It’s been a while since MLB went through another expansion phase. No new teams have entered the sport since the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays came into the leagues in 1998.
That expansion brought the number of major league teams to 30, and as such, it can be said to have been incomplete. The number of teams, while even, still left MLB with a lack of balance in the composition of the leagues. The movement of teams between leagues (Milwaukee to the NL, then the Astros to the AL) tried to accommodate the lack of balance in the league structures and schedules, as did the move to introduce interleague play, but there remains, even to this day, oddities that no amount of jiggering with the division formats, unbalanced schedules, and expanded playoffs have been able to smooth out.
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Baseball in Harlem: How about something more than a cameo appearance?
So another expansion, which could bring the number of teams up to a far more workable total of 32, might seem like a good idea. The sport–despite doomsaying from the short-sighted–is thriving, thanks to aggressive programs of stadium building, strong marketing efforts, some wise negotiating on both sides of the labor table, and intelligent utilization of digital media to maximize the fans’ experience.
That brings us to the obvious question: where would you put two more teams if you expand MLB today? There are a number of candidates out there for one of the two putative teams, but there’s one market that everyone seems to agree should get another team (even if everyone also says it’s impossible to place a team there for territorial reasons). Let’s, as they say, “start spreading the news.”
Generally, I’m not a fan of expansion, in any sport. The typical problems that go with expansion–dilution of the talent pool, changes in scheduling, a move away from traditional alignments–don’t have much appeal in this fan’s eyes. But since MLB is already dealing with those problems with the current league structure, adding a couple of teams to iron out those kinks makes a certain amount of sense.
Arguments have been made on this subject a number of times over the past few years. Candidate cities for one of the proposed new teams, such as Montreal (a perennial favorite), Portland, Vancouver, San Antonio, and other locales, all have their partisans among at least some of those voicing an opinion. Interestingly, almost all the voices calling for expansion seem to agree that placing a third team in the New York City market makes the most sense–and it’s hard to argue the point.
“…wouldn’t it be better to see Jeter involved with a club right there in New York City…? How would that be for an ‘RBI’ role model?”
After all, New York City is far and away the largest city in the nation, and it’s probably the wealthiest metro area as well. (It’s neck and neck with the Washington, D.C. and San Francisco metro areas in the untold riches category, depending upon how things are measured.) There’s plenty of money there to support a third team. And with a population as huge as the Big Apple can boast, there’s bound to be some fans, either frustrated or unaffiliated, who would take to a new team and make it their own. Within a generation, a new New York team would be on solid footing and a viable competitor in the league–maybe sooner.
So where should the new team go? While Brooklyn gets the lion’s share of the nods–undoubtedly because commentators are wrapped in a haze of nostalgia for baseball’s “Golden Age”–a minority of voices are putting forth northern New Jersey (mostly focused on Newark) as the best spot for expansion.
But I’d like to suggest somewhere else in New York’s metro area as the best home for a new team–a site that comes with factors that go beyond mere nostalgia or the simple nuts and bolts of demographics. I’m thinking of a place that has history, culture, worldwide recognition, and some demographics of its own on its side.
Yes, I’m thinking uptown, as in Harlem.
Harlem is not an unprecedented location for a major league stadium; the Polo Grounds sat just on the south edge of Harlem back in the day (and just north of Central Park). Washington Heights, further north of Harlem, also hosted a major league stadium in the past, when Hilltop Park was in operation in the early years of the 20th century. Either area could host a new stadium today, as there is plenty of infrastructure in place to bring people to the park (as with every part of Manhattan, though the NYC subways are having a tough time right now). Plus, while building anything in New York City–and Manhattan in particular–will cost a jaw-dropping amount of money, the northern end of the island is probably the least expensive part of the borough for building new structures; indeed, there are probably parts of Harlem (or the Heights) that are crying out for redevelopment. Why not put a new stadium there and get a ball club going?
Of course, there’s more going on with a proposal to put a team in the top part of Manhattan than just dollars and cents. Harlem is famously the capital of “inner city” America; its population has been predominantly black for generations now. Similarly, Washington Heights is a largely Hispanic section of town. Those minority populations are a key ingredient to why a new team uptown makes a lot of sense beyond the mere business side of things.
MLB has made a lot of noise in recent years about its RBI program, its effort to “Revive Baseball in Inner cities” and bring those minority residents back into the fold as baseball fans. If that’s really a goal in the office of “Organized Baseball” on Park Avenue, then bringing the game to their neighborhood around upper Broadway–literally, the game, not just sending a player or two on a goodwill visit–would probably be the most effective RBI program they could implement.
A new team in Harlem could very well be an excellent opportunity to see a minority-led ownership group enter baseball’s fold. Derek Jeter looks to be in on buying the Miami Marlins now; wouldn’t it be better to see Jeter involved with a club right there in New York City, just a handful of blocks away from whatever penthouse apartment he and Hannah might wish to occupy? How would that be for an RBI role model? You want those inner city kids interested in baseball? Show them that they can get not just on the field, but into the front office, too. If the Jeter group’s bid for the Marlins falls through, perhaps they could pursue an expansion team in New York, with The Captain out front and center as the face of the movement. (Perhaps, after a few years, there could be an ownership deal where Jeter’s group trades the Marlins for the new NY club, the way the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox ownership groups wheeled and dealed several years ago.)
On the other hand, if MLB places a team “in the Heights,” perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda might want to use some of those Hamilton dollars to buy in on a piece of the partnership. A lot of the Puerto Rican kids in the neighborhood would probably become firm fans of a new team playing in the old Hilltop area.
Of course, there will be challenges to putting another team in Harlem or Washington Heights, just as with Brooklyn or Newark or any other island or meadowland location. For one thing, the Steinbrenners and Fred Wilpon would scream bloody murder. It would be very costly to buy them off. How fortunate, then, that MLB would be getting all that expansion fee buy-in money, a part of which they could throw at the Yankee and Met owners over and above the rest of the executive crowd. No doubt other pressures could be applied to the recalcitrant residents of the other boroughs in order to make Manhattan’s team happen. It would be a difficulty; it would not be insurmountable. Money talks, and a third team in the Big Apple would grow the pot enormously, to everyone’s benefit–eventually, if not right away.
And the simple truth is this: If you’re going to add more teams to MLB, a third New York team would actually be the safest bet for a success. There are a few fringe teams out there right now–the A’s, the Rays, the Marlins–that could easily be candidates for contraction rather than the beneficiaries of expansion. Those teams haven’t been moving anywhere because all currently unoccupied markets have big question marks hanging over them.
Not so New York. It’s a city that has problems, but it has an insatiable appetite for sports, and the owners of the local clubs are always printing money. There are too many upsides and no insurmountable downsides: if expansion comes again, one of those new clubs should make Manhattan its home.