Would Steinbrenner Really Yank The Yanks?

This time, George M. Steinbrenner III really means it: Either New York City builds him a new stadium (or rebuilds the Bronx), or his New York Yankees are bolting faster than a line drive up the middle. Not to panic anyone, but he's eyeing...New Jersey.

New York mayors and governors--not to mention some 8 million other city dwellers--have heard this line before. Now, though, they're taking the Yankees' tempestuous majority owner very seriously. On June 17, Governor Mario M. Cuomo appeared on a Manhattan heliport to fret publicly over the "real danger that New York might lose the Yankees," and raised the possibility of a $1 billion state bond to finance a new baseball stadium, outside the Bronx, that would keep the Bombers happy.

Even King George's opponents concede that Steinbrenner's complaints have merit. The 56,000-seat Yankee Stadium, one of America's grandest sports arenas, was refurbished by the city in 1976. But it still lacks adequate parking, and its South Bronx location unnerves suburban fans. "You can live on tradition only so long," Steinbrenner says. Fans now "would rather have a clean, new ballpark with plenty of parking." Since 1988, attendance has slipped 35% (chart), to 1.7 million. True, ticket prices have jumped 45% in the same time, and the Yanks haven't exactly burned up the league. But this year, despite solid play on the field, the boys in pinstripes still are drawing fewer fans than their pitiable Queens-based counterparts, the New York Mets, owners of baseball's worst record. After enjoying sellouts on the road, Steinbrenner says, "we come home and draw 18,000 to 20,000."

The Boss says he would like the team to play in Manhattan. But he may also have talked to officials across the Hudson River in New Jersey, which has long advertised its availability for a baseball franchise. Vincent Tese, New York State's director of economic development, says New Jersey guarantees the Yankees attendance of 2.5 million, the equivalent of $6.5 million in new revenue.

Neither Steinbrenner nor New Jersey officials will confirm such discussions, though Robert E. Mulcahy III, director of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, does say "there's absolutely no question in my mind that baseball [attendance] would average 3 million a year in New Jersey, and I have no problem writing that into a contract." For a big-league team, the state says it would finance construction of a stadium within 10 miles of the sprawling Meadowlands complex, already home to the football Giants and Jets, and the basketball Nets--all former New York denizens.

Would the Boss really move his team to Jersey? "I don't know, but I'd rather not take the chance," says Roberto Ramirez, a state assembly representative from the Bronx. The costs of such a desertion would be enormous--and not only to New York's pride. "If the Yankees move, you can forget about the Bronx," says the owner of a small bakery sitting in the stadium's shadow.

WEST SIDE PITCH? Facing a tough reelection battle this November, New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins is desperate to keep the Yankees where they are, if only to please the Bronx's 1.2 million residents. Indeed, Steinbrenner's outburst coincided with the release of a report by the Bronx Center Steering Committee that recommends redevelopment of commerce, housing, and transportation in the South Bronx--a project that largely depends on the Yankees remaining.

Meanwhile, though, Cuomo is considering a new Yankee stadium--possibly on state land on Manhattan's West Side--that would cost at least $300 million. Officials say he's also considering a Mets plan that calls for construction of a domed stadium, an entertainment center, and a rail station. The state's potential bill: $1 billion.

In fact, the one with the least on the line may well be Steinbrenner. Sure, attendance is weak, and an extra 10,000 fans a game could boost annual revenue by $8 million. But gate revenues don't mean so much next to the $57 million his team gets every year from local TV and radio deals and its share of league royalties. "With their current cable contract, they can afford to play baseball in a studio," says Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Ferrer says all Steinbrenner really wants is a ring of new luxury box seats around the existing stadium, plus some parking spots and "atmospherics." This relatively modest face-lift would cost $150 million. Most likely, someone besides Steinbrenner and the Yankees will be happy to pay for it.

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