This Field of Nightmares Would Be a Foul Business

One of the city’s big men, to use the archaic term of deference once applied to the excruciatingly rich, invited me to lunch the other day. I will not mention the restaurant because they don’t need more business. The food was excellent and the ladies-who-lunch could not have looked more attractive, but the conversation was absolutely nutso.

My host, who is, I have to repeat, an influential man about town, was explaining why he wanted the Yankee Stadium II to be built on the West Side. He waved off the traffic congestion argument, explaining that most of the people going there would walk to the place, himself included. He would, I’m here to tell you, walk out of his Upper East Side co-op and, enjoying this opportunity to take his constitutional, stride manfully the three or four miles from his abode to the new eyesore that the ball park will assuredly be. This plan comes from a gentleman, who, his friends tell me, has not been seen locomoting around Manhattan save in his car, seated next to his driver, for more years than they can remember.

When he told me this, I left off eating my sea bass to mock, scoff and scold, but in retrospect, I think I was wrong. My host said he was sure that there were enough others like him to fill Yankee Stadium II night after night with non-congestive pedestrians from the Upper East Side. I can’t think of a better reason for the city to build George Steinbrenner a ball park. Save for accommodating my friend and my friend’s friends with sky boxes and luxury suites, what other reason is there for putting New York that much further in debt, while making the city just that much more unlivable?

Under close questioning, my host conceded that he had not paid his way into a baseball park in decades. That conforms to the history of these pleasure palaces in other cities, where attendance is high for the first few years because of the ball park’s novelty, but soon slips back to previous levels until a cry goes up for yet another new ball park. The life expectancy of a sports facility is scarcely 20 years nowadays.

Ordinarily, what is done when such projects are being touted is to hire a bunch of expert prostitutes-or is it prostitute experts?-to say how many jobs the thing will generate and how much outside money the locals will be able to extract from the tourists. Years ago, such palaver worked, but there have now been so many exposés of these ga-ga predictions that the only people who believe these paid-for experts are the cynics who hire them.

Nonetheless, the whore’s choir already has begun the job creation blarney. Yankee II is quite wonderful in this respect. Not only will it fail to generate new employment, other than temporary construction jobs, it will cost the city a significant number of jobs, because it takes up space that another building, which truly would have generated revenue, could have used.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center needs to be enlarged. It cannot accommodate the big trade shows, which have to go to places like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago to find the modern, large-scale convention facilities New York City lacks. It so happens that Mayor Loony Toons is so enamored of his luxury suites and sky boxes that he seems to be withholding support for the Javits expansion to pressure Gov. George Pataki into supporting his stadium.

Unlike baseball, conventions do bring in large amounts of out-of-town business. Moreover, the convention business, which dwarfs baseball, operates 12 months a year and convention centers can accommodate other money-making activities like rock concerts and religious revivals. Baseball parks are aggravatingly unifunctional. They’re not even satisfactory for football games.

Now comes City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, trying to put Yankee II on the ballot come next November. Doubtless, Mr. Vallone has his own mildly nefarious reasons for a Yankee II referendum, reasons having nothing to do with the pros and cons of the project, but, when it works, politics is often the business of getting people to do the right thing for the wrong reason. But the local caudillo down at City Hall knows this stadium preposterousness wouldn’t stand a chance if the voters got their mitts on it. So he offered a beguiling deal if the Speaker would only back off-which, thus far, he has refused to do.

In e2xchange for being allowed to proceed unimpeded with his ball park nonsense, our Caudillo offered a way of abolishing term limitations, thereby enabling Mr. Vallone to convert his position in the City Council into something approximating a guaranteed lifetime job. This offer, incidentally, would have permitted El Caudillo to go for a third term himself, in the unlikely event that the Republican Party should be shortsighted enough not to make our Jefe Máximo its Presidential nominee. Mr. Giuliani has said, “I would not seek to change the term limits with regard to the Mayor. I think two terms is a sensible rule,” but caudillos have been known to reverse themselves after undergoing the hallucinatory experience of thinking they hear the people calling them to lead anew.

The proposed exchange of favors was in the grand tradition of New York City and State politics, where ballot access is forbidden to all but the small cliques of adventurers who control the depopulated ruins of the Democratic and Republican parties. The whole affair should serve to remind whoever happens to be paying attention that New York State’s electoral system remains more corrupt and closed than that of the other 49, including much-sneered-at Arkansas. Whitewater or no Whitewater, what transpires in Little Rock is tiddlywinks compared to what goes on in Albany or City Hall here.

The Mayor has another plan: Instead of bribing the members of the City Council, he would bribe the city itself with its own money. To get Yankee II approved, Mr. Giuliani is offering to build three more ball parks. A half-billion-dollar jobbee for the Mets in Queens, a stadium for Staten Island and the same for Brooklyn at Coney Island, places that currently have no teams, but, hey, if you build it they will come.

Are the well-heeled inhabitants of the Upper East Side going to extend their perambulations to these other ball parks, too? If they are not going to fill the seats, who is? Every day that professional baseball is played in New York, tens of thousands of seats are unbought and unsat in. These last months, the owners of the city’s two baseball teams have been bemoaning a dearth of patrons. Only when politics mixes with business is a lack of customers treated as a sign to expand the business. By many accounts, baseball is a sport that is gradually losing out to soccer, basketball and whatever. That may not be true for many Spanish-speaking people, who are great fans and who supply a large number of the ball players. So let it be noted that the Bronx, the present home of the Yankees, may get screwed.

There is one way to frustrate these schemes. Stipulate that these various stadiums be put up by the New York City School Construction Authority. They are the ones who are responsible for the bricks from the dilapidated school buildings falling on the pupils, the very same people who are lucky if they can build a new school four years late, over budget and in a state of collapse before the doors open. They say baseball is a kids’ game, so let’s give Rudy what we give the kids.