Steinbrenner, Wilpon Play Rudy Ball

Two days after a 500-pound beam dropped out of the upper deck at Yankee Stadium, the Mets’ co-owner Fred Wilpon demonstrated why he is considered one of the most affable lords of major league baseball. Not only did he open the doors of Shea Stadium to the temporarily homeless Yankees and some 40,000 refugee fans, but Mr. Wilpon also provided Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner, with a marvelous negotiating opportunity.

There they were in the front row at Shea, the Mayor in his Yankee duds and the team owner in his customary turtleneck and sports coat. Mindful of his manners as always, Mr. Steinbrenner yawned while Mr. Giuliani pointed out the alignment of the infielders. But you can bet that between balls and strikes, Mr. Giuliani indulged Mr. Steinbrenner’s fantasies about a glorious new stadium on the West Side of Manhattan.

How accommodating of Mr. Wilpon! At the very moment he was angling for city subsidies to build a new stadium for his Mets, he was giving his crosstown rival a nice long afternoon to compete for the same.

The Mayor has all but agreed that the city will assist the Yankees and the Mets in the construction of new stadiums. While his administration has yet to enter into formal negotiations with either Mr. Wilpon or Mr. Steinbrenner, the Mayor already has a team of top advisers–including city planning director Joseph Rose, budget director Joseph Lhota and Economic Development Corporation president Charles Millard–attending to the teams’ needs.

So far, so good for the Mayor and the two team owners. But now they must march together into a firefight as an array of political figures ranging from City Council Speaker Peter Vallone to City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and possibly even Gov. George Pataki hurl political grenades their way.

What most upsets critics is Mr. Steinbrenner’s interest in a palatial West Side stadium, a plan that enjoys the Giuliani administration’s enthusiastic support but one that is also certain to inspire a barrage of lawsuits and hostile legislative edicts. By contrast, Mr. Wilpon’s stadium dreams seem to offend almost no one. But in the coming melee, he may very well take some hits himself, as the fury directed at Mr. Steinbrenner envelops both proposals, regardless of how reasonable Mr. Wilpon’s may be.

Not surprisingly, the Mayor’s willingness to commit public funds to two new baseball stadiums is stirring some unease. Indeed, the Mayor is so willing that he announced plans on April 20 to raise $600 million for the cause by scaling back cuts he had planned in the widely detested commercial rent tax. “It’s a brilliant idea,” an enthusiastic Mr. Wilpon told The Observer . “This is going to be expedited now because the Mayor came up with a brilliant plan to finance the stadiums.”

Nevertheless, what Mr. Giuliani envisions would be a colossal undertaking. Industry sources estimate the new Met stadium would cost upward of $500 million while they say Mr. Steinbrenner’s new facility could exceed $1 billion. So there is still a huge gap to close. Mayor Giuliani “is going to blow a big hole in the budget,” warned Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and author of Sports, Jobs and Taxes .

The contrasting responses to the two plans have much to do with the location of the proposed stadiums. The new Yankee Stadium would be built on the West Side, the place where public works projects go to die a death of a thousand neighborhood meetings. And the plan would uproot the Yanks from their home borough. The Mets, on the other hand, want to move just a few hundred feet, content to remain in Flushing, Queens.

But the reactions also have a great deal to do with the personal styles of the two team owners and how they have played their hands. While Mr. Steinbrenner has raised the city’s collective blood pressure by flirting with New Jersey and complaining about the most famous ball park in America, Mr. Wilpon has been forging ahead quietly with a plan to build a new stadium modeled after the late, lamented Ebbets Field, a plan that’s certain to warm the hearts of nostalgia buffs of every stripe.

Crosstown Rivals

Still, in the end, Mr. Wilpon’s shrewdness and tact may not matter. Like it or not, his stadium dreams are linked to those of Mr. Steinbrenner. The Giuliani administration seems determined to consider the two plans at the same time.

Mr. Wilpon insisted that was not the case. But Dave Howard, the Mets’ executive vice president, suggested otherwise. “I haven’t heard that officially, but practically speaking that seems to be the case,” he told The Observer . “They had said to us early in this process that we would not be delayed by the Yankee process. But I think practically, they have two stadiums that need to be replaced and two leases that expire within two years of each other.”

And the two owners will be competing for public support at the same time. More important, Mr. Wilpon and Mr. Steinbrenner will be competing for public financial assistance. “It’s a very expensive proposition,” said a source close to Mr. Steinbrenner. “It’s hard to believe that you can satisfy both of them.”

In the pantheon of sports moguls, Mr. Wilpon and Mr. Steinbrenner are about as different as two millionaire baseball owners can be. While the blustery ways of the Yankees’ owner have long dominated the back pages of tabloids, Mr. Wilpon–as well as his co-owner Nelson Doubleday–has been content to stay in the background. Unlike Mr. Steinbrenner, Mr. Wilpon does not meddle in baseball matters or insert himself into the summerlong soap opera that is a baseball season.

While Mr. Steinbrenner relies on the bully tactics of the football coach he once was, Mr. Wilpon exhibits the reserve of a baseball man. He likes to point out that as a kid in Brooklyn, he played high school ball with Sandy Koufax and pitched batting practice for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. It is that experience, ostensibly, that has him proposing an Ebbets replica as a replacement for Shea Stadium. Mr. Wilpon is using nostalgia to get what he really wants: luxury boxes, higher attendance, greater revenue. In contrast, Mr. Steinbrenner, in pursuit of the same, has done his damnedest to remove the taint of nostalgia from his quest for a new home. In fact, he has made bad-mouthing Yankee Stadium an effective negotiating ploy. During the very weekend when the city’s newspapers were celebrating the stadium’s 75th birthday, Mr. Giuliani all but declared it dead–even as his engineers deemed it safe.

The two owners also have different visions for their teams, and they are reflected in their approach to edifice-building. Even Mr. Steinbrenner’s many detractors concede that he has spent lavishly to field a winning squad–an accusation rarely leveled against Mr. Wilpon. In the off-season, Mr. Wilpon often makes a show of going after big-ticket free agents only to start the next season without any new stars. Deals languish, never to be finished.

Despite his combative, grating style, Mr. Steinbrenner tends to get what he wants. If his track record tells us anything, it is that the Yankees will be playing on the West Side in the next millennium. His apparent insistence that the city take on debt to build a ball park is not unlike his propensity for trading away young prospects for older stars. It’s a version of win now, pay later.

Hey, Where’s the Plan?

Likewise, Mr. Wilpon’s failure to unveil finished plans for his ball park bears a striking resemblance to his ultimately fruitless forays into the free agent market. Five years ago, Mr. Wilpon had a model of a dream stadium in his office, one that would replicate the brick facade, cozy dimensions and famed rotunda of Ebbets Field. Since then, Mr. Wilpon has been touting and tinkering with the plan. There still is no hole in the ground. The Mets’ announced intention of having a new ball park by the end of the 2001 season seems to be all but unattainable.

Still, Mr. Wilpon, practically speaking, is much further along than Mr. Steinbrenner. He already has a site–the city-owned parking lot adjacent to Shea Stadium–and a nearly completed architectural plan, with its brick-and-limestone Ebbets facade and retractable roof. He has the support of local politicians. He even has the good will of baseball fans and players, almost all of whom regard Shea as a dreadful, outdated place to watch and play baseball.

But he still has to work on the financing. That, politically speaking, is the hard part. And now discussions with the city, led by Mr. Wilpon’s son Jeffrey Wilpon, have been complicated further by the sudden urgency to build a new playpen for Mr. Steinbrenner. Now, the elder Mr. Wilpon is sharing a street corner and a tin cup with his colleague in the Bronx.

That may not be the most advantageous place to be for Mr. Wilpon to be. Mr. Steinbrenner could be headed for a political minefield: Manhattan’s West Side. He won’t get his new stadium without a fierce brawl, one that may leave both owners with bruises.

If Mr. Steinbrenner chooses this thorny path, he must overcome numerous opponents, most notably Gov. George Pataki, whose support is crucial. As it stands now, the proposed stadium would be build atop rail yards that belong the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But, thus far, Mr. Pataki has refused to endorse any plan that involves moving the Yankees out of the Bronx.

Even more vehemently opposed are the West Side’s elected officials, community groups and environmentalists, who have never been shy about marching into court to block development. “There is a range of players who, either through elective office or through the courts, will create Olympic-sized hurdles to making a deal happen,” said Matt Scheckner, director of sports and entertainment for the Louis Harris & Associates research company.

Bill Fugazy, a businessman and close friend of Mr. Steinbrenner, argued that the threat of the West Side groups has been exaggerated. “Would the environmentalists be against it? Probably,” he told The Observer . “But then how did Trump get [Riverside South] done? They all said he wouldn’t do it, but he’s done it.”

Riverside South, however, may be a more appropriate metaphor than Mr. Fugazy intended. He didn’t mention how many years it took for Mr. Trump to break ground and the fact that the project is far from finished. Moreover, he apparently forgot that Mr. Trump is still wrestling with West Side groups who are trying to block government funding for Riverside South. Mr. Steinbrenner surely can expect a similar welcome if he chooses the West Side alternative.

In the end, even the generous Mr. Giuliani may be hard pressed to accommodate both owners. And if that’s the case, it seems unlikely that Mr. Steinbrenner would be the loser. “Fundamentally, the fact that the Mayor is a Yankee fan is a bizarre wild card,” Mr. Scheckner said. “I don’t remember a situation where you have an empowered political figure who is such a fan. There are a lot of irrational drivers of this deal. Plus, the team’s been winning. That makes a difference. It shouldn’t. But it does.”

Steinbrenner, Wilpon Play Rudy Ball