Baseball: Cold reality fails to find root in fields of dreams

Where else but New York? The city is in the grip of a savage recession, its disgraced financial industry has helped to bring the global economy to its knees. But at this trough in the Big Apple's fortunes, its two baseball teams this week opened a pair of the most lavish, most luxurious and most expensive sporting arenas on earth.

First up in the National League were the Mets, with their debut at their spanking-new Citi Field, against the San Diego Padres. Then came the second part of the double-header, as the Yankees opened their 2009 account at the new Yankee Stadium in the American League, against the Cleveland Indians.

Ever since 1992, when the Baltimore Orioles opened Campden Yards, new ballparks have been going up like presidential palaces under Saddam Hussein. Only two truly old ones, whose basic structures date back to World War I, are still around: the Boston Red Sox' Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Naturally, the biggest and most glorious - and most expensive - belongs to baseball's biggest franchise, the New York Yankees.

The US$1.5 billion ($2.6 billion) price tag on the new Yankee Stadium - across the way from the old "House that Ruth Built" of 1923 - makes it the costliest sports stadium in the world.

Indeed, to call it a stadium is a misnomer. This incarnation of Yankee Stadium is more accurately a complex where baseball is played, a cross between sporting cathedral, conference centre and shopping mall. The building materials are not humble brick, but limestone and granite. Above the top-most level of seats runs a white frieze, just as there used to be at the old stadium.

By comparison, Citi Field was a snip at US$800 million. But ordinary economics have nothing to do with the building of baseball stadiums, where nostalgia, civic pride and above all the team owners set the rules.

"If you build it, he will come," a voice whispers to Iowa farmer and baseball devotee Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, the hugely popular 1989 movie that perfectly captures the game's love affair with its past and the place that baseball is supposed to hold in the national psyche.

Realising that something more important than real life is unfolding, Ray risks bankruptcy by ploughing up precious crops and replacing them with a baseball field. And sure enough, the ghost of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson - semi-mythical superstar of the Chicago White Sox team that threw the 1919 World Series - emerges in the moonlight from the cornstalks.

Such sentimentality however does not encumber the vastly rich, real-life owners. Their motto might be, "If you don't build it, we won't come. And if we're already here, we might go away if you don't build us a new one."

Take the case of the Washington Nationals. Desperate to have major league baseball back in town after their last team, the Senators, decamped to Texas in 1971, the capital (population 550,000) agreed to spend over US$600 million of taxpayer money on a new stadium, to win the franchise of the now-defunct Montreal Expos in 2005, for which half a dozen cities were in the running.

Almost every new stadium, every team relocation, is greased with a generous dollop of taxpayer money. The Yankees will have received a conservatively estimated $350 million from New York City to help with the construction of their new palace, in the form of infrastructure spending and tax-free bonds, and the Mets roughly $150 million. But if waived property taxes and other concessions over the life of both deals are included, the ultimate cost to taxpayers

is far higher - no less than $4 billion for Yankee Stadium alone, says New York state representative Richard Brodsky, a ferocious opponent of the deal.

"This is a stadium paid for by taxpayers that taxpayers can't afford to get into," Brodsky says - not unreasonably, given that the average ticket cost is some US$75, while a premium Legends Suite front-row seat behind home plate will set punters back a scarcely believable US$221,625 a season. These days, of course, there are far fewer Masters of the Universe around to pay for them.

But why are owners, grouped in Major League Baseball, so powerful? First, they control the supply of a commodity in high demand. Baseball is enjoying a surge in popularity. But there are only 30 franchises and only MLB can mint new ones. Second, relegation and its attendant financial risks do not exist.

The Nationals had the worst record in baseball in 2008, their first year in their new palace, and could continue to do so for a decade, but it would make no difference. They will still be in the big leagues - but could relocate.

The history of American sport is littered with such defections. Baltimore will never forget the loss of its beloved NFL Colts in April 1984, when the team's office was spirited away at dead of night in unmarked trucks to Indianapolis, which had lined up the new stadium that the Baltimore City fathers would not.

Indeed, George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' tempestuous former owner, hinted at the same tactic during the tortuous negotiations for his team's new arena, muttering that he might relocate across the Hudson river in New Jersey, where the New York Giants and Jets already play.

The mere possibility prodded New York's municipality into action: What mayor would dare risk being remembered as "the man who lost the Yankees"?

Then, of course, there were the Dodgers. Brooklyn residents of a certain age still turn blue with fury at the mention of Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers' owner who in 1957 took his team to Los Angeles.

The only trace of the Dodgers now is at the new home of the Mets as the entrance to Citi Field is modelled on the rotunda that once adorned the Dodgers' Ebbets Field.

If Yankee Stadium is a stadium, a colosseum of the Bronx, Citi Field is a very different thing, a ballpark. Like most of the post-1992 stadiums, it is retro-style, offering 21st-century comforts in a setting aimed at conjuring up baseball's most homely early days. Exposed steel girders evoke New York's hallmark bridges, but it also has a state-of-the-art TV scoreboard, fancy restaurants, and rest-rooms in its more expensive sections like those in a Four Seasons hotel.

In many respects, both Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium are utterly out of tune with the times. Both were conceived and built for the sky's-the-limit gilded age that suddenly is no more.

Their defenders trot out arguments used down the years in Washington, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and everywhere else such new stadiums have been built - that they revitalise down-at-heel neighbourhoods, attract tourist dollars, and boost a city's reputation.

In reality, sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Only one truth is constant. In bad times as in good ones, circuses trump bread.

- INDEPENDENT

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