See Ya, Steinbrenner: Minor League Baseball for a Big League Town

October 1996

It has been exactly 40 years since New York baseball fans have been able to cheer a subway World Series. If George Steinbrenner skips town and takes the Yankees to New Jersey’s Meadowlands New Yorkers may never have such an opportunity again.

Yet by many analysts’ estimates, Mayor Giuliani’s plan to keep the Yankees in New York by building a new $1 billion domed stadium on Manhattan’s West Side could cost taxpayers $750 million or more at a time when the city can’t even find money to preserve its crumbling schools, much less build new ones.

Here’s a much more affordable and exciting alternative: keep baseball in the city, make the games cheaper and more convenient — and do it all for one quarter of the price.

It’s possible. Just bring minor league baseball back to New York.

Consider this modest proposal. The city could create its own five-borough Big Apple Baseball League. Instead of constructing one massive stadium, the city could build five neighborhood ballparks — one for each borough — for a total of $250 million. The stadiums would each seat about 20,000 people. The cost of attending, typically $4 to $7 a person, would fit almost anyone’s pocketbook — including the hundreds of thousands of low-income, Hispanic New Yorkers who are more avid baseball fans than the general population. Unlike the sweetheart deal Steinbrenner seeks, this plan would attract new business and development opportunities to every borough. Best of all, the teams would play one another as well as other regional teams, stoking inter-borough and inter-state rivalry the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1950s.

Ballparks for $50 million

This is not such a far-fetched idea. True, Steinbrenner and Mets owner Fred Wilpon are likely to oppose the arrival of minor league teams in their so-called “hometown.” But they are both lobbying for new stadiums and need the city’s cooperation. While the Mets appear certain to remain in Queens, the mayor could easily make their acceptance of minor league baseball part of any real estate deal.

Moreover, state lawmakers have supported similar low-cost enterprises. Even assuming New York City’s high construction and land costs, experts estimate each ballpark could be built for $50 million. In the latest state budget, Suffolk County received a $17.9 million package of land and money to build a luxury 7,000-seat minor league baseball stadium. Several upstate cities have received similar appropriations during the last four years. There is no reason why New York City’s five counties shouldn’t expect similar consideration.

Taxpayers would not bear the cost alone. The ballparks could be owned by a public-private partnership in which the city would be the majority owner, with additional funds raised from investors. The partnership would lease the ballparks to the teams and receive a share of ticket sales and concessions. Profits could provide a new revenue stream for the city’s parks. The teams could even sell a few shares in the corporation every year, so parents could buy their children “a piece of the team” (along with a fancy stock certificate to hang on the wall).

These ballparks would also be available for all manner of public uses when the teams are not in play, such as outdoor concerts and Little League playoff games.

Generate Economic Activity

It would be a mistake for the parks to be islanded fortresses. They should be ensconced in a grid of streets, near mass transit, with retail space and offices at street level to anchor the park in the surrounding neighborhood and generate year-round economic activity. The parks could also be strategically placed to encourage new business, recreation and housing development.

Take the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, for example. Nestled between affluent neighborhoods in brownstone Brooklyn and the poorer communities of Red Hook and Sunset Park, the area has relatively inexpensive, underused land in the blocks surrounding the Gowanus Canal.

The light-industrial character of the neighborhood could be preserved, but made more inviting, by turning a warehouse into a market for niche food retailers. With the market and ballpark as its centerpiece, Gowanus would become a destination for Brooklynites from outlying neighborhoods as well.

Ideally, a mixed-use development would also include affordable housing. And development could also spur federal and state grants for cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, transforming it from an environmental hazard to a maritime backbone of the entire area with a canal walk and water taxis plying its length, as some neighborhood residents envision.

The ballpark itself, with home plate at the lot’s southeastern corner, would yield majestic views of downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the tower of the Williamsburg Savings Bank would climb out of right field. One thing’s for sure, it will be a lot prettier than staring out at a dome of gray steel.

America’s favorite pastime was born in New York City, on a lot at 27th Street and Madison Avenue. At a time when sports fans are becoming alienated from their teams by enormous salaries and escalating ticket prices, how fitting it would be for New York City to revive friendly, inter-borough rivalries, restore baseball to its roots — and make it affordable to everyone.

This article is reprinted from City Limits: New York’s Urban Affairs News Magazine, © 1996.