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September 22, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Decline and Fall of Yankee Stadium

by Jay Jaffe

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Back on September 13, a week ago last Saturday, I attended my final game at Yankee Stadium, the last of over 130 contests I've witnessed there over the course of 13 seasons. Like the Yankees' doomed run of consecutive postseason berths, like the team's residence in the House That Ruth Built, like so much else this season, my stay at the ballpark ended not with a bang but a whimper, as a listless lineup appeared barely able to summon the energy to go through the motions of losing to the Tampa Bay Rays, 7-1. The Yanks didn't score until the ninth inning, or even draw a walk on the afternoon. Who were those pinstriped zombies?

With little to engage me regarding the desultory affair beyond the sharp performance of Rays hurler James Shields, the return to the field of Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Longoria, and the friendly banter of my companion for the game, I made a futile effort to soak up my final hours in the ballpark. From my perch in Section 626, a Tier Box on the upper deck near third base, I attempted to drink in the familiar sights and hear the familiar sounds, but every time I tried to summon the requisite emotion regarding my last lap, I came up empty. It was an emptiness that had nothing to do with ballclub's current standing, either. Like many a Yankees fan, I accepted their October-less fate a while back; the moment when I reached for my emotional parachute arrive when the team's trainers ushered Joba Chamberlain off the mound on a steamy August night in Texas, the victim of a shoulder strain. Rather, the empty feeling came from the recognition that for as much as I once loved the venerable venue, my relationship with the place-and by extension, the organization-has been in an accelerated decline over the past several years, one that sadly robbed me of a bit of my passion for attending games in the Bronx.

As such, I had a hard time investing in the nostalgia surrounding Sunday's long-anticipated swan song at Yankee Stadium. All season long, with increasing frequency as the date approached, tributes to the most storied venue in sports history this side of the Colosseum in Rome could be found in every medium, as everyone from legendary writers to grizzled former players to fresh-faced bloggers offered their perspectives regarding what made the stadium special to them. I wrote one myself (it's pending at Bronx Banter), but only after spending months procrastinating the task. Deep down I knew I couldn't share my selected slice of history without serving a few stinging reminders regarding the ugly truth about the Yankee Stadium I've experienced over the last eight seasons. The encomiums may continue beyond the grand farewell, but I'm left with a bad aftertaste, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

One of the ironies of my life was being the holder of a ticket to the Yankees-Red Sox game scheduled for Monday, September 10, 2001. A hard rain fell that evening, but with information regarding the game's status impossible to come by, my friend Nick and I had gone to the stadium, hoping the bad weather would subside. We snarfed down soggy hot dogs from under a rickety umbrella as the rain fell, and as we ate we watched a young woman in a Nomar Garciaparra jersey dance in the six inches of water which had accumulated in the front row of Yankee Stadium's upper deck. Full of nitrates, we went home, little knowing that the cataclysmic events of the following day would change our ballpark experience along with the rest of our world.

The Yankee Stadium which emerged in the immediate wake of September 11 was a defiant symbol of national unity in a time of crisis, and I had the honor of attending a few of the games there, including Game Three of the World Series, when President Bush threw out the first pitch of what Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci called "the ceremonial first pitch to America's recovery" (alas, stadium security was so heavy that night that I couldn't gain entry until the second inning, after Bush had departed). The problems began when the Yankee organization, from owner George Steinbrenner on down, couldn't let go of that symbolism. "God Bless America" became a permanent staple of the seventh-inning stretch, devolving from the spectacular pomp of Irish tenor Ronan Tynan's delivery during home playoff games to the banality of the canned recording of Kate Smith and the US Army Band's version. More on that in a moment.

Accompanying the regular renditions of "God Bless America" were heightened security procedures that subjected patrons to no small litany of hassles while doing little to make them more secure. Given the cursory frisking procedures and lack of metal detection capabilities, it would have been possible to gain entry with a 9mm handgun jammed down the back of one's pants and a Bowie knife sheathed in one's sock, but without those, the organization simply inflicted its increasing paranoia and greed upon paying customers. Backpacks and briefcases were immediately banned from the ballpark after September 11, as though any potential ticketholder might be a terrorist smuggling in a tactical nuclear weapon swiped from the imagination of some z-grade thriller. Not even Shea Stadium-located only two miles from LaGuardia Airport-stooped to such extremes. Anyone coming to the park while porting one of the banned bag types-say, from work-was forced to check it for a fee at one of the bars or restaurants across River Avenue. Anyone wishing to schlep a bagful of items into the stadium-say, a scorebook, a jacket, and reading material for the long subway ride home-was forced to place those items in a flimsy, clear plastic grocery-type bag available outside the turnstiles. No other types of bags, such as ones with reinforced handles, were allowed, first for vague "security purposes," and then, once fans began pressing Yankee security to explain these increasingly irrational and seemingly arbitrary requests, "because you're not allowed to bring bags with logos inside." As you may have divined, I had many a terse confrontation over this policy.

Umbrellas were banned as well, subjecting patrons to a true soaking at the stadium's souvenir stands, where they could shell out $5 for a flimsy poncho. Confiscated umbrellas were consigned to giant heaps near the turnstiles, where aggrieved fans departing a game were granted the opportunity to choose a replacement vastly inferior to the one they'd brought. But perhaps the reductio ad absurdum was the stadium's ban on sunscreen-yes, really-thus creating another opportunity for profiteering inside the ballpark.

All of those were petty annoyances of a type not unfamiliar to any New Yorker; one basically signs up for a host of such inconveniences upon taking residence here with the hope that they'll be outweighed by the advantages of city dwelling. Far more ominous were the crowd-related issues that exacerbated over the past few years. To appreciate them, one need understand the trend of rapid attendance growth that occurred during the Joe Torre era:


Year    W-L    Attendance  Per Gm   Growth   Won
1995   79-65   1,705,263   23,521    ---     Wild Card (under manager Buck Showalter)
1996   92-70   2,250,877   27,789   18.1%    Division, World Series
1997   96-66   2,580,325   31,856   14.6%    Wild Card
1998  114-48   2,955,193   36,484   14.5%    Division, World Series
1999   98-64   3,292,736   40,651   11.4%    Division, World Series
2000   87-74   3,055,435   37,956   -6.6%    Division, World Series
2001   95-65   3,264,907   40,558    6.9%    Division, Pennant
2002  103-58   3,465,807   43,054    6.2%    Division
2003  101-61   3,465,600   42,523   -1.2%    Division, Pennant
2004  101-61   3,775,292   46,609    9.6%    Division
2005   95-67   4,090,696   50,502    8.4%    Division
2006   97-65   4,248,067   52,445    3.8%    Division
2007   94-68   4,271,083   52,729    0.5%    Wild Card
2008   85-71*  4,298,655   53,070    0.6%    Nothing

Winning four world championships in the five years from 1996 through 2000 helped to drive per-game attendance in the Bronx up 61.4 percent, even given a millennial slump. Attendance leveled off from 2000 through 2003, but the combination of the team's dramatic return to the World Series via Aaron Boone's home run and the arrival of Alex Rodriguez the following spring helped push the Yankees towards and then over the four million mark, just the third team ever to do so. Growth slowed as Yankee Stadium approached its theoretical maximum, its narrow concourses and spartan amenities overwhelmed by the teeming masses; at that point, the ballpark became a hazard.

For me, the final straw came on April 30, 2007, after attending a tense Saturday game against the Red Sox in which the Yankees prevailed. A very bipartisan, alcohol-fueled crowd had been at each other's throats all game; the cheap seats in Tier Reserved had featured numerous fights and ejections. An irrational security force nonetheless sealed off several of the stadium's ramps, slowing the exits of legions of emotionally overheated fans. It took 40 minutes to crawl from the upper deck to the subway platform, and while I'm no claustrophobe, all I could think about on my painfully protracted way out was the deadly human crush of English soccer riots. The limiting of the exits apparently became standard operating procedure, and if the consequences didn't turn tragic the way I kept envisioning, they nonetheless added an unnecessary, dangerous level of discomfort to the experience of attending a game in the Bronx.

Then there was the "God Bless America" flap. Shortly after my uncomfortable exit experience, an odious policy regarding the playing of the song came to light in the local media. Stadium security forces had apparently been ordered to restrict fans from moving during the song as "an expression of patriotism." According to Howard Rubenstein, the spokesman for the Boss, "Mr. Steinbrenner wanted to do all games to remind the fans about how important it is to honor our nation, our service members, those that died on September 11 and those fighting for our nation." That's a noble gesture, but unfortunately, using security forces to coerce a crowd to participate is completely un-American, almost certainly illegal, and unconstitutional. That's not patriotism, that's fascism.

The policy returned to the public eye last month, when a fan alleged that he had been harassed and assaulted by New York City police before being ejected from the park for his failure to comply. The NYPD has refuted the man's story, but at least one witness account backs up his version of events.

The incident, which may result in a lawsuit, kicked off a wave of negative publicity surrounding the stadium's final days. The public was reminded of the fuzzy math of park's $1.9 billion replacement on the other side of 161st Street, long a matter of some dispute at this site. Fans were forced to reckon with the the ugly reality that the new park is built not for them but for the corporate class. Inevitably, an increasing number of fans will be priced out of the ritual of regular attendance.

Even as the Yankees have made a show of maintaining stability in their low-end ticket prices as they move across the street, the truth is that fans are being forced to less desirable locations, with fewer choices. As the longtime member of a ticket plan, I can attest to this firsthand. Eleven seasons ago, my friends and I banded together to buy two seats for a flex plan allowing us to pick 15 games from the schedule, plus another pair for a guaranteed game in each round of the postseason. We chose the Tier Boxes, the lower portion of the upper deck, a terrific vantage point because of the seats' close proximity to the action. Our timing was ideal; we joined the party just in time to watch an ample portion of the 1998 Yankees' roll, right up through Game Two of their World Series sweep. The plan eventually increased to 26 games (one for each Yankee world championship) over the course of our tenure, and we maintained rights to post-season tickets even as those of later flex plan members were downgraded to "if necessary" games. As our seniority increased, a higher percentage of our seats wound up in the wedge between the imaginary extensions of the first- and third-base lines behind home plate, increasingly desirable seats that took some of the sting out of rise of our ticket prices from $20 per game back in 1998 to $60 per game this year, and the way the industry-wide trend towards a tiered pricing structure involving "premium games" (primarily those against the Red Sox and interleague opponents) took hold, limiting some of our choices.

Unfortunately, the team's relocation program is every bit as foreboding as it sounds. In the new park, our 26-game flex plan becomes a 20-game "unflexibility plan," with the choice of dates restricted to an every-fourth-home-game cycle beginning with either the second or fourth home game of the year. Instead of those tickets being located in the wedge behind home plate, we are limited to an option of paying either $75 per game for seats between home and first or third bases, or $65 from beyond the bases to the foul poles. Our shot at post-season tickets is reduced to the opportunity to partake in a Ticketmaster pre-sale Charlie Foxtrot. Futhermore, those Tier Box (now Terrace) seats are recessed 30 feet further from the field of play. I believe each ticket plan comes with a coupon entitling the bearer to be beaten with a truncheon across a kidney of stadium security's choosing, but that may just be a rumor.

So you can forgive me for being a little peeved about the run-up to Sunday night's finale. I couldn't avoid watching the game, but neither could I summon the will or the cash to attempt securing a ticket; instead, I viewed the festivities from the comforts of my couch. Despite the Yankees being more or less eliminated from post-season play, the event was a festive occasion, full of moments of genuine emotion amid contrivances which turned the game into something akin to the All-Star pageant which took place there back in July, such as the mid-inning removals of Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter to elicit ovations from the capacity crowd, and the plan for Mariano Rivera to pitch the ninth inning no matter the score. I'll leave a description of the festivities to those lucky enough to attend, and simply concede that it took a heart much harder than mine to prevent being moved by the night's events.

Nonetheless, the spectacle wasn't enough to wash away the bad aftertaste over the way things have ended at the House That Ruth Built, and I strongly suspect that I won't be the only fan voicing that sentiment in the years to come. As Yankee captain Derek Jeter told the assembled crowd last night, it was Yankee fans' legendary fervor that made the ballpark such a special place. It remains to be seen how much a more upscale crowd will have to cheer about in the team's new home.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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