Millions for Baseball, Not a Cent for Logic

Baseball, again.

When we met last week on this page, the subject was the national pastime. How it must have pleased your sensibilities to find a space on an Op-Ed page not devoted to an in-depth analysis of the Iowa straw poll! And with the nation’s pundit class discussing a Presidential candidate’s allegedly possible drug use of more than a quarter-century ago, we once again shall take refuge from barren politics and instead try to capture the innocent atmosphere of baseball: Ah, the smell of grass, hot dogs and stale beer! Oh, the odor of wasted taxpayer dollars, of political deal-making, of gassy belches from egotistical windbags!

Alas, dear reader! There is no escaping hackery.

While the city’s great media outlets have been chronicling the wondrous goings-on in the Bronx and Queens this summer, the city’s third professional baseball team-the Staten Island Yankees-have been laboring in undeserved obscurity. That’s not to say that the post-adolescent stars of the future ought to command greater attention from the major-league media. But the Staten Island Yankees are part of a publicly funded, sports-fueled economic development strategy, and as such, somebody ought to be watching. Luckily, the weekly Staten Island Register has been, and its coverage suggests that Mayor Giuliani may want to reconsider the idea of spending tens of millions of dollars on sports stadiums for college-level, minor-league teams that play fewer than twoscore home dates.

The Staten Island Yankees have been drawing about 3,000 fans to their temporary and utterly satisfactory home field on the College of Staten Island’s sprawling campus. Three thousand fans per game isn’t so bad, although probably below expectations. The figure compares favorably with a new minor-league team in Newark and with other minor-league teams in New Jersey. So the Staten Island Yankees have shown that they can attract the interest of a few thousand people per game. How sweet.

But for reasons that defy rational explanation and thus may be attributed to the irrational workings of politics, deal-making and ego-balming, the Staten Island Yankees are going to get a brand-new, 6,500-seat stadium near the borough’s ferry terminal at a cost of more than $50 million in taxpayer funds-that’s right, sports fans, five-O. Think of how many classrooms the School Construction Authority wouldn’t build with that kind of money! Register reporter Tom Deignan, who has examined the issue closely, wrote that the Staten Island ball park could become the nation’s most expensive minor-league stadium. (The new minor-league ball park in Newark, which seats 6,000, cost $30 million in taxpayer funds.)

And then, of course, there’s the proposed minor-league ball park that the Mayor wants to build in Coney Island for another low-level, short-season minor-league team. Combined, the cost of the two stadiums may come close to $100 million for teams that will play 38 home games apiece. The Brooklyn Borough President, Howard Golden, is furious. He’s not against the idea of a minor-league team in the onetime home of the major-league Dodgers, but he doesn’t understand why City Hall is expending so much energy and money for a team that will play 38 home games. He believes City Hall could get a higher-level team or could recruit a franchise from the new independent minor leagues that play bigger schedules (and offer a higher quality of play).

All of this is linked to City Hall’s craven desire to please George Steinbrenner, principal owner of Mayor Giuliani’s favorite team. Not so long ago, City Hall seemed ready to build Mr. Steinbrenner a brand-new stadium on the West Side for a billion dollars or so. As colleague Nicholas von Hoffman pointed out several months ago, the Mayor’s minor-league proposals were a sop to throw at Staten Island and Brooklyn to build political support for the West Side scheme.

Of course, the Manhattan stadium is dead, as dead as the famous rail-tunnel proposal and the casino on Governors Island and the new Madison Square Garden and God knows what else we’ve been promised in the last few years. But the minor-league stadiums are very much alive, despite the questions that ought to be asked as the Staten Island Yankees wrap up their first season.

The city spent $5 million to renovate the College of Staten Island’s field to accommodate all the people who didn’t show up to see the Yankees. The field itself is brand-new, as is the college’s campus, and seems just about right for a team of unproved 19-year-olds who play a short season. The New Jersey Jackals of the independent Northern League play on the campus of Montclair State University, and no fans come away wishing for a luxury-box view.

Ah, but the Mayor seems convinced that Staten Islanders and Brooklynites will gladly pay for palaces to house their very own low-level minor-league baseball teams.

Just like the rubes in any other bush-league town.