Monday, March 16, 2009

Business as usual for ungrateful Yankees

The Yankees failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time in 14 years last fall, a jarring stumble for an organization and fan base accustomed to its place in the October landscape. You didn't need Buster Olney to tell you how the Yankees would react to their 2008 shortcomings, though the $423 million spending spree in free agency was proactive even by their standards. Just like that, the retooled Bronx Bombers were primed for another deep autumn run.

This, of course, is the prime advantage of being a Yankees fan. It's a team steeped in a tradition of winning, and it's willing to pay top dollar to uphold that ancestry. Some call the Yankees' free-spending ways a poison to the game, but I see it as a blessing that shouldn't be taken for granted. To do so would to dare the baseball gods to make you a Pittsburgh Pirates fan in another life.

Since George Steinbrenner took the reigns of the organization from CBS in 1973, the Yankees have won 10 American League pennants and six World Series titles. That culture of winning combined with forward business thinking helped the club transform itself into the financial behemoth it is today. The shining symbol of this success is the $1.5 billion new Yankee Stadium -- the crown jewel of an American empire.

But there's another
side to rooting for this team, an open sore that seems to grow in tandem with the franchise's financial might. The Yankees, you see, care very little about you. And they don't care if you know it, just so long as you keep coming back for more.

I went to countless Yankee games growing up, a fun time surely, but also a guarantee to give my poor father a near aneurysm at some point during each visit. My dad is a Bronx native who watched the Yankees' treatment of their fans crumble in the years since Steinbrenner came into power. He grumbled about the constantly rising parking fees and pointed out how the team didn't put the slightest effort into trying to improve the traffic issues that snarled the commute in and out of the stadium. There was ugliness inside the stadium, too, whether it be the rocket trajectory of concession prices or how the pleasant seat ushers had been replaced by the soulless yellow-jacketed goons known as "Stadium Security." Going to Yankee Stadium, it seemed, had become hard work over the years.

A textbook example of this fan disconnect came on a Wednesday night during the ALDS in 2006. Game 2 against the Tigers was rained out after a lengthy delay, and despite it being during a work week, Major League Baseball rescheduled the game for the following afternoon. To compound fan frustrations, the Yankees didn't allow a carry over from the previous night on the beefed up $30 playoff parking fee, in effect charging $60 for fans who returned for the make-up date. My dad was one of the thousands fans taken to the cleaners by his favorite team that day. The disrespect knew no bounds.

And now we've come to the dreaded seat relocation process, the latest chapter in a never-ending story. The blogosphere is flooded with stories of furious season-ticket holders who have been given unappealing take-it-or-leave-it offers despite years of loyal business. Yankees COO Lonn Trost said that the Yankees have made no mistakes in their organization of the relocation process, stating that fans wouldn't be so enraged if they would have simply read the 45-page relocation guide.

“If they had read it,” Trost told the NY Times last month, “they couldn’t possibly be asking these questions. They could be upset that they couldn’t get what they wanted, but we laid it out in detail.”

Well, that makes you feel better, huh?

I'm done being a Yankees fan.
That was the text message I got from my friend Howie last month -- it wasn't a coincidence that the dreaded ticket relocation operation had just pancaked him like a steamroller. Howie was well-versed in the contentious fan-team interaction by now, he and five friends had been partial season-ticket holders since the 2002 season. The first time the Yankees called Howie's bluff was 2005, when they discontinued their 26-game plan and told him that now only an upgrade to the 46-game "B" plan would guarantee the right to purchase postseason tickets. Ever the loyal fan, Howie blinked and the Yankees won. Now they were going after him again.

Last year, Howie filled out a form sent by the team that asked for his top three options for seating options at the new stadium. He requested three upper tier options for the 41-game plan, mailed it off and waited to hear back. Shortly thereafter, Howie received a letter from the Yankees informing him that they regretfully could not fulfill his requests. Staying on the "B" plan in the new Yankee Stadium would require the purchase of "premium" seats that started at $350 a pop. Howie and his friends had been paying $26 a ticket for their upper tier tickets the previous season. The other option was to bump back down to the
20-, 15-, 12- or 11-game plans that featured no rights to opening day or the postseason. All the Yankees could promise him was he would be added to a wait list that would potentially allow him the opportunity to retain his plan at a similar price.

By his math, Howie and his friends had pumped more than $28,000 into the franchise over the seven years they bought ticket plans with the team (including playoffs), and that wasn't even factoring in the buckets of cash spent on $9.50 Miller Lites and $8 Premio sausages. Despite all of that, they were expendable in the organization's eyes if need be.

Curiously, a day after going on the wait list, he received a call from the Yankees offering his preferred plan just one section higher in the upper deck. He got lucky. For countless others, this hasn't been the case.

In the end, it's just another example of the often unpleasant give-and-take with management that defines being a Yankee fan. "I don't know why it surprised me, but it did," Howie said. "You can put nothing past them in their ability to screw their fans."

Harsh words? Maybe. But it's okay to be harsh when you're right.

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