Yankees, Mets coexist despite their differences
By John Helyar
The Yankees and Mets have a few things in common besides their New York domiciles. They've both had Casey Stengel and Joe Torre as managers. They've both had Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry as reclamation projects. They're both getting sweetheart deals from New York to build new ballparks. They reap the biggest revenues in their respective leagues.
But otherwise these two teams, girding for interleague battle this weekend, are profoundly different. The Yankees play in the storied "House That Ruth Built." A sign on its edifice boasts of the team's 26 world championships. So, at the slightest provocation, do Yankees fans. They believe in a divine right to yet more championships, and they believe these grounds are sacred -- even the otherwise profane "bleacher creatures" in Section 39.
The new Mets ballpark will be adjacent to Shea Stadium and open in 2009.
The Mets play in the charmless Shea Stadium, named for a corporate lawyer. It is located atop a former landfill, beneath the LaGuardia Airport flight path, and adjacent to the finest collection of chop shops in the tristate area.
Oh, Shea has seen some glory. There were the amazin' championships of 1969 and 1986, and let's not forget the Beatles concert of 1965. But compared to Yankee Stadium's aura of glorious history, Shea's legacy is far more imbued with futility. One need look no further than the two park's respective center-field fences. Behind the one in the Bronx is Monument Park, which pays tribute to Yankee legends. Behind the one in Queens is a cheesy, outsized apple, which rises into view when the home team hits a homer. Mets fans are not insatiable triumphalists; they are indefatigable loyalists.
The games at Shea this weekend will crackle with intensity not just because they're a test of the resurgent Mets against the redoubtable Yankees. This interborough rivalry is also a profound, often profane cultural conflict.
Mets fans are descendants of jilted Dodgers and Giants fans, who wanted National League baseball back in the worst way and got just that, in the form of the 1962 Mets (40-120). William Shea, the lawyer, secured the expansion franchise, first by threatening to create a whole new league to compete with Major League Baseball, then by promising that New York would build the stadium that bears his name. It was christened in 1964 with Dodgers "holy water" (from Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn) and "Giants holy water" (from the Harlem River where it passed the Polo Grounds).
On the walls of the Pine Restaurant, across Grand Central Parkway from Shea, Mets memorabilia shares wall space with Dodgers-Giants totems, including a Duke Snider warm-up jacket and a bat signed by Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca. Formerly known as Bobby V's Sports Bar & Restaurant, when Bobby Valentine owned it during his tenure as Mets manager, it's the closest place for Mets fans to cry in their beer after games.
"The Mets replaced something that was lost, and there's been something lovable about them going back to Casey Stengel," says Chuck Rose, the restaurant's current owner and the son of a loyal Giants fan. "There's no sense of entitlement, like with the Yankees."
The Mets' new park will underscore the team's roots as Shea's generic design never did -- with an entry rotunda reminiscent of Ebbets Field. Owner Fred Wilpon is especially partial to the Brooklyn side of the Mets' ancestry, as a son of Flatbush and a batting-practice pitcher for the Dodgers in his youth. He took great pride in restoring professional baseball to the borough in the form of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets farm team.
Today's Mets crowds will never be confused with the banner-bearing, happy-go-lucky ones of the early years. (Well, except for the "Let's Go Mets" chants, which have lasted through the ages.) The Mets' fan base skews suburban -- primarily Long Island, where 26 percent of it resides, according to a 1998 New York City government report. Until recently, the fan base also skewed hugely white.
Things have started changing since the Latinization of the team under general manager Omar Minaya. Greater numbers of Hispanics now disembark at the No. 7 train's Shea Stadium stop, especially for Pedro Martinez's starts. But the tableau in the Shea parking lot is still predominantly middle-class and working-class New York: families tumbling out of Chevy Suburbans, guys tailgating out of their plumber vans.
"Our image is more blue-collar," says David Howard, the Mets' business operations chief, "as opposed to the more corporate or Wall Street image the Yankees have."
When you take a step back and survey the whole New York sports scene, the contrast between the Mets and Yankees can be seen in a broader context. As Frank Vuono, a sports business maven and partner at 16W Marketing in Rutherford, N.J., puts it: "A Yankees fan is a Giants fan is a Rangers fan. A Mets fan is a Jets fan is an Islanders fan. It's the old establishment versus the outsiders. It's teams with lots of history versus the younger, less traditional ones."
In a sense, casting the Mets as lunch-pail clock punchers stretches credulity. Blue-collar? Blue bloods such as Joan Whitney Payson and Nelson Doubleday have owned the franchise for most of its existence. Wilpon, who bought out Doubleday's 50 percent share and took control of the club in 2002, doesn't come from old money but, as a very private real estate magnate, he might as well.
But perception is more important than reality here, and spinning is a key part of branding. If the Mets can't be top dog in this town, they might as well be an appealing underdog.
"I think the Mets connect more with the typical New Yorker," Howard says. "We have challenges; we have ups and downs; there's a sense of persevering. I think that appeals to the everyday New Yorker, the people who are out there trying to make things better for themselves and their families."
To cite the Mets' "ups and downs" as part of their appeal is to make a virtue of mismanagement. The team was "up" in the late '60s and early '70s, when it pulled off the 1969 miracle and the "You gotta believe" pennant of 1973. The Yankees were then struggling through their post-dynasty Horace Clarke era. Then, in a fit of pique and cheap, the Mets traded away Tom Seaver in 1977 and fell back into a succession of dreadful "down" seasons.
The Amazins were back "up" by the mid-1980s, winning the fabled Buckner-aided championship of 1986 and contending for others. From 1984 to 1992, the Mets outdrew the Yankees, then in a 14-year postseason draught. Again the Mets dissipated their advantage. High-flying stars such as Gooden and Strawberry were laid low by substance abuse. High-priced free agents such as Bobby Bonilla and Eddie Murray laid eggs.
Meanwhile, George Steinbrenner got a lot smarter about his affairs. He started leaving more of the baseball decisions to his baseball people, and the Yankees' farm system yielded young stars such as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. He started pressing the Yankees' business advantages and widening the financial gap between his franchise and the rest of baseball.
Yankee Stadium, one of baseball's grandest cathedrals since 1923, will be replaced by a newer version in 2009.
Steinbrenner negotiated a 12-year, $486 million contract with Madison Square Garden Network in 1988, tripling his team's TV money. He did a 10-year licensing deal with adidas in 1997, reaping $95 million for the Yankees and infuriating other owners. They temporarily kicked Steinbrenner off MLB's executive council. The Boss accumulated the swag to have a virtually unlimited payroll -- and, from 1996 to 2000, the Yankees swaggered to four championships.
The Mets had some highs during that stretch, too, notably in reaching the 2000 Subway Series. But the Amazins weren't nearly as adept at the business of baseball as the Yankees. Steinbrenner was able to pull off the 1988 MSG deal because he'd negotiated an out from his old TV contract. The Mets did not and were locked into Cablevision on a long-term basis.
Then, as the 12-year MSG contract was expiring, Steinbrenner conjured up a regional cable TV outlet, the YES Network. That launched in 2002 and has created a double windfall for the Yankees. They get MLB's biggest local broadcast revenues ($62 million a year, according to Forbes) and, along with three YES Network co-investors, they get a stake in America's biggest regional sports network. The Mets, in partnership with Comcast and Time Warner, launched their own cable network this year, called SportsNet New York. But they've spotted the Yankees a four-year head start and have a long way to go to develop programming beyond the team's games.
The Mets, however, have shown a new aggression since Wilpon became sole owner. He launched the Mets' salsa turn by hiring general manager Omar Minaya, who's given the club an edge in signing Hispanic stars and relating to Hispanic fans. Jeff Wilpon, the owner's son and the club's chief operating officer, maintains there's no master strategy. The Mets have a diversity-driven marketing approach that includes courtship of 15 ethnic groups.
"There was never a point when we said, 'Let's go after these Latin guys,'" he says. "Pedro [Martinez] was the best player available at the time and a rock star. The next marquee free agent was [Carlos] Beltran. But when we needed a catcher, we traded for Paul Lo Duca and left Bengie Molina on the sidelines. And David Wright is as All-American as you can get."
Nonetheless, the Mets stand to pick up a windfall of fans from New York's burgeoning Hispanic population, and nobody else thinks it's by accident. It's just good business.
Nor did the Mets just fall into a new stadium. They've been pressing for one since 1998, when Wilpon unveiled the original proposal for one with a retractable roof. Then he waited patiently for years, while Steinbrenner huffed and puffed about his need for a new stadium. For as long as he threatened to decamp for New Jersey and for as long as rabid Yankees fan Rudy Giuliani was in office, Steinbrenner seemed to get all the attention, even as Shea Stadium continued to fall down around the Mets.
This continues a rich tradition of New York city government supporting its richest ballclub, according to Neil Sullivan, author of "The Dodgers Move West" and "The Diamond in the Bronx." Particularly in their dynastic periods, he says, "The feeling at City Hall has always been, 'Go with the Yankees; their glory will rub off.'"
Even as New York lurched toward fiscal crisis in the 1970s, then-Mayor John Lindsay championed a costly renovation of Yankee Stadium, which is owned by the city. By contrast, when the Brooklyn Dodgers' Walter O'Malley looked to the city for help in assembling land parcels in that borough to build a new stadium in the 1950s, he got the brush-off, according to Sullivan: "Brooklyn was considered the poor relation in town."
The Mets inherited that legacy, along with the Dodgers fans. During the Giuliani administration, the Yankee Stadium owners box was like a city hall annex. Even now, the city's former deputy mayor, Randy Levine, is the Yankees' president.
Jeff Wilpon maintains his club wasn't being dissed by city officials; it was just applying less heat to them.
"Giuliani's big push was to make sure that he wasn't the mayor who let [the Yankees] leave the city," he says. "We've never threatened to leave; we felt we'd be able to work something out."
In December 2001, just before leaving office, Giuliani made a magnanimous nonpartisan gesture. He agreed to back new $800 million stadiums for both clubs.
Incoming Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has no evident rooting interest in either team, put the kibosh to that. But when City Hall needed to generate a new stadium to make a plausible bid for the 2012 Olympics last year, the Mets' dormant plans were suddenly a "go." Bloomberg was getting nowhere with a proposed West Side stadium, in the face of stiff opposition, and the Queens venue presented no such problems. He gave his blessing to an Olympic stadium there, to be converted to a Mets stadium. The city lost its Olympic bid, but Fred Wilpon gained his long-awaited stadium. The Yankees subsequently secured city approval for their new stadium, which, as with the Mets, will be adjacent to the club's current home. They're on parallel tracks to open the new parks in 2009.
Though city and club officials have touted the facilities as privately financed, it's not quite that simple. The Yankees and Mets can defray costs (a budgeted $800 million and $550 million, respectively) by financing through government-issued municipal bonds. That's a $276 million subsidy over the life of the bonds for each team, according to the city's Independent Budget Office. Between the two clubs, the city will also spring for $254 million in infrastructure and other improvements to the areas surrounding the ballparks. Both the Yankees and Mets can also use their stadium construction costs to reduce their revenue-sharing obligations to small-market clubs.
Clearly, the Mets have the most to gain here. The Yankees can't draw much more -- if any more -- than the four million they packed into the stadium last year. The Mets, on the other hand, could do a lot better than last year's 2.8 million gate in a new park. The team's season-ticket base currently hovers between 17,000 and 18,000, according to Dave Howard, because that's about the extent of high-quality seats at Shea. The new park will have a lower capacity (45,000 versus 57,000) but, says Howard, "I dare say there will be 35,000 great seats."
The Mets have had a tough time competing with the Yankees for the corporate crowd, not just because of the pinstripes' superior cachet but because of Shea's inferior suites. The Mets have 45 of them for lease, but they're in distant locations down the left-field and right-field lines.
"When companies are entertaining clients, they don't want to be out in the outfield," Howard says. "They want to be in a premium, prime location. We think there's a great opportunity there."
Expect the Mets to add $10 million a year in revenue for naming rights -- the going major-market rate for major corporations to put their name on a stadium. Don't expect the Yankees to similarly cash in. If Steinbrenner accepted 20 pieces of silver to call the place Citigroup Field, he'd have finally gone over the line.
Sparkling new facilities also will enhance the Mets' ability to attract families, which the team's suits already consider a strong point. In comparison to Yankee Stadium, it is family friendly. Shea Stadium surely can get rowdy (ask John Rocker). But on a game-to-game basis, nothing at Shea compares to Yankee Stadium's bleacher creatures, who issue obscene chants from Section 39 for the rest of the fans' listening pleasure.
Shea Stadium has a mascot, the bloated baseball head Mr. Met, whom the kids adore. Yankee Stadium has no mascot, unless you count Giuliani. Shea Stadium has the Pepsi Party Patrol, which shoots T-shirts into the seats between innings. Yankee Stadium's idea of between-innings entertainment is the grounds crew's interpretation of "YMCA" as it rakes the infield in the middle of the fifth. The Shea Stadium anthem, "Meet The Mets," exhorts fans to "bring your kiddies, bring your wife, guaranteed to have the time of your life." The Yankee Stadium anthem, "New York, New York," is an ode to ambition: "I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep, and find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap."
Not wishing to provide incendiary quotes for the Yankees' clubhouse bulletin board, Jeff Wilpon carefully opines of his rivals: "They don't have the mascot; they don't shoot T-shirts; they have their own traditions and that's the way they like to do it. There's no right or wrong; we just think our fan base is different."
Yankees president Randy Levine insists, "We're very family-oriented," noting the club couldn't have drawn 4 million fans last year without appealing to them. "All you have to do is see how we price our tickets," says Levine, also citing a plethora of "Bat Days" and other youth-oriented promotions by the clubs.
The Yankees should be even more appealing to the masses in a new park, he argues, with wider concourses, better concessions and an improved seating configuration. The current stadium has about 20,000 seats in the lower bowl and 30,000 in the upper deck. Those numbers will be reversed in the new stadium, which will also more than triple the number of suites (to 60) in the current facility.
"It will be a combination of our traditions and new amenities," says Levine, adding that the new park will actually restore features of the original Yankee Stadium that were lost in the 1970s remodeling. The exterior facade will be restored, for instance, with its grand cathedral windows.
Still, some feel the Yankees are risking bad karma by pulling up stakes and moving ... even if ever so slightly.
"A new curse of the Bambino will be visited on them for moving those monuments," says Jim Bouton, the one-time Yankee pitcher and "Ball Four" author. "It was a less hallowed place after the remodeling, but they're going to undo whatever 'hallow' is still left."
Current-day Yankee Alex Rodriguez shrugs off that notion.
"We'll definitely miss it because the history is second to none. But you look forward to moving into a new building, like we did at Safeco Field in Seattle. The amenities are better for everyone, players and fans. You lose the mystique [of the old stadium], but I think the mystique will always be with the pinstripes."
"We'll definitely miss it because the history is second to none," he says, surveying the field before a recent game. "But you look forward to moving into a new building, like we did at Safeco Field in Seattle. The amenities are better for everyone, players and fans. You lose the mystique [of the old stadium], but I think the mystique will always be with the pinstripes."
Certainly a change in venue won't alter how Mets fans feel about their rivals. They hate the blanking Yankees, just about as much as Red Sox fans hate the blanking Yankees. Maybe even more, at this point, since they haven't had the cathartic experience of coming back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the blanking Yankees in the postseason. Mets bloggers -- and there are many -- take as much delight in venting their spleens at the Yankees as they do at celebrating or disparaging their Amazins.
Somehow, except for these two intense interleague series each year, the rival factions manage to live relatively peacefully in the same metropolitan area. It helps that they largely migrate to different suburbs. According to the 1998 city-government survey, 22 percent of the Yankees' fan base lives in New Jersey, 11 percent in Westchester/Rockland counties.
Another reason for the peaceable coexistence is that the teams' fans tend to travel in different circles, both vocationally (Yankees fans occupy executive suites, Mets fans work back in IT) and socially. In Cornwall, N.Y., it's generally understood that Tom's Tavern is the Mets' bar and the Shamrock Tavern is the Yankees' bar. Only those who can't resist a good taunt after a few belts broach the enemy's lair.
The third reason: A lot more passion emanates from one camp than the other these days. Many Yankees fans have become merely dismissive. It's the cruelest cut of all for Mets fans: unrequited hatred.
"Mets fans are wannabes," says Bob Cerullo as he awaits the start of a recent game at the stadium. Like a lot of Yankees fans, he wonders: Why do people hate us for our devotion to excellence and tradition?
And: The Yankees aren't about families? Sez who? Cerullo recalls his all-time favorite Yankee moment, "when we won the World Series in 1996 and my kids were crying. I knew I'd raised them right. I bleed pinstripes."
The Mets may not be that far away from achieving a greater state of parity and getting Yankees fans to declare them worthy foes. The season is young yet, but the Mets seem to be coming on and the Yankees seem to be getting older (hello, Randy Johnson) and frailer (goodbye, Hideki Matsui). Last year, the Yankees' TV audience was more than double that of Mets games, but the Nielsen ratings gap has narrowed to a more competitive 4.1 to 2.5 so far in 2006. Between the new cable TV network and the new stadium, the Mets' long-standing deficit in financial firepower will narrow. (Wilpon's club is generally estimated to have 60 percent to 80 percent of the financial firepower of Steinbrenner's. Forbes, for instance, recently valued the Mets' worth at $604 million, the Yankees at $1 billion.)
If Omar Minaya marshals those resources well -- continuing to invest in players like Carlos Delgado instead of Mo Vaughn -- the team could become enough of a threat that Yankees fans extend it their ultimate compliment: a reciprocal sentiment of loathing and a rousing cry of "Mets suck."
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."