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Indirectly, Target Field is a legacy to Yankee ‘Boss’ George Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner shown in March watching a spring training game at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida.
REUTERS/Steve Nesius
George Steinbrenner, shown in March watching a spring training game at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.

In an indirect way, Target Field stands as a legacy to George M. Steinbrenner III, the bombastic and polarizing New York Yankees owner who died this morning at age 80, reportedly of a massive heart attack.

As the leader of baseball’s most storied franchise and biggest cash cow, Steinbrenner used his clout to fight revenue sharing at every turn. After Major League Baseball adopted a revenue-sharing plan in 1996 that annually costs the Yankees more money than any other franchise — a plan he voted for twice — Steinbrenner griped that the Yankees were subsidizing baseball.

“I’m tired of it,” Steinbrenner told USA Today’s Hal Bodley in 2006. “We keep carrying everybody else and get outvoted [by the other teams] all the time. But that’s the way it is; it’s like a socialist state. That’s the way they [other owners] wanted it; that’s the way they got it.”

Steinbrenner often complained that other owners put the Yankees’ money in their pockets instead of spending it on payroll, especially the owners of the Montreal Expos. Twins President Jerry Bell remembered a few of those rants at owners meetings he attended with the late Carl Pohlad.

“They talked to each other a lot about revenue sharing,” Bell said. “One time George said revenue sharing should be based on the net worth of the owner, which I thought was a pretty funny line.” Pohlad, of course, had the largest net worth of any owner in baseball.

“I remember George saying, ‘Carl Pohlad, I don’t have any problem with. I know he’ll try to field a good team. But I don’t know about other people,'” Bell said. “George had a real hard time finding a formula he liked.”

Which is too bad. Steinbrenner never took the lead in solving baseball’s revenue disparity, as he did when he intervened in another of his passions — the U.S. Olympic movement. After the U.S. team won only six medals at the 1988 Calgary Games, Steinbrenner chaired a special commission to overhaul how the U.S. Olympic Committee functioned. In 1989, at Steinbrenner’s urging, the USOC adopted a program of performance-based grants that allowed elite athletes to train without living hand-to-mouth, a program still in use today.

Baseball now shares more revenue than ever. But clubs also get to keep a larger share of some revenue than others. Used to be, the home club shared gate receipts with the visitors, 80-20. (NFL teams split the gate 50-50.) Now, the home team keeps it all. Consider that the next time you watch a game at the new Yankee Stadium, a $1.3 billion palace where the cheapest non-bleacher seat is $22.

So to keep up, small- and medium-market teams like the Twins build sparkling new stadiums with high-roller seats, luxury suites, $9 hamburgers and an endless stream of revenue-generating perks. Standing room at Target Field costs $25, or $14 more than the cheapest premium Metrodome seat last year. Bell said even the fairest revenue-sharing plan couldn’t make the Metrodome work for the Twins — “We were playing in a football stadium,” he said — but a more equitable system might give teams less reason to gouge their customers. 

Steinbrenner wasn’t the only owner who failed to show leadership here. Pro football overtook baseball as the country’s favorite sport because the NFL understood that the league’s overall viability benefited everybody. That’s why its franchises shared national TV money, rather than striking their own local deals, as baseball teams do. Baseball can crow about its record attendance and revenue all it wants. But it’s no longer the national pastime, and won’t be again until it figures out how to level the economic playing field for all. Steinbrenner missed his chance to be that visionary.

I dealt with Steinbrenner often as the Yankees beat writer for the Newark Star-Ledger in 1996 and ’97, the first two years of the Joe Torre era, and for several seasons thereafter before coming to Minnesota in 2002. I planned to share some personal Steinbrenner stories until hearing two great ones from Bell today that illustrate the conflicting sides of The Boss.

Five years ago, after Bell’s mother died, Bell said, Steinbrenner quietly sent a check to the church where his mother was buried from. “I never told anyone that until just now,” Bell said.

Anybody who ever spent any time around the Yankees knows Steinbrenner often frightened his employees, even from 1,000 miles away. One night, Bell saw that firsthand.

Steinbrenner always took care of people he liked whenever they visited Yankee Stadium. One year, Bell accompanied then-General Manager Andy MacPhail and MacPhail’s wife on a trip to New York. Steinbrenner was home in Tampa, so he let Bell and the MacPhails use his suite and luxury box. While there, a frantic young Yankees employee came in and tore through the bookshelves.

“George had called from Tampa and said that that night, he wanted them to play the Liza Minnelli version of ‘New York, New York’ instead of the Frank Sinatra version,” Bell said, chuckling as he went along. “The kid was in a panic trying to find it. The game was on television, and he knew George was going to be listening. The poor kid was sweating blood trying to find the thing.”

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