Sultan of Spending: Mayor Goes on Spree Constructing Stadiums

Steve Cohen stood behind home plate, his face a picture of grim anticipation.

The first pitch of the Queens Kings’ home opener was just minutes away. Mr. Cohen, the team’s general manager, watched as two groundskeepers laid out the batter’s box, a last touch on the $6 million in publicly financed renovations made to the club’s temporary home field on the campus of St. John’s University.

Mr. Cohen’s boss, Fred Wilpon, co-owner of the New York Mets, was on his way to the ballpark. So was Queens Borough President Claire Shulman. And, most important of all, so was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the undisputed prime mover behind the city’s $180 million effort to bring two minor league baseball teams to this most major league of cities.

For Mr. Giuliani, the Kings’ opener on June 21 was the culmination of years of negotiations, backroom politics and public expense to find homes for low-level affiliates of the Mets and Yankees. The Kings, currently an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays but due to become a Mets franchise next year, have signed a long-term lease with the city for a new permanent ballpark in Coney Island, while the Staten Island Yankees franchise, which began play last year, signed a similar lease for a new stadium in the St. George section of the borough. The two teams play in the New York-Penn League, a Single-A league (one step above instructional leagues) that plays a short, 76-game season.

Though City Hall has celebrated the arrival of the two teams, as Mr. Cohen awaited the first pitch, he was still faced with the dilemma of selling the team to a community that never really wanted it. In fact, some Queens residents have gone to court to shut down the team’s temporary home. As game time approached, some 60 protesters marched outside the ballpark, along a narrow swath of sidewalk marked off by blue police barriers. They chanted “No Stadium!” and carried signs decrying “Rudy’s Crooked Deal.”

Suddenly, there was a rush of suits by the visitors’ dugout. The Mayor had arrived, wearing a gray suit and a purple cap emblazoned with a yellow script “Q,” the team emblem. Mr. Wilpon and an entourage of Mets brass trailed him onto the field.

Mrs. Shulman, a Democrat who supported Mr. Giuliani’s 1997 re-election bid, warmed up the crowd.

“And now, you know who made this all possible, don’t you?” she asked.

“He certainly did,” Mets executive Mark Bingham said wryly to Mr. Wilpon and his son, Jeff, as the three stood near the backstop, watching the scene.

Almost drowned out by a chorus of boos and cheers, Mrs. Shulman continued: “The great mayor of the greatest city–Rudy Giuliani!”

The Mayor walked to the mound. “Now in New York City,” Mr. Giuliani told the crowd, “we have four professional baseball teams, even more than when we had the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Giants.”

And we’re going to pay for the privilege. The $6 million spent to renovate the St. John’s ballpark is just the beginning. The city is spending $31 million to build the Kings a permanent home along the Coney Island boardwalk. To get the locals there to go along, Mr. Giuliani threw in $30 million for improvements to the boardwalk, new bathrooms and other needed projects. And that’s not all–he added $37 million more for a local development corporation that may one day build an amateur athletic facility that had been planned for the site before the Mets came along. According to the deal the Mets and the city reached in September 1998, as well as subsequent agreements, the team will sign a 20-year lease for the ballpark. The amount of rent the Mets pay will be based on how much money the team makes–meaning the city is materially invested in the team’s success.

The Staten Island team, meanwhile, is playing on its own temporary ballpark at the College of Staten Island (the city spent $5 million to renovate the field for the minor leaguers) until it moves into a $71 million facility already rising next to the St. George Ferry Terminal. They will have the same rent deal as the Mets.

Huge Price Tag

According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, the total price of all this baseball development over the next four years ($180 million) amounts to six times the amount it will spend on police cars ($26 million). It’s more than the budget for new fire trucks ($134 million), the development of Hudson River Park ($94 million) and the capital budget for public libraries ($78 million). For an administration that has done fairly little in the way of traditional infrastructural development–creating none of the bridges, tunnels or public housing projects that stand as testament to its predecessors–these stadiums represent Mr. Giuliani’s hope for a concrete legacy as he prepares for his final year in office.

Like many men who grew up in the heyday of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider in the 1950′s, Mr. Giuliani is a fervent believer in the moral sanctity of baseball. Like mayors all over the country, he is a convert to the idea of using professional sports, and publicly financed stadiums, as a spur to economic development. Sports economists, like Smith College’s Andrew Zimbalist, have published reams of research casting doubt on this theory, but that’s done little to dissuade Mr. Giuliani, who, in addition to his minor league ventures, has proposed new stadiums for the major league Mets, Yankees and perhaps the National Football League’s Jets, at a possible cost of $2 billion.

Cost Overruns

Several years ago, Robert Julian, president of the New York-Penn League, broached the idea of moving into New York City to the Giuliani administration. “Once there was an ever-so-slight tentative expression of interest,” he said, “Mayor Giuliani and his people were just all over it, and drove it with vigor.”

Under major league baseball rules, each team could veto the other’s deal with the city. So both had to get a minor league affiliate. Mr. Steinbrenner wanted to be on Staten Island. In January 1998, Mr. Wilpon–like Mr. Giuliani, a Brooklyn native–suggested that his team move to the city-owned site of the old Steeplechase Park.

“I went to the mayor and said, ‘What about this location?’ and he looked into it and said, ‘Yeah, that’d be the perfect place,’” Mr. Wilpon recalled.

Even Mr. Giuliani’s enthusiasm was tempered, however, when the cost estimates for two new 6,000-seat stadiums began moving north at an alarming speed. Instead of the original estimate of $20 million for the Staten Island stadium, the projected price tag quickly doubled. When a more realistic cost estimate–still lower than the eventual $71 million price tag–was presented to Mr. Giuliani during a meeting with top aides and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, the Mayor “blew his stack,” according to one person present at the meeting, and said he doubted the project was worth doing for that much.

Mr. Giuliani eventually came back around to supporting the project. Not so Howard Golden, the Brooklyn borough president. When the Mayor announced a tentative agreement with the teams in September 1998, Mr. Golden issued a statement that hearkened back to his borough’s deepest baseball betrayal: “It is disappointing to hear that the plan involves a Single-A Mets team, the lowest level minor league affiliate, since Brooklyn, home of the world-champion Dodgers, is clearly a major league town.”

On his radio show, Mr. Giuliani urged listeners to call Mr. Golden “and tell him, ‘Get your head examined!’”

Mr. Golden wanted to build his own pet project, a $67 million amateur athletic facility called the Sportsplex, on the site designated for the Coney Island ballpark. The borough president, backed by Coney Island’s community board, began working to undermine the deal. First, he filed a lawsuit in opposition to the team’s plans to build a temporary field at Prospect Park’s Parade Grounds, forcing the city to find it new temporary quarters in Queens.

There, the team faced more groups of residents who were angry about noise, traffic and light coming from the ballfield during night games. At a town hall meeting in February held to discuss the issue, Mr. Giuliani told a roomful of angry people, “You can vote for Hillary … I don’t care.”

Instead they filed a lawsuit to shut down the stadium. They’re still waiting for a July 20 hearing in State Supreme Court.

In Coney Island, however, Mr. Giuliani outmaneuvered his opponents. He offered a deal to Brooklyn City Councilman Herbert Berman, chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee, a Golden rival and a possible candidate for City Comptroller next year. There would be a $30 million investment package in it for the community–including new boardwalk bathrooms and motorized carts for the beach police (at $22,000 apiece)–if residents and local leaders went along with the stadium. In addition, the Sportsplex would get $37 million in city money, but it would be administered by a local development corporation with a board appointed by the Mayor, not controlled by Mr. Golden.

Mr. Berman took the deal to Marty Levine, then chairman of Brooklyn’s Community Board 13. He jumped.

“The initial reaction was that we had our hopes pinned on the Sportsplex development … and we didn’t really care about a Single-A minor league team,” Mr. Levine said. “But in the end it worked out very well for us.”

When the ballpark is completed, the spidery tower of the old parachute jump will loom over the right field wall; the dilapidated, overgrown Thunderbolt rollercoaster, perhaps the city’s largest freestanding metaphor, will run along the left field line. Gesturing to a grassy patch beyond the imagined outfield wall, Mr. Levine said: “What we’re looking to do for any future development is put some restaurants along the boardwalk.”

“Already, we’re seeing effects in terms of real estate values, properties sold at multiples of what was previously estimated,” Michael Carey, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said on opening night in Queens. Between bites of a hot dog, he invoked the crowd, 2,400 strong, mostly families with children.

“It’s a much more picturesque, county-fair- type atmosphere,” he said.

But for the Kings, the sad fact remains that, so far, opening night represents the apogee of the team’s success, at least in the category that matters most to the Mets. As of July 8, it stood dead last in New York-Penn League paid attendance, averaging a mere 986 fans a game. Mr. Cohen, the general manager, says several factors have played a role, including the late start he got selling season tickets, bad press because of the lawsuit and the presence of Shea Stadium just up the road, where the Mets have lately had a couple of big series with the Braves and the Yankees.

Kings of Queens

The AWOL fans have missed some entertaining, and at times stirring, baseball. On opening night, for instance, the Kings were down 9-2 in the eighth inning, only to come back and win 10-9. The following Sunday, around 500 fans were on hand to see Brian Cardwell, the team’s preseason ace, take the mound against the Batavia Muckdogs.

Mr. Cardwell didn’t have much. His fastball, normally in the low 90 m.p.h. range, was only hitting the mid-80′s. In the second inning, he gave up a couple of hits. Then a batter reached on an error–at this level of professional baseball, they litter the boxscore like sunflower shells on the dugout floor. Mr. Cardwell left a pitch high, and the ball left high, out of the ballpark.

At 6-foot-10, Mr. Cardwell’s physique has evoked comparisons to that of Randy Johnson, the ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He wears a goatee and a tongue stud (“Don’t make fun of that, O.K.?” he asked a reporter), but still speaks with a low country drawl and the credulity of a schoolboy from Oklahoma taken in the fourth round of last year’s draft.

“A couple of us went down to Times Square the other day. It’s crazy, a lot different from where I’m from,” he said. “You feel like a midget in a giant’s world when you walk off of the subway.”

Down 5-0 after the second inning, Mr. Cardwell and the Kings held the Muckdogs close for the rest of the game, and came back to win, 7-6, in 11 innings, on a sacrifice fly by outfielder Brian Sellier. A few games later, Mr. Cardwell went down with a bum elbow. (“It’s been bothering me all year,” he said later, “but last week it started barking pretty bad.”) In three games, he’d struck out 15 in 14 innings, but sported an unsightly 7.71 earned run average. Still, when the suggestion was made that, at 19, he might expect to spend a few more years in the minors, he laughed. “That’s an insult,” he said.

The team’s roster includes 31 players from six countries. Most will never see the major leagues. They’re just out of high school, or college, or the Dominican and Venezuelan winter leagues, and whether they know it or not, most are there only to fill out the roster around a few top-tier prospects. Reminders of the cruel nature of the business are never far away.

After the win against the Muckdogs, Mr. Cardwell’s battery-mate, catcher Buster Small, packed up his things in a duffel bag, thinking about his hitting. “I’m like an automatic out up there right now,” he said, shaking his head. Unlike many of his teammates, Mr. Small is a college graduate. Of Princeton, in fact. He was drafted last spring and went to play professional baseball right after graduation. Despite his struggles, he said he still had hopes of playing in the major leagues.

“My brother works at Goldman Sachs,” he said, “working 90- or 100-hour weeks. I don’t really want to join the real world. I just want to play baseball as long as it goes.”

A few days later, Mr. Small, who had just two hits in 15 at-bats, was demoted to Medicine Hat in the Pioneer League.

The Kings fans are more forgiving. After a 3-2 loss July 9, which ended with the lead runner being caught in a rundown off third base, fans crowded around the home team dugout, offering a pat on the back or a baseball to be signed. The crowd was a cross section of the types of people Mr. Cohen has talked about attracting to the games–kids in uniform, loud, beer-bellied men in Mets caps, a group of Dominicans cheering on in Spanish. The problem was there were just 660 of them.

Mr. Cohen said he’s hoping for an uptick in attendance during the second half of the season. And the team hopes to draw 200,000 fans next year, when the team is scheduled to be playing in Coney Island. He’s also looking forward to getting real Mets minor leaguers next year, after the team’s affiliation with the Blue Jays ends. The Yankees have lately been using their Staten Island team as a showcase for talent that might normally be in higher-level ball, like phenom pitcher Chien-Ming “Tiger” Wang, a Taiwanese native and $2.1 million bonus baby. It’s paid off in attendance; the Staten Island Yankees–or “Our Yanks,” as the daily Staten Island Advance has called them in its overwhelmingly favorable coverage–are averaging 3,500 a game.

Since the teams’ recent “Verranzano-Narrows Bridge Series” (won by the Yankees, two games to one), the Staten Island ringers have been the source of grumbling among some Kings players. “You know Steinbrenner’s family owns the team,” Mr. Cardwell said ruefully.

And so, a new rivalry was born. Somewhere–maybe in his Yankee Stadium box seat–Rudy Giuliani must have been smiling.