Baseball's social contract

July 28, 1994|By Matt Bai

New York -- IT'S EASY for politicians to vilify Richard Kraft, the Yankees' former director of community reelations, who compared South Bronx children to "monkeys." It will be harder to solve the complicated problems between the team and the neighborhood, Mr. Kraft's resignation on Saturday not withstanding.

Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president, took advantage of Mr. Kraft's insensitive statement (which I reported recently in New York magazine) to give a boost to his political profile and mayoral aspirations. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told Mr. Ferrer to "calm down," contrasting his sober leadership style with Mr. Ferrer's volatility.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and some followers walked in circles outside the stadium for a few hours and claimed some kind of victory. But if Mr. Kraft's resignation is enough to satisfy Yankee fans and Bronx residents, the victory will be shallow.

Lost in all the posturing is the real problem in the South Bronx: the shredded social contract that once existed between a team and its community (when tickets were affordable and the players walked to work).

The Yankees have done almost nothing to include today's Bronx children in a baseball tradition that offered previous generations a sense of pride and identity. And Bronx residents treat Yankee Stadium as they would any exclusive country club, with contempt.

Mr. Kraft should be judged not just on what he said but on what he has done for community relations. He and his colleagues throughout baseball have hidden behind stadium walls while cities around them crumbled and urban fans turned away.

The disregard has not been lost on the South Bronx. I visited a Boy's Club in the Morrisania section, where 50 teen-agers come every afternoon. Contrary to what the Mets star Bobby Bonilla, a Bronx native, told reporters last week -- that Bronx children worship the Yankees and their first baseman, Don Mattingly -- the vast majority of these children said they preferred basketball, and that Mr. Mattingly was the only Yankee they could even name. More than half of them had never been to the stadium.

The city is right to try and keep the Yankees here; for decades, Bronxites kept faith in the team, win or lose, and now it's time for the team to pay them back. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' owner, knows the neighborhood isn't dangerous for fans and that attendance will rise when he stops saying it is. But it would be pointless for the team to sign a new lease if it is not willing to settle on a new contract with the neighborhood.

The Yankees can start by opening the left-field bleachers, which are usually empty, to neighborhood children at discount prices. They can make an annual contribution to improving the deteriorating Macombs Dam Park across the street. They can reach out to local schools whose baseball teams are strapped for equipment.

Most important, their millionaire players can start giving something back. Last week Mr. Bonilla (who isn't even a Yankee) offered team officials a tour of the borough. Great idea. Too bad it took Mr. Kraft's comments for players and management to even think about venturing into the neighborhood.

In exchange, Bronx residents and officials have to take responsibility for rampant vandalism that encourages a bunker mentality in the stadium, even if it means painting over graffiti and making repairs outside the stadium themselves. A contract, after all, binds both parties.

Surely the Yankees and the community can focus on deeds, not words. Maybe then Richard Kraft will not have resigned in vain.

Matt Bai writes from New York City.

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