The New York Baseball Death Star Is Back – Wall Street Journal
Major League Baseball prides itself on the idea that every team has a chance. “Hope and faith” is what Bud Selig called it, and in the last decade of his tenure as commissioner he set out to create it in as many markets as possible, for as long into the season as possible, year in and year out.
The result has been a series of uplifting scenes in which a collective zeal for baseball is restored in long-suffering cities across America. In 2012, it was Baltimore. In 2013, it was Pittsburgh. In 2014, it was Kansas City.
But this year has brought maybe baseball’s most heartwarming development yet: New York City, a quaint fishing village whose sports teams have long been overlooked by the national media, is a baseball town again.
The Yankees, baseball’s $219 Million Engine That Could, have surpassed all expectations and find themselves in first place in the AL East, even after being swept by the resurgent Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend. Across town, the Mets have improbably surged into first place in the NL East. With some luck, the entire World Series could be played in New York.
OK, so unless you are from New York or live there, this is less inspiring than annoying, or totally revolting. But it’s true: As a hotbed of baseball, New York is back.
Not since 2006 have both the Mets and Yankees been in first place this far into the season. The Yankees won the World Series in 2009 and remained a staple of October through 2012, but it is different when both teams are contenders into the late summer and beyond. A sport can take hold over a place only so much when a significant portion of fans in the region are in hibernation. And as much as the Yankees outclass the Mets as an international brand, Mets fans represent more than just a tiny fraction of the city.
It is as if thousands of Mets hats, shirts and jerseys were held captive for the last several years, only to be released back out onto the streets in the last 10 days. After a raucous crowd watched the Mets complete a sweep of the Washington Nationals on Aug. 2, manager Terry Collins said, “This is my first experience with a New York crowd and what it’s like here.”
It was an incredible statement from a man who has managed 380 games at Citi Field, but he wasn’t wrong. Citi Field as a destination for something other than delicious food is kind of a new thing. And it makes baseball relevant in a way that even the Yankees can’t do all by themselves.
Consider last Tuesday night, when the Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox at home and the Mets were in Miami to play the Marlins. At one point, there were roughly 1 million people in the New York market watching one game or the other, according to viewership data provided by each team’s regional television network. The majority of them were watching the Yankees, but only by about a 55%-45% margin.
‘We’re neutral…but I can’t say it’s a bad thing for the game to have two New York teams in the hunt.’
You can nitpick about the significance of a million viewers given the size of the New York metropolitan area, which at last count had more than 20 million residents. You can argue that baseball still hasn’t gripped New York to the degree it has consumed Kansas City. But the sheer total is no less remarkable.
There’s a reason that the most watched World Series of the last decade, by a wide margin, is the only one that included a New York team in it. And it’s not because America loves Alex Rodriguez. When the New York teams are compelling, it has a disproportionate impact on the overall interest in the sport.
During a recent visit to Citi Field, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred called the Yankees’ and Mets’ seasons “great for the game,” if only because responding to the reporter’s question with an actual cartwheel would have been too difficult. “We’re neutral. We like to see everybody have a chance to compete,” Manfred said. “But I can’t say it’s a bad thing for the game to have two New York teams in the hunt.”
Neutral may be an understatement. Nearly every economic reform MLB has enacted in the past two decades—including revenue sharing, the luxury tax and restrictions on amateur signing bonuses—has served to diminish the advantages of big-market teams. The league wants to thrive in major markets, but it wants competitive balance more.
It is tempting to search for some meaning in how the Yankees and Mets have succeeded in the face of MLB’s shift toward egalitarianism, but to be honest, neither team makes much sense.
The Yankees have thrived in part on the resurgence of Rodriguez, who was coming off a yearlong drug suspension and major hip injuries before that. At age 40, he is having his best offensive season in several seasons. For years, it was virtually impossible for the Yankees to beat expectations. But two consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance and the retirement of Derek Jeter finally lowered them to a level where they could be what they are: surprisingly good.
With a payroll in the lower third of the sport, the Mets don’t act like a big-market team. Six weeks ago, they weren’t an especially good one. But they have improved their offense just enough to ride their dominant young pitching staff all the way to the postseason. That they are ahead of the Nationals, the biggest preseason favorite in any division, only makes their year more unlikely.
If there is a lesson here, it is about the meaning of parity. Often, it seems to favor teams in smaller markets, who were too often left behind in baseball’s old economy. But parity, that constant Selig ideal, means every team has a chance.
Even in New York.