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Idealists, Realists & Demagogues

“Josh. What are you doing?”

“I don't know. What are you doing?”

“Protecting oil companies from litigation. They're our client. They don't lose legal protection because they make a lot of money.”

“I can't believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that.”

—Sam and Josh, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” The West Wing

When my mother wanted to hurl an insult my way, she'd call me an idealist. It came out when I expressed an opinion or conducted an action that didn't fit with her world view. By definition, an idealist isn't practical. The nerve of me, in my late teens and early twenties, for not having it all figured out according to somebody else's standards.

I've never considered myself all that idealistic. In theory maybe. Otherwise, I've just thought what I've thought and done what I've done. Sometimes it appears idealistic. Perhaps from being browbeaten for alleged idealism, I more often instinctively followed the pragmatic road to realism. I'm generally more realistic than idealistic. I try to see the big picture and operate within that framework. I'm not a dreamer. A close friend, concerned by my lack of concrete goals, once fretted that my problem was I didn't have any dreams. The “idealist” charge, wielded as epithet, probably tempered the dreamer in me.

The realist-idealist dynamic came to mind with the ongoing flap over the name of the Mets' new ballpark. Two years ago, when it was announced [1] we would be watching our team play in a structure called Citi Field, I balanced my reflex antipathy toward the sale of such corporate naming rights with my awareness [2] that almost no stadium's identity is not put up for highest bidder. My conclusion [3] was Citi Field was all right:

Listen, I advocated going for top dollar and avoiding utter embarrassment if possible. The Mets seem to have achieved the first part, and while the second part is a matter of taste, Citi Field — albeit a little generic to the point of fictional and rather resonant of a minor league facility in Islip — isn't a total disaster. As Mets fans, we've conditioned ourselves to treat noncalamities as moral victories. Score one for us.

Quite the rallying cry, eh?

Citi Field is already a part of our Met lexicon even though the Home Opener in its corporate confines is a little less than nineteen weeks from now. Even as we've intermittently debated the merits and potentials of our unborn ballpark, we have thrown the Citi name around as a matter of course, just as those who signed on the dotted line had hoped. For two years, it's been “Citi Field this” and “Citi Field that,” whatever the context. The branding was in full swing and, until last month, it probably represented invaluable word-of-mouth advertising. Now…not so much.

When the Mets partnered with Citi in November 2006, it sure looked all good on paper. The Mets were going to get their not inconsiderable sum of $400 million over 20 years while Citi was going to receive whatever benefit companies believe is en route when their names are plastered all over sports facilities. Despite having lived through the mishegas of Enron and other magically disappearing stadia signage, you couldn't ask for a more solid bet than Citigroup in terms of continuity (been around in some form since 1812); locality (two Citi towers in two boroughs in plain sight along the 7 line); fluidity (despite some “rhymes with…” issues, it beat Jason's predicted [4] Federated First Union Bankshares Field, to say nothing of Petco Park); liquidity (big, big company) and image. I don't know that Citi had the best or highest profile, but they didn't have, to the best of my knowledge, an evident Enron problem lurking.

Not a pitch has been thrown at Citi Field, yet hoo-boy, have things changed. The long-term prospects for Citigroup and the Citi name are no better than that of any three Met relievers. Whatever regional cred they had has likely dissolved into the morass of however many of the 52,000 jobs being lost come from the New York area (52,000 — why, that's more people than you could fit inside Citi Field). And as far as image, it's going to take a lot more than $20 billion in cash and $306 billion in assumed assets to bail out Citi's PR.

This is reality. And it's not ideal. Not by a long shot. Not ideal seems to be the going rate for much of reality these days. I am not equipped to explain it or analyze it. Hide under the bed from it is the best I can come up with.

The baseball end of things, admittedly not a patch on the Francesalike fanny of the economic crisis, should be examined within the parameters of its own foul lines, and there it is tempting to see the ideal coming into view if you squint hard enough: Having been visited by the Ghost of Naming Rights Yet to Come, one Wilpon or another snaps awake, realizes what a folly Citi Field is and pastes over those wretched salute-to-Domino's [5] logos with the finest four-letter word this side of Mets…


Fat chance, we were told Tuesday [6], but it's nice to dream, says the man who doesn't much bother with such frivolities.

Ideally, Citigroup; a slew of other gigantic corporations; the regular folks who work for them and are impacted by the lot of them; and the whole darn country aren't in a mess of massive making, either, but let's stick to baseball. It would be ideal if William A. Shea would continue to be honored, seeing as how he is no less responsible for securing us our franchise now than he was in 1964. It really would be better. We wouldn't have to wait for the inevitable next knife to drop. We wouldn't be gritting our teeth and rolling our eyes in anticipation of Citi being called something else down the road. We wouldn't feel so used. We wouldn't be reminded countless times in 2009 not just that corporate naming rights never really feel right but that this corporation's name feels really misplaced in light of what it came to represent in the fall of 2008.

And yet I can't really commit to that seemingly ideal vision, as much as I'd kind of like to join the torch and pitchfork brigade. Perhaps it's because I'm in no mood to align myself with those who have demagogued the Citi-Mets issue. Politicians [7] (surprise!) have done it [8]. Hack [9] columnists and worse [10] have done it, using the bailout as an excuse to dump all sorts of unrelated nonsense on their favorite blue and orange targets. Even those media members for whom I have enormous respect [11] have brushed up against the easy answer of assigning villainy and sticking out tongues. Vile corporate bastards! Venal baseball business! Vengeance be ours! And your bullpen sucks, too!

It's not that simple [12], it really isn't. It's also not fair to the principals, as unsympathetic as they come off at every turn. Whatever role Citigroup played its own near-demise, the matter of $20 million a year to name the Mets' ballpark for 20 years isn't at the crux of its ills. A $20 million commitment for, say, 2017, has very little (or less) to do with hundreds of billions gone awry. Marketing expenses, whatever you think of the efficacy of ballpark-naming as a business-building exercise, are legitimate expenses. You and I, at our federal government's behest, are literally supporting Citigroup with the idea that they will stay on their feet so as to prevent widespread fiscal calamity. Marketing's a part of that, a part of what every company does. I don't know how you quantify the impact of this kind of sports facility marketing, but there must be a little something to it since so many companies have invested in it and so many franchises continue to jump on board.

I'd redirect the $20 million due the Mets for 2009 to save 52,000 jobs if it worked that way. I don't get the sense that it does. Among other moves, Citigroup is selling its German unit and is cutting back on investment banking (another big surprise). “Don't sponsor the ballpark” is not going to reverse those kinds of presumably necessary strategic decisions [13] or bring those particular jobs back. Citigroup's annual operating costs are supposed to be reduced — reduced — to $50 billion after all its cuts. If we were to have them not pay the Mets for Citi Field next year, then it would be $49.980 billion. A couple of business writers have used the rather cavalier term “a drop in the bucket” to describe the company's baseball obligation. Easy to drop that in a bucket if you've got it, which I'm guessing nobody reading this does on his or her person. But $20 million is 0.0004% 0.004% of $50 billion. A drop in the bucket?

Yeah, basically.

Twenty million dollars in the eyes of the Mets, on the other hand, is not a drop in the bucket. That's a Cy Young winner on the mound, or at least the money freed up to pay one because the debt service on the ballpark has a going source of cash. The Mets are counting on that $20 million. The Mets and Citigroup have a deal.

Is it ironclad? I haven't seen the contract and I'm not a lawyer, so how the hell should I know? But why the hell would the Mets not want to get paid? They've set up their whole business model in order to get paid. Sometimes the intersection of the Mets and money is plainly obnoxious, and as fans we feel it directly (which will feel like a discretionary drop in the bucket once all these bailouts come due), but can you blame the Mets for not wanting to rip up the Citi Field contract? If somebody said I'd be getting an enormous sum of money in return for promotional considerations, I'd want the money. We all would.

This is not the moment in time when you want to be promoting a ballpark named Citi Field, that's for sure. The Mets will have to decide (if market forces don't do it for them) whether it will always be the wrong moment for promoting a ballpark with that name. The First National City Bank of New York, Citigroup's progenitor, dates to 1812. They weren't supposed to be Enron or any of the other now-ya-see-'em/now-ya-don't propositions that got into stadia and arenas. They were supposed to be solid. Nearly two centuries of brand equity and marketplace goodwill was supposed to have legs.

Might all the brand equity and all the goodwill have gone the way of those 52,000 jobs? Could be. Could very well be. At this moment in time, it ain't there. But is that the forever answer? Forever is a long time. Is this a passing public relations storm or a low-hanging, unpuffy, uncumulus cloud that will never lift?

I don't know. No one does. Apparently the Mets don't think so, or don't want to think so. If it were a one-year deal, I imagine some smart lawyer would have undone this pact. It's for 20 years with a 200-year-old enterprise. The principals, particularly the Mets — the principal with everything to lose in flying the Citi banner — are banking (if you will) on the long term being more forgiving that it would appear presently. Should Citi become less a sponsor than a stain on the Mets brand, one imagines a squadron of skilled attorneys will be dispatched to deCitify every sign in sight.

Given that we have sadly passed the age when we name no more than a showy rotunda for a great human being, an extrication from Citigroup would merely open the gates to another alliance with another corporation. The most relevant commentary I've read regarding the Mets' position comes from Darren Rovell of CNBC [14], who wrote, in the wake of the bailout, “No other company, in this environment, would give them $20 million a year. I don't even think they could get $12 million at this point, to be frank.” Twelve-mil is better than no-mil from a financial (if not spiritual) standpoint, but it's not in the same ballpark as twenty-mil. The contract calls for twenty-mil. If the Mets are willing to withstand the current undeniably lousy publicity, then they stand to collect.

It's a screwed-up triangle among the Mets, Citi and the taxpayers, to be certain; not a few teams [15] find themselves under the TARP of this kind of awkward three-way arrangement. Taxpayers are bailing out to one extent or another the rights holders of Chase Field, PNC Park and Comerica Park. Not a lot of hands are clean, not even at pristinely dubbed Yankee Stadium (major corporate partner on deck: TARPed up Bank of America). Leave it to the Mets to become the quick and convenient symbol for all that's wrong in this realm.

(Of course it might be helpful to their cause if ownership would refrain from offering baffling soundbites [16] like, “It's not really Citi's fault they're in this problem,” when it's clear 52,000 jobs didn't mysteriously eliminate themselves by some random act of mondo attrition [17].)

Maybe this is the weapons of mass distraction shooting irrelevancies at their deadliest, but if the money's flying around in unconscionable sums and it's going to land at the turnstiles of privately held baseball clubs, well, damn it, let my baseball club get the share it signed for, and let them remain competitive. Playing in a park named for a bank, as has been amply demonstrated at the confluence [18] of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, is no foolproof recipe for on-field success. But that's Pittsburgh. This is New York. These are the Mets. We've seen them fall achingly short with a big payroll. We've seen them come not remotely close with a lesser one. There won't be enough seats and the prices will be too high for those there are in that vanity plate of a venue rising in what used to be the parking lot, but from wherever I follow them as long as Citi Field stands, I'm going to want its team-in-residence to play well and contend. Taxpayers were stuck with the bill for the previous stadium as a matter of course. We get stuck again for some unforeseen aspect of the coming attraction?

So what else is new?

They held another media tour of Citi Field Tuesday, the first since the grass was planted. It's shaping up as a very pretty park from the pictures [19] I've seen. Staring at them and reading all about it [20] whets my appetite for baseball and certainly stokes my curiosity. I'm convinced it will be fresher than its predecessor; it can't help but run smoother. I'm not convinced that will make it extraordinary, which is what I want it to be versus what else has been built, but that's something that cannot be judged without some innings shared between me and it. Right now, frankly, the photographs sadden me more than they excite me. It looks like some place from somewhere else. It doesn't look like where the Mets play, at least not as I've always understood it. Perhaps the Mets need to actually play there to rectify that particular perceived liability.

It would be ideal if Citi Field lives up to its overwrought World-Class billing and feels like home immediately. But like I said, I don't get too terribly hung up on what's ideal versus what's really going on.


Good and comprehensive article (minus the demagoguery) on Mets-Citi by Richard Sandomir in Thursday's Times here [21].