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Where's the love? Yankees are pricing out their loyal fans

When it comes to the illusionary art of surface patriotism, no American sports franchise trumps the New York Yankees.

Much like one of those mid-World War II cinema shorts urging citizens to do their part for the greater good, the Bronx Bombers spare little expense in reminding visitors that, gosh darn it, you sure are lucky to live in such a fine country. You want bald eagles swooping through the stadium air? The Yanks -- come playoff time -- are your team. You want American flags billowing in the wind? Ditto. The Yankees blare God Bless America in the middle of the seventh inning of every game, and as you read this a man named Bradford Campeau-Laurion is suing the Yankees for allegedly ejecting him from the stadium after he left his seat to use the bathroom during the playing of the song. The nerve of young Bradford. The nerve.

Thing is, like the expiration date on a chunk of really expensive Bergenost, image without substance only lasts for so long. New York's baseball fans are glad to idolize Derek Jeter as an American icon. They are glad to equate the interlocking N and Y with our nation's pride in athletic excellence. They are glad to push forth the half-myth, half-truth that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Yankees gave city denizens a reason to go on.

They are not, however, willing to be hoodwinked. Not now, in this country's worst economic crisis since the trio of Jesse Hill, George Selkirk and BenChapman patrolled the Yankee Stadium outfield. Not now, as the unemployment rate rises and the confidence of a people plummets.

In case you haven't heard, the Yankees have opened their new, state-of-the-art stadium by asking their dutiful fans to pay inordinate amounts of money for the right to sit in a plastic chair, drink $9 bottles of beer and watch Cody Ransom. To be precise, individual-game tickets range from $14 for bleacher seats to $2,625 to sit mere feet away from the batter's box. Yet here's the wacky part -- with the economy mimicking a Jason Marquis sinker (down-down-down-plop), there are a limited number of cheap seats, leaving gameday fans with an onerous choice: spend a small fortune on a ticket, or don't go.

Throughout New York, baseball diehards talk of team devotion in the same way they refer to beloved-yet-flawed family members. Just listen to the banal jabber on the area's top sports talk station, WFAN, where "real fans" and "fake fans" are apparently divided by the number of games they attend, the number of jerseys they own and the number of times they've called out David Ortiz or Josh Beckett on their yankeesrulez blogs. "Real fans," the logic goes, live and die with the pinstripes, call in sick to work after a playoff loss, name their children Gehrig and Jeter, and make the stadium their second home.

Yet loyalty, like Madison Avenue, is often a one-way street. As seemingly hundreds of thousands of hard-working, struggling-to-stay-afloat enthusiasts take a vow of allegiance to the Yankees, the Yankees, to be blunt, spit tobacco juice in their faces. Imagine, say, your local deli decided that, in the midst of a financial free fall, prices would be increased by as much as 75 percent (and don't forget that the, ahem, deli received enormous tax breaks not offered to other businesses). Would you ever again stop in for that chocolate milk and Hostess Fruit Pie?

For a franchise that has long flaunted its patriotism, one must ask, where is that help-thy-neighbor American spirit when we actually need it? In 2001 it was easy for the Yankees to fly a tattered flag from Ground Zero and unearth President Bush to throw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series. Emotional as those moments felt, they were, relatively speaking, no-brainers. Eight years later, people are once again struggling. They are losing jobs. Losing investments. Losing homes. They could use a good faith gesture of keeping the ticket prices the same as a year ago. Baseball, after all, is the ultimate stress-buster: Enduring a tough day? Kick back in the sun for nine innings, down a beverage, keep score, relax.

So, with that in mind, has the franchise valued at $1.5 billion by Forbes magazine moved to decrease ticket prices? Not likely, though commissioner Bud Selig is now getting involved. With a jarring (and, many would agree, justified) number of unfilled blue "premium" seats making the new Yankee Stadium appear to be half empty on TV -- consider the numbers: with nearly 4,000 fewer seats the Yankees are averaging 8,500 fewer fans in a new stadium -- Hal Steinbrenner and Co. could have stepped up and offered the vacant turf for temporarily discounted costs; could have donated the seats to a local YMCA or Boys & Girls Club; could have done 8,000 things to help make right a time period gone bad.

Instead -- My Country, 'Tis of Thee -- the Yankees hired Douglas Elliman Worldwide Consulting, which promotes and markets real estate projects for developers, to peddle the seats to high-end residential customers. (Translation: To hell with the little guy).

Luckily, there still remains one way to score $10 box seats; one way to sit up close for an affordable price and watch professional players give their all.

The Newark Bears' season opens today.

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