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16th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 16, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

When it comes to the question of sports stadiums, there is one candidate for mayor who has a lot of experience on which to draw. That candidate is Fernando Ferrer, who, as president of the Bronx, fought a long, hard, and almost losing battle to keep the Yankees in his borough.

On one level, Mr. Ferrer was admirably supportive of his borough and gave no ground. But his zeal almost resulted in the team leaving the Bronx. Mr. Ferrer’s personality and that of George M. Steinbrenner III were like oil and water. It was only good fortune and happy circumstance that kept the Yankees here through the rocky years of the Ferrer administration.
So bad were these relations that, in Mr. Steinbrenner’s eyes, Mr. Ferrer was persona non grata in the House That Ruth Built, a dubious distinction for a Bronx president.

The original lease on the renovated Yankee Stadium was due to expire in 2002, a deadline that artificially loomed over negotiations off and on for more than a decade, and has since been temporarily extended. Now, finally, a deal to keep the Yankees in the Bronx seems to have been completed, which is sure to be looked on as a triumph for Mayor Bloomberg.

But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it appeared almost certain that the team would leave the Bronx for New Jersey. The football Giants had moved to the Meadowlands, followed by the Jets.The New York Nets basketball franchise moved from the Nassau Coliseum to what was then called the Brendan Byrne Arena, with a four-year stopover playing in the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway. It even appeared as if professional soccer might be successful in what was thought to be the promised land for sports franchises, the filled-in swampland in East Rutherford.

Meanwhile in Gotham, crime was at an all-time high and attendance at Yankee Stadium was mediocre, two unconnected bits of information that somehow became linked in the mind of Mr. Steinbrenner. The Yankees’ principal owner made it clear that it was the fans’ fear of the stadium’s South Bronx locale that kept them away. The truth is that for nearly 15 years, the Yankees failed to field a winning team.

Even Mr. Ferrer had no faith in selling the South Bronx as the continued home of the Yankees. In 1990, he proposed to keep the Bombers in the Bronx by moving the team to Ferry Point Park, a former garbage dump near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. At the time, Newsday reported that Mr. Ferrer said that Ferry Point was “the Bronx’ Meadowlands.”

A feasibility study that Mr. Ferrer commissioned shortly after becoming borough president proposed that a 75,000-seat stadium should be built on the site.

This plan was quickly dismissed by Mr. Steinbrenner and soon forgotten.

The Ferry Point Park site is now being developed as a world-class golf course,
designed by Jack Nicklaus.

By 1993, the war of words between the Ferrer and Yankee camps came to a boil when the Bronx borough president accused the Yankees of “fudging” attendance figures. The Yankees owner was enraged.“By simply eyeballing the stadium, Mr. Ferrer issued an attack against the Yankees and their fans that was inaccurate,ill-advised,and improper,” stated Mr. Steinbrenner. “If he continues to accuse us of ‘fudging the numbers,’ he will drive us out of the Bronx.”

Mr. Ferrer retorted, “This bizarre threat calls more for pity than response.”

When a low-level Yankee official was accused of making racially insensitive remarks the following year, Mr. Ferrer was quick to lead the attack against the team. But by this time New York had a new mayor, a maniacal Yankee fan named Rudolph Giuliani who was not about to let his beloved team cross the Hudson.
He had a better idea — a new stadium on the West Side of Manhattan.

By 1995, Messrs. Giuliani and Steinbrenner were double-teaming Mr. Ferrer. So when Mr. Ferrer stated that either Mr. Steinbrenner “step up to the plate” and accept the city’s “best pitch” or “take a walk,” Mr. Giuliani said, “I wish he [Ferrer] would leave it to me and the governor to negotiate with the Yankees.” The thought was echoed by Yankee official David Sussman who commented, “Mr. Ferrer’s incendiary comments are not at all helpful to the situation.”

When questions were raised about the stalled negotiations, the mayor would often cite Mr. Ferrer as “one of the main reasons” a deal could not be struck. For his part, Mr. Ferrer, on a WNBC-TV interview, said of Mr. Steinbrenner: “Let him go.We’ll get another team to play there.”

Mr. Ferrer launched a “Don’t Feed the Greed”campaign against Mr.Steinbrenner in 1996, and the three-way hate-fest continued as Mr. Ferrer launched an abortive attempt to unseat Mr. Giuliani in 1997. In 1998, the newly re-elected mayor called Mr. Ferrer “an enormous negative force” when it came to the Yankees.

By this time, the team was once again winning, bringing championships — and fans — back to the Bronx. Although a challenge by Mr. Steinbrenner to draw 3 million fans in 1998 fell short, last year the Yankees drew more fans to their home games than any other team in the American League, 3,775,292. This was a record high for Yankee Stadium.

It is hard to believe now that just a decade ago, the team could not attract even half that number to their games.

The Steinbrenner bombast has diminished as the fans line up to watch baseball played in the South Bronx, and apparently will continue to do so far into the future. But the tension between the symbolic chief of the borough and the owner of the most famous sports franchise in the world offers a window into the personalities of both men, through which neither comes off particularly well.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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