Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Political Economy of the New York Yankees

When I think back to my growing dislike of sports (after having lettered in three of them in high school and attempting to pursue one of them professionally), much of my disillusionment began in the 1990s. As an ex-diehard fan, player, and historian of baseball, my romanticized view of the game probably set me up for the fall. It started with the 1993 World Series, when I recognized that about half of the players on the Phillies (especially Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, Pete Incaviglia, and Dave Hollins) were on steroids (Dykstra was the most noticeable), which precipitated over the next several years in most of the position players for the rest of the teams imitating the Phillies (to which I still think most of the big sluggers in the game are taking HGH [A-Rod and Albert Pujols appear to be overly-carved and have both incurred what trainers call "steroid injuries" this last season]). I cannot underestimate what this did to my view of the game and to my increasing lack of respect for the players, especially after remembering what it was like when players were real athletes. It is to the point that I no longer consider Major League Baseball a legitimate athletic endeavor, anymore than the Tour de France or the East German Olympics squad from the 1980s.

The second great act of disillusionment was the manner in which Commissioner Bud Selig (starting in the early '90s) began browbeating cities and state-legislatures to build new baseball stadiums, at the taxpayer's expense. Compounding this was the cost (accrued mostly with regressive local sales taxes in urban centers that could least afford them) and the composition of these new stadiums. The old stadiums had more seats (50,000-plus), many of them cheaper in ticket costs, and fewer sky boxes. The new ones, of course, reversed this order. The newer stadiums would be smaller (40,000 or so), no more nosebleed seats, and many, many more executive box suites, in which wealthier people could sit farther away and removed from the average citizen. And not only can they sit in those boxes away from average people, but they can use their company's wealth to compete for naming rights of the publicly-financed and built stadium itself (the equivalent of giving Nextel the naming rights over the Pentagon).

Cincinnati's old Riverfront Stadium seated almost 53,000 people. A quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayers' money (through a county sales tax) later and it is The Great American Ballpark (name sponsored by the insurance company), whose seating capacity is 42,000. Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium seated 78,000. Its new location, Jacobs Field (or The Progressive Field [another insurance company]) seats 43,000. Detroit's Tiger Stadium, built in 1912 (and a historical landmark), seated up to 52,400 people. The new Comerica Park (named sponsored by the bank) seats 41,000. Pittsburgh's old Three Rivers Stadium was one of the few to maintain the same number of seats (38,496) with its replacement PNC Park (sponsored by the financial services company). All of these stadiums were publicly financed with taxpayers dollars. Every one of them doubled their skybox seats, while shrinking the overall number of seats for the average fan (the people paying the bulk of the money with the local sales taxes that financed most of these stadiums).

There are defenders of this corporate welfare. One of the claims is that the newer parks (copying the retro design of Baltimore's Camden Yards) are more attractive than the older parks. The smaller parks were necessary because it was difficult to maintain full seating capacity throughout the course of the season. Public money sometimes is used to promote economic growth. All of this may be true, but then I never went to a baseball game to be pleased with the mall-like extra attractions (since I was there to watch a game), preferred the extra seating options, and most certainly do not believe (and never will) that public money should be used to subsidize for-profit entities owned by billionaires looking to force me to pay for their place of business (while charging me an entrance fee whenever I want to go visit what my tax dollars constructed).

So, what do you get for less seating? Since 1993, accounting for inflation, the price of MLB tickets have increased over 50%. This is in an economy in which the median wage, accounting for inflation, has gone down every year since then (save for one). Fewer but more expensive seats for the fans, and more box seats for corporate executives.

Thus it is to be the newest crime committed this coming offseason, the destruction of Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built, which has seen the greatest teams in the history of the game, and now will be annihilated to make it easier for the Steinbrenner family to insulate themselves further from the population of the city (and at the expense of New York taxpayers [all $1.6 billion]).

Moguls Steal Home While Companies Called Out

The NY Yankees and the US Economy

by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

From our offices in Manhattan, we look out on the tall, gleaming skyscrapers that are cathedrals of wealth and power – the Olympus ruled by the gods of finance, the temples of the mighty, the holy of holies, whose priests guard the sacred texts of salvation – the ones containing the secrets of subprime lending and derivatives as mysterious and elusive as the Grail itself.

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 like sacrificial lambs into the purgatory of unemployment.

During the last five years of his tenure as CEO of now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld’s total take was $354 million. John Thain, the current chairman of Merrill Lynch, taken over this week by Bank of America, has been on the job for just nine months. He pocketed a $15 million signing bonus. His predecessor, Stan O’Neal, retired with a package valued at $161 million, after the company reported an eight billion dollar loss in a single quarter. And remember Bear Stearns Chairman James Cayne? After the company collapsed earlier this year and was up for sale at bargain basement prices, he sold his stake for more than $60 million.

Daniel Mudd and Richard Syron, the former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – aka the gods who failed – are fighting to keep severance packages of close to $24 million combined – on top of the millions in salary each earned last year while slaughtering the golden calf. As it is written in the Gospel According to Me, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

But let’s change the metaphor for a moment and go to our sports desk, because if religion is no longer the soul of capitalism, as Max Weber once taught us it was, we have to venture somewhere else to try to understand the continuing follies of the new gilded age. And so we travel just a few miles north of Wall Street to the House that Ruth Built. Babe Ruth – the Sultan of Swat – who ruled Yankee Stadium and sired generations of princes after him: DiMaggio and Gehrig, Mantle, Maris, Berra and Jackson. Yankee Stadium, as fabled a place to Americans as Ilium was to the ancient Greeks, about to be demolished and replaced next year by a brand new stadium.

On Opening Day in 1923, New York Governor Al Smith threw out the first ball and John Philip Sousa led a big brass band playing his famous marches. It was the Roaring Twenties, when the money flowed liked bootleg whiskey, the pride before the fall. In 1930, the year after the market crashed, as the Great Depression began, Babe Ruth was taking home $80,000 a year, more than the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. “Why not?” Ruth asked. “I had a better year than he did.”

Yankee star Alex Rodriguez had a better year than both of them. This season, A-Rod is making $28 million, just part of an annual Yankee payroll of $209 million, the richest in baseball. Their owner, George Steinbrenner, is among the Forbes 400, one of the country’s richest tycoons.

But when it came to paying for the new, $1.3 billion pleasure dome, the millionaires on the field and King Midas in his skybox came up with some razzle-dazzle plays to finance their new 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 that supposedly will 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 ballpark 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 in the new stadium 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 stands. And while the Yankees reportedly promise that half of what’s left will cost $45 or less, those seats that used to cost $250, right behind the dugout, will now cost you $850. And if you want to be near home plate, you’ll have to cough up $2500 – per game.

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

Why aren’t the fans and taxpayers giving the Yankees a Bronx cheer? They did, but city officials rolled over them while making sure local politicians stay in the lineup. The pols are getting their own luxury suite at the new stadium for free – and first shot at buying the best available seats.

The new colossus will cast its majestic shadow across the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. The 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 New York City, 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 the wheezing. They’ll have exclusive access to a private club, a private entrance and a private elevator, totems of this gilded age. Let the games begin.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.


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