Bronx.
“Most felt the tradition and the ballpark itself are too important to leave,” said WFAN-AM radio host Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. “The tradition aspect--you’d lose a lot if you moved to a generic park in the Meadowlands.”
New York’s two football teams, the Giants and the Jets, moved to the Meadowlands, but there’s no guarantee the Garden State would roll out the pinstriped carpet for Steinbrenner. Voters there shot down a baseball stadium proposal six years ago, and Florio is treading lightly.
“We don’t subscribe to the ‘Field of Dreams’ theory that if you build a stadium, they will come,” he said.
Ferrer, accurately, says Yankee Stadium is “the only temple of sports remaining in New York City where there is some history.”
“Yankee Stadium is still the House that Ruth Built,” he said.
No one denies there are problems in the Bronx. Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said as much three years ago, citing the lack of parking, the severe traffic and the seedy local characters.
Asked if the Yankees might move to New Jersey, Vincent replied, “I think the city will come to its senses. I hope it will.”
Crime is a concern--although not as much as Steinbrenner thought. The Yankees, citing statistics from the 44th Precinct, argued crime was rampant. Ferrer produced statistics from Yankee Stadium crime detail showing the area around the stadium was much safer.
Leventhal now says many of the crimes around the ballpark--vandalism, theft of car radios, ticket scalping--go unreported.
Russo’s callers agreed with the Yankees on two things: Parking is inadequate and access roads are miserable. Yankees vice president and chief of operations Jack Lawn said gridlock occurs when the crowd hits 25,000; parking reaches capacity when the crowd hits 35,000.
In a stadium that seats 57,545, this is a major problem, exacerbated by the Yankees’ pennant run, which has drawn more than 2 million fans to the Bronx. This year will be the Yankees’ best for attendance since they drew 2.6 million in 1988.
“If they win the pennant, you’ll get 50,000 people at every game,” Cuomo said.
Winning is part of the Yankees’ tradition. But as Leventhal pointed out, tradition also means remembering the past--and those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.