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Yankee Stadium and Baseball's Business of Nostalgia

An era has ended in the Bronx. Sometime next year, "The House That Ruth Built" will become "The House That P.J. Graziano and Sons Wrecking Crew Meticulously Disassembled For Resale," and the old Yankee Stadium will be no more. But nobody in the team's management is too broken up about it - after all, the Yanks stand to make about $50 million from selling off parts of the Stadium to the highest bidders. Who wouldn't want to "own a piece of history?" Pairs of seats are being sold for almost $2,000. Dirt from the field is being sold in fairly novel ways, as mounted and framed pinches of dirt range from $20 to $150. Even the urinals are up for grabs. The new stadium retains the old moniker, and is designed to look like the original 1923 edifice that defined a generation of the game. But the Yankees have hijacked baseball's most lucrative asset - nostalgia - in an attempt to wrest every last cent out of the loyal fan base.

You see, the New York Yankees decided that its 85-year-old Stadium - counted among the most famous and venerated sports grounds in the world – wasn't competitive enough in today's baseball world. Not in the athletic sense of the word, of course. The Yankees have won 26 World Series rings while at the Stadium. Rather, owner George Steinbrenner ruled that the old park wasn't financially competitive enough for the Bronx Bombers. The New Yankee Stadium is estimated to bring in an additional $100 million (!) in ticket sales alone, since the bulk of the seats at the new park have been moved to the pricier lower bowl in contrast to the old park's gargantuan upper deck. The cheap bleacher seats have been reduced in number threefold. There's an oyster and martini bar, as well as a restaurant in center field. Oh, and did I mention that the best seats in the house go for $2,500 per game?

The Yankees can get away with charging that amount for seats mostly because there are lots of really, really rich fans in the NYC area with $150k burning holes in their pockets. But the real issue is how the Yankees have conflated history with shameless commercialism. Baseball, above all other professional sports, is inextricably linked to its past – the game itself simply provides for such a platform. It is heavily based on statistical analysis, which facilitates easy comparison with performances of players long gone. It is a game unencumbered with arbitrary timing; there are no shot clocks or timeouts or two-minute warnings or halftimes, and its pastoral pace is a relic of an era when things moved at a much more thoughtful and leisurely tempo. But perhaps the most important historical link between past and present in baseball are its ballparks.

In the 20th century, the majority of baseball clubs played in the same park for more than 50 years. These are the places where parents took their children to see the greats, and places where the kids expected to take their own young one day.  Chief among them was Yankee Stadium, baseball’s Vatican, one of the Big Three remaining from the game’s golden era. Now only Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in Boston remain, and those two teams will sell out every game until their parks disintegrate. Their fans know that they’re seeing the same game as their grandfather saw 80 years ago, and that’s something the Yankees are patronizingly trying to tell season ticket holders of the New Yankee Stadium. You simply can't manufacture or sell a sense of history. It has to be organically grown. But the Yankees have no problem peddling the idea that you can somehow buy a piece of timeless Americana - or your childhood - for a "reasonable" price. That's just false advertising. It's retail fraud.

Yankees fans will smell the pungent scents of wet paint and drying concrete instead of hotdogs and beer next year. But that's just how things work in today's baseball economy. The new park is expensive, but at least the memories of the old one are still free.

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