A report that bailout-begging Citigroup wants out of its $400 million naming-rights deal for the New York Mets’ new ballpark is a chance for the team to finally do the right thing: name the stadium after Jackie Robinson.
Robinson, of course, never played for the Mets. But he broke baseball’s insidious color barrier nearly 62 years ago, tearing up the base paths for the team’s spiritual and local National League predecessors, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was much more than just a New York sports story: Robinson, with his on-the-field determination and off-the-field dignity amid threats and venom spewed by fools, struck a blow for fair play and civil rights. He blazed a trail that arguably helped make way for Barack Obama’s journey to the White House six decades later.
Citigroup, meanwhile, has received $45 billion in taxpayer bailout funds, spurring calls by some lawmakers to scrap the expensive naming-rights deal.
No one is rooting for Citigroup to fail. But amid tough times, the company shouldn’t be spending $400 million on a stadium name – Citi Field – that’s already been mocked by fans for its corporate sound and its unfortunate rhyming possibilities.
Besides, whatever happened to the notion that baseball stadium names should have something to do with baseball?
George Steinbrenner has the biggest payroll in the game – but his new ballpark is named Yankee Stadium, same as the old one. Not every team owner has the same sense of tradition, as evidenced in stadiums with names like Citizens Bank Park, PETCO Park and PNC Park.
There are two ballfields named after orange juice – Tropicana Park and Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field, but that’s another story) – but no major league stadium named for perhaps the game’s most influential and revered figure.
The Mets, naturally, want the $20 million a year over 20 years, which isn’t quite enough to float ace Johan Santana’s annual salary. As word of The Wall Street Journal’s report about Citigroup spread Tuesday, the team released a statement saying the “legally binding agreement” was intact.
Previous pleas on Robinson’s behalf – including separate pitches made in 1997 by the late, great Newsday columnist Dennis Duggan and this writer, as well as a more recent New York Post campaign – didn’t play well with Mets brass. But team officials at least included the Jackie Robinson Rotunda in the new ballpark, which is modeled after the Dodgers’ old Ebbets Field.
There are just over two months until the new stadium’s scheduled April 13 debut. Citigroup’s problems aren’t going to disappear anytime soon – and neither should the pressure to ditch the naming deal.
It’s a fight against the odds, but Robinson never let odds stand in his way. So fans, let your voices be heard, and demand that the Mets give us Jackie Robinson Field -- the most fitting way for the pioneering ballplayer's legacy to live on in the city where he helped change our world.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.