The dynastic rule of the Yankees over New York baseball has come to a close after 20 years. According to a Quinnipiac poll, New Yorkers prefer the Mets to the Yankees for the first time since at least 1998. While the margin isn’t pronounced, 45 percent to 43 percent, it is still a massive surge in Mets popularity, given that they trailed the Yankees by 34 points just three years ago, according to the Quinnipiac study of 2014. Given this, a certain question remains: how in the world did the most accomplished American professional sports team lose its fan base to a historically underwhelming franchise?
My parents both grew up in the Bronx. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s in the Bronx was a sentence to be a Yankee fan. My parents were raised with Phil Rizzuto’s famous “Holy Cow!” being a staple of household entertainment, and they went to Yankee Stadium whenever they had the time and the little bit of money necessary (my dad speaks often of the days when General Admission was $.50). Naturally, though I have lived in Queens since birth, they raised me with the same passion for the Yankees that they had. My father started taking me to Yankee games when I was five years old, and that tradition continued until a couple of years ago.
However, like many other Yankee fans have, my mother and I have distanced ourselves from the team (my father remains a Yankee fan). The easy explanation for that is the recent success of the Mets, with a World Series berth in 2015 and an incredible effort in last year’s National League Wild Card Game, but the reasons that we, like many other New York baseball fans, have largely abandoned our allegiance to the Bronx Bombers are much more complex, starting with the Yankees recent failures as an organization.
While it’s true the Yankees made the American Wild Card Game in 2015, the team is been underwhelming for years now. 2013 was a bust, save Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour. 2014 was as well, in this case the saving grace being Derek Jeter’s final efforts. But in the years since they last won the World Series, the Yankees made a habit of truly horrendous free agent signings (Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann to awful deals, after refusing to sign Robinson Cano), putting forward a team of aged talent, devoid of flare and excitement. Growing up watching the Core Four, Bernie Williams, and Alex Rodriguez amidst players like Gary Sheffield and Roger Clemens, may have spoiled me as a fan, but the team was always exciting. Even if they lost, which was considered unforgivable by any fan of the team, the Yankees always supplied entertainment. In recent years, the team headlined by Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, an injured Mark Texeira, and a limited C.C. Sabathia, has been a failure to captivate the attention of New York baseball fans. The organization has come through in the past year, promoting Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in addition to signing Aroldis Chapman, which promises to be intriguing, but the front office has failed in enough other areas that the lost fans may be gone for good.
At this point Yankees COO Lonn Trost’s infamous statement has gone around the world, that a presumably less affluent fan sitting in a “premium location” is a “frustration to our existing fan base.” This was my breaking point. This statement came right along with the Yankees refusal to allow tickets to be printed at home, and if ever there were a proverbial middle finger to fans, this was it. Not only were we the fans not to be trusted to have legitimately bought tickets, we were told that the team did not want fans in nicer sections of the stadium.
Since the opening of the Stadium in 2009, fans have been put farther from the field than the Stadium’s predecessor. The right field bleachers, the prime location for the “real” fans were put behind field level seats and the right field bullpen. The upper levels, the 300s and 400s, are not only far above the field, but unreasonably far back from the field, leaving the field level seats with nothing but sky above. While many fans sit unnecessarily far from the action, the seats around the infield remain largely empty. No other team has such an embarrassingly low attendance rate in the seats behind home plate, and if the ownership respected the legacy of the team, they’d sacrifice the few dollars it would take to fill those seats.
The new stadium also put an extreme emphasis on amenities, rather than watching baseball. Yankee fans who saw games in the pre-2009 stadium knew what the Yankees were supposed to be: a hard-nosed team in an iconic yet run-down ballpark, that played in front of the world’s most demanding, intense, and adoring crowd. The fans that went to games in the past did not care about craft beer, getting a steak dinner, and being able to sit inside a restaurant if it was a little too chilly outside. Yankee fans went to the game to watch the team win. If the team didn’t win, the game was a disappointment, and that disgruntlement would be undeniably vocal from the seats well past the exits. Now, many fans’ enjoyment are not reliant on the team success. In a stadium where “the wave” was once considered taboo, it has become a regularity. Where an opposing team’s home run ball was always to be thrown back, the practice of keeping it as a souvenir runs rampant. The Yankees alienated the fans that intimidated opposing teams and ushered in a new era of indifferent fans.
The Yankee Stadium experience was watching the most historic sports team take the field, and that has been bastardized into a gentrified, money-making scheme. The Yankees have now added what essentially amounts to food decks where the obstructed-view bleachers were a year ago, they’ve added indoor lounges with televisions showing other sporting events, and they’ve added a children’s play area on the right field 300s level. This is an obvious attempt to appeal more to families and casual fans, and another move away from the legacy many fans hold dear. The past few years of uninteresting baseball and seeming condescension towards many fans, have led to the intensity surrounding the team has leveling off.
The Yankees have made it abundantly clear that their primary motivation is to make money. They will sell their “premium” seats to people and organizations that will rarely use them, and leave the fans who love the team to a fault, hanging in the wind.
The Mets, however, have always been a more family-oriented organization. The goal of the Mets has always been to foster a positive atmosphere in the park. This may be the result of decades of losing baseball, but nonetheless it has built a strong, passionate fan base. The use of a mascot caters to children, and Citi Field has an area in center field for kids to participate in various challenges, like a wiffle ball home run derby. The Mets generally have very cheap tickets available on game days, that are possible to buy and print at home. The stadium is also much smaller than Yankee Stadium, meaning the equivalent level seat is much closer to the game in Citi Field. The Mets seem to genuinely care about the fan experience, appealing to all possible consumers. T-shirts get shot into the crowd, the races between costumed employees, and the “stealing of third” by a kid every game has succeeded in keeping fans entertained between innings. The quality of seats has succeeded in keeping fans locked in on the game. And while the Mets created a more fan-inclusive stadium, and keeping the emphasis on baseball, they built a pitching staff exploding with talent.
The Mets have the best pitching staff in the Big Leagues if the players manage to stay healthy and perform to their capabilities, something much easier said than done. Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz provide a menacing staff, a crucial component to any team who wishes to contend. The batting lineup leaves plenty to be desired, but as long as the pitching is there the team can succeed, and the pitching provides more than enough of a spark to keep fans interested in the team. The Mets have, however, been bold in giving Yoenis Céspedes big contracts, keeping a big name in the lineup to support the pitching staff.
That’s really what it comes down to, is keeping fans interested. The Yankees lack of recent success, combined with bad contracts and an insulting front office, failed for years to keep the team interesting. The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has not had the fire it once did in years. The Mets have built a mutual hatred with the Nationals, garnering more excitement than the Yankees have. The Yankees’ elitism built a distasteful ballpark for a team still clinging to its outdated rules regarding the hair on a player’s head. The Mets’ compassion continues to welcome fans with the team’s potential for success. With the emergence of the Baby Bombers last year, maybe the pendulum of New York baseball support will swing back the other way, but for right now, New York baseball is owned by the Mets. That is, until Bryce Harper becomes a Yankee.