COMPARED with George Steinbrenner, Walter O'Malley was Mr. Nice Guy.
O'Malley was widely regarded as the most hated man in Brooklyn because he answered the call of greed in 1957 and took his Dodgers west to Los Angeles.
Rainouts and subway platforms suddenly belonged to the past. To get to a game in Los Angeles, you drove past palm trees in your convertible. O'Malley, already rich, went on to become the most powerful owner in baseball.
The move by the Dodgers to the West Coast (with the hapless Giants hitching a ride to San Francisco) generated such passion and so many legends that we have tended to forget that O'Malley's first choice was to stay in Brooklyn. He wanted to build a new stadium for the Dodgers at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
Among his antagonists was Robert Moses, who complained that the proposed stadium would choke the area with traffic. Moses suggested Flushing Meadows. The rotund, cigar-smoking O'Malley suggested that the equipment man start packing everybody's bags. Local and state politicians stumbled and fumbled among themselves and then one autumn morning the city woke up and the Dodgers and Giants were gone.
Now we have Mr. Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees.
Mr. Steinbrenner, fresh from an enforced vacation from baseball, is already putting the big squeeze on the City of New York.
Like O'Malley with the Dodgers in 1957, Mr. Steinbrenner has a fabulously successful franchise. But he wants more. He needs more parking, he says. He wants a new Metro-North train station for fans coming in from the suburbs. He wants the garbage and the litter in the area around Yankee Stadium in the Bronx cleaned up. He wants traffic around the stadium unclogged. And he wants something done about the perception of Yankee fans that the Bronx is dangerous.
Mr. Steinbrenner, who already has a sweetheart lease arrangement for the stadium, will get most of what he wants. The city and state are already working on it. But if you talk to his friends you will find out what Mr. Steinbrenner really wants. He wants out of the Bronx.
This has New York public officials terrified. They are afraid that Mr. Steinbrenner will move his team to the semi-lush pastures of the Meadowlands in New Jersey and they (the public officials) will forever be remembered as the bozos who lost the Yankees.
"Our first objective is to keep him in Yankee Stadium," says Gov. Mario Cuomo, who is up for re-election next year. "But we need a backup position."
The governor's proposed backup is a brand new stadium that would be built over a railroad storage yard on the West Side of Manhattan. He is pushing this idea, which would cost from $500 million to $1 billion, or perhaps more. It would be interesting to see how that money would be raised in a city and state that have trouble paying their existing bills.
"This is clearly blackmail," said Fernando Ferrer, borough president of the Bronx.
Nevertheless, things are moving on several fronts. While Governor Cuomo continues to talk up a West Side stadium, Mr. Ferrer and other officials are going ahead with existing plans to redevelop the South Bronx neighborhood around Yankee Stadium. And city officials (mindful that Mayor David Dinkins is up for re-election this year) are putting the final touches on a new Yankee Stadium parking plan.
There is a frantic quality to the activity. And in all the excitement, some things are being overlooked.
Unlike Walter O'Malley, who was openly courted by Los Angeles, George Steinbrenner does not have an offer to move his team to New Jersey or anywhere else. New Jersey is struggling financially and voters rejected a 1987 bond issue to build a baseball stadium. All the talk about New Jersey desperately trying to lure Mr. Steinbrenner out of the Bronx comes, directly or indirectly, from Mr. Steinbrenner.
It would be horrible if New York were to lose the Yankees. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind when you're in a high-stakes poker game: Don't gamble money you don't have. And don't sit at the table in a panic.
Sometimes you have to call your opponent's bluff.
Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.