The big bad New York Yankees are flexing their mighty chequebook and the rest of Major League Baseball is not happy. While the recession has many teams cautious about spending, the Yankees remain in a Gilded Age, dropping more than $400million (Dh1.4billion) on high-profile free agents, including an eight-year deal with the first baseman Mark Teixeira on Tuesday. Their city rivals the Mets have lavished big money, too, and other teams are jealous.
"This year they just both went crazy," the San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito said of New York's teams. "All these people are going east now. It's crazy." The Yankees tend to let criticism bounce off their pinstripes. "I've got enough things to worry about and think about," the co-chairman Hal Steinbrenner said. Across a city where cocktail party talk centres on the Bernard Madoff financial fraud and the demise of Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, the baseball teams have grabbed attention with their dazzling deals during a time of retrenchment.
How in the world can they afford this? Well, the Yankees already own about one-third of their own regional sports cable network. They have started their own concession company in conjunction with the American football side Dallas Cowboys. And now they have a new, $1.3billion ballpark opening in April. The top ticket at the new Yankee Stadium next season will go for $2,500. The best seat at the Mets' Citi Field seems like a discount, averaging $495.
"We are very sensitive to the economic conditions, to people's concerns," the Yankees president Randy Levine said. "We monitor it very closely and, if necessary, can make adjustments. "But as we stand today, we believe strongly that our fans and customers appreciate that we continue to reinvest in our product." The Mets, whose owners also own a share of their own network, made the first big free-agent move.
They struck a $37m, three-year agreement with the closer Francisco Rodriguez. But that was a pittance compared to the nearly quarter-billion dollars - $243.5m to be precise - the Yankees committed on a single day last week for a pair of starting pitchers: CC Sabathia got a $161m, seven-year contract and the often-injured AJ Burnett was enticed to the Bronx with an $82.5m, five-year deal. They followed that up by striking a $180m deal with Teixeira. After the Yankees' streak of 13 consecutive play-off appearances ended, you could count on them to set the top of the market.
Around the rest of MLB, the highest free-agent contract belongs to pitcher Ryan Dempster, who will receive $52m over four seasons to remain with the Chicago Cubs. While their arch-rivals Boston Red Sox play in Fenway Park, with the smallest capacity in the major leagues at about 37,750, the Yankees are moving into a ballpark next season that holds 52,325 - about 4,500 seats fewer than their old stadium. The Red Sox had also pursued Teixeira.
"From the moment we arrived in Boston in late 2001, we saw it as a monumental challenge," Boston's owner John Henry said. "We sought to reduce the financial gap [with the Yankees] and succeeded to a degree. Now with a new stadium filled with revenue opportunities, they have leaped away from us again. So we have to be even more careful in deploying our resources." The Yankees have been MLB's traditional pacesetter on the field since 1923, when they moved into the original Yankee Stadium.
They have won 26 World Series titles since - the St Louis Cardinals are a distant second with 10. The new stadium across the street is 63 per cent larger than the old, with four merchandise stores instead of one, and 13 restaurants, lounges and food courts for the public, including a martini bar and a steak house that's expected to become a destination for Wall Street's elite. There are 51 available luxury suites priced from $600,000 to $850,000 each, up from 19 at the old ballpark. Even without the income from the new stadium, the Yankees already have paid out the top average salary in MLB for the past 10 seasons, according to the MLB Players Association.
This year's $223m final payroll, according to the commissioner's office, was more than double the $96m MLB average. Yet, the Yankees do help subsidise the other teams. New York is paying $26.9m in luxury tax - just $141,000 less than the payroll for the Florida Marlins' entire 40-man roster. Throw in revenue-sharing payments, and the Yankees are contributing $110m to MLB for this year. "As long as we follow all the rules, which we do, provide hundreds of millions of dollars, as we have over the past years to other teams, and spearhead revenue to the commissioner's office, networks and other entities, people should allow us to run our business the way we think appropriate," Levine said.
The Mets' new ballpark appears modest in comparison. Citi Field costs $800m, and at 45,000 holds about 7,000 fewer than the new Yankee Stadium. "If the Yankees don't make the play-offs, they are going to do whatever they need to do to get back," the Giants outfielder Randy Winn said. And they may not be finished. * AP