Saturday, April 4, 2009

Some Things Never Change; Others Should

As I write this, it is 36 hours until the start of the baseball season and it is snowing here in Cooperstown. You have to live here to appreciate how fitting that is. In 2002, the year I moved back to Cooperstown (having spent one year here in the early 1990s and having gone to college 50 miles to the west), it also snowed the first week of April. We have greeted the start of other baseball seasons with snow. Some things never change. I lived for many years in Las Vegas, where baseball season started in February with the UNLV team. What better way to spend a late "winter" afternoon than to stretch out on the hillside above the first-base dugout at Barnson Field and watch a ballgame? Now the major league season is about to start and I'm looking out the window at snow. It doesn't seem right. I keep telling the Hall of Fame folks to seek grant money to investigate the possibility that baseball was invented in San Luis Obispo or Rancho Cucamonga or someplace people could travel to and be comfortable in all year long. Maybe not, but it's worth a shot so I wouldn't have to wonder where I stowed my boots.

Last night I watched the telecasts of the exhibition games at the two New York ballparks. Citi Field (or "Taxpayers Field" as some have dubbed it) appears to be a vast improvement over Shea Stadium. The key word there might turn out to be "vast," as the outfield looks very spacious especially in the alleys. The announcers noted that the configuration is similar to the new park in San Francisco, a good place for triples and a tough place for home runs, especially in right-center field. In that sense, it might turn out to be a "pitchers' park" like Shea. In the bigger picture, the look and "feel" of the place seem much more inviting and engaging than Shea ever was. Shea may have hosted some exciting baseball events and a Beatles concert, but its inherent ambience would have served just as well for a checkers tournament or a cattle drive. Citi Field seems like a great place to be, whatever is happening. I hope to get there in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the new Yankee Stadium looks pretty much like the old one except for a massive scoreboard. Yankees personnel and visiting Cubs manager Lou Piniella commented on the many echoes of the old Stadium. Which raises the question: why the hell did they bother to build it? The easy answer is that when it was announced (last century) that the city was willing to finance a badly-needed new stadium for the Mets, the Yankees got a sniff that the public trough might be plentiful enough for them to pig out as well. Mayor Giuliani bought the notion that it would only be fair to buy the Yankees a shiny new venue so the Mets wouldn't upstage them, and Mayor Blomberg followed through on the record-shattering investment of roughly $2.5 billion for the twin wowers.

The tougher question to answer, in the middle of this economic meltdown is: they built it, but will we come?

The two teams have devised very different pricing schemes, but no matter how you slice it, tickets in New York are much more expensive than ever. It's easy to laugh at the price of Opening Day front-row seats at Yankee Stadium--many still unsold at $2,625 apiece. The more laughable thing is that to order one of these tickets, you also have to fork over a "convenience charge" of $59.70. I wonder how they came up with that $59.70 figure; what could that 70 cents possibly cover? One person I work with here notes that he's taking three friends to a game in Pittsburgh this season for less than the convenience charge for one New York ticket. I believe he could charter a private jet to take his quartet to the game and still spent less than he would to see the game in New York by himself.

A likely scenario this season is that the rafters will be full while the more expensive sections near the field are half-empty. My father had a great saying when television cameras panned a half-full stadium; he'd say, "look at all the people who aren't there." The word is that most of the "cheap" seats have already been sold, the limited number of bleacher and nosebleed seats whose price resembles what people in other cities pay to sit halfway closer to the field. At Yankee Stadium, the bleacher seats out in center field are going for $14, not a bad price to get into the ballpark. Sit there, and if you have a good pair of binoculars you can approximate the view you get on television from the center-field camera.

The Yankees' policy this year is to have the same price for each seat for each game, but to charge more if you buy it on the day of the game. For seats priced below $100, it will only cost an extra $5 to show up on game-day, while the more expensive seats will cost an extra $50. Bear in mind that the less expensive seats are already pretty much sold out. So the idea is that those business people who have customers they want to schmooze by making time to go out to the old ballpark will have to shell out an extra hundred bucks for the privilege.

The Mets have a much different scheme, but you'll need a post-graduate degree to figure it out. On their website, I count 38 different seating areas, ranging from the top-level "Delta Club Platinum" through designations like "Metropolitan Box Gold," "Empire Suites," "Baseline Box," "Left Field Landing Gold" and "Apple Reserved" all the way down to the bottom of the page, the "Promenade Reserved." But here's the kicker. The price for each category varies according to the day of the week and the opponent. Those "cheap" Promenade Reserved seats, for instance, cost a mere $11 for "Value" games all the way up to $27 for "Platinum" games. In between those extremes are "Gold," "Silver" and "Bronze" games. Still with me? Those $11 seats exist for only ten games all season, all weekday games against the Nationals and the Marlins. On the other hand, there are only four "Platinum" games, Opening Day and the three-game series against the Yankees in June. For the largest group of games, 30 games called "Gold," that $11 seat will run you $23. Similarly, the "Delta Club Platinum" seats cost only $295 for a Wednesday game against the Nationals, but $595 for a Wednesday game against the Dodgers or a Sunday game against the Brewers or the Diamondbacks. It's the same deal for each of the 38 categories. Take the lowest price, add one-third for the 18 "Bronze" games, two-thirds for the 19 "Silver" games, and double it for the more plentiful "Gold" games.

Yes, it will be interesting to see how large the New York crowds are for which games. Make no mistake about it, the taxpayers may have paid to build the stadiums, but it is the fans who will decide whether the seats are worth it. Oscar Hammerstein II, the vaudeville impresario, used to say that "the best seats are the ones with asses in them." Are you a big enough ass to pay those prices?

I'm not.

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