Shame of the Yankees

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Despite the four championships in six years, the likeable and talented roster, the tradition, the pride — being a Yankee fan isn't as easy as it sounds. I'm always hearing it from small-minded fans of small-market teams who whine about the team's gargantuan payroll and imported superstars, how these days the Bronx Bombers are more like some evil multinational corporation out of "Erin Brockovich" than a baseball team.

Suddenly, as the standoff between the YES Network and Cablevision takes yet another twist, I'm starting to sympathize.

No, it's not that 25 games into the 2002 campaign, some 3 million local Cablevision customers are still unable to tune into the vast majority of this season's games. If the largely team-owned YES wants to charge $2 per subscriber per month for a property it owns, and Cablevision doesn't want to pay, well, that's their business, and business is business. It's a shame about the fans, but I don't see anything about televised baseball in the Bill of Rights.

But Monday, as the Yanks got ready to take on the Oakland A's in an honorable contest in front of the home fans, their owners did something truly shameful.

They sued.

"I'd prayed this day would never come," began YES CEO Leo Hindery with typical bluster, "but it is now obvious that Cablevision, which has a history of anticompetitive behavior, hopes to run YES out of business and restore and protect its own stranglehold over local sports." The network went on to inform reporters that it was charging Cablevision with violating both the Sherman and Clayton antitrust acts as well as FCC rules. And not only that, in a final Yankee irony, it was bringing in a high-priced free-agent to file the papers: David Boies, who wins a few (Justice v. Microsoft) and loses a few (Gore v. Bush) but is no doubt the Barry Bonds of this sort of ballgame.

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, litigation is the last refuge of businessmen who can't beat their competitors any other way. The Yankees are the richest, most successful team in the history of baseball. Their TV-rights allure is so lucrative that this year George Steinbrenner and his partners created their own network just to carry the games and cut out their middleman of 12 years (which just happened to be Cablevision-owned MSG Network). Antitrust suits may have a certain scrappy nobility about them when it's David v. Goliath. But this one is more like Microsoft v.

Besides, by the only measure that counts — money — they were winning this game already. Cablevision stock started sliding when the dispute began. It slid further as droves of customers end-ran around the company's local monopoly and signed up for satellite dishes that carried the games. It slid again when CEO Charles Dolan announced he'd be dishing out rebates to Yankee-deprived MSG viewers — and further still last week when he said those rebates would cost his company about $1.4 million a month retroactive to January. And Monday's lawsuit? Cablevision, welcome to your 52-week low.

Yes, YES is losing money too — about $72 million in lost tributes from Cablevision, and more in advertising revenues, thanks to the network having about 3 million less viewers than originally planned. But Hindery told CNNfn last month that the network was breaking even despite the stalemate — not bad for a front operation whose primary purpose is to stow the team's TV money in a safe place in case the revenue sharers take over baseball.

I know, I know. This lawsuit is just another stick to get Cablevision to break down and accept YES' terms. And even putting aside the fact that YES is undeniably a hard-bargaining monopoly of its own, a high-priced slugger like Boies might even pull it off. But this suit is one game the Yankees — if they still have any pride — may not want to win. Let's follow the logic: Cablevision's supposed "stranglehold over local sports" must now depend on its MSG network. And MSG only has one other local baseball team to offer Cablevision customers.

That's right. The Yankees aren't just suing over a simple no-thanks to a straightforward business proposal. They're not just giving into fear, a baseball team sinking below the level even of businessmen, to that of lawyers. They're giving into fear of the Mets.

Oh, unhappy day.