Months of dread gave way to despair for South Bronx small businesses Tuesday night, when Major League Baseball announced that the start of the baseball season will be delayed, after failing to resolve a year-long labor dispute by management’s self-imposed deadline.
Players in the league have been locked out by team owners since their collective bargaining agreement expired on Dec. 2, and MLB Spring training has been postponed since Feb. 14.
Like many businesses in the area, Ty Robinson orients the schedule of his bar The Dugout, on River Avenue, around the league’s schedule, opening only on days where the Bronx Bombers play home games.
With many fans away for most of the last two years because of the pandemic, Robinson is unsure of what the future holds for the business he’s grown over the past 18 years.
“I’m in the fight of my life right now,” the 57-year-old said. He was already struggling to pay the restaurant’s rent over the last year and fighting off an eviction case from the building’s owner. Robinson was counting on a regular season — and a return of pre-pandemic crowds — to take him out of the red, he said.
For months, the 161st Street Business Improvement District, which represents many bars, restaurants and souvenir shops around Yankee Stadium, has made direct appeals to the MLB and the Yankees to reach a deal with the MLB Players’ Association, the union representing players, and put an end to the second-longest lockout in the league’s history, and the first in 27 years.
“New York is recovering from two years of COVID and cannot afford to lose any part of this upcoming season,” BID Executive Director Cary Goodman said in an open letter to Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner on Tuesday.
“Our souvenir shops, sports bars and eateries are ready to join with you in rooting for our home team. Our businesses have suffered enormous economic damage in the last two seasons. Many cannot survive a third year of uncertainty,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the Yankees did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Some of Us Are Just Not Going to Make It’
Tuesday’s announcement by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred follows the collapse of negotiations between the league and the union representing the players. It was the sport’s first work stoppage in nearly 30 years, since a lockout escalated to a strike that canceled the 1994 season and delayed the next.
Talks began last April to forge a new collective bargaining agreement for the player’s union, with management and the athletes disagreeing on key issues, from player minimum salaries to the size of a bonus pool for players before they’re eligible for salary arbitration, and new restraints on what teams spend on salaries, NPR reported.
If talks resume soon and the owners and players agree on a new contract, the Yankees are scheduled to play their first home game on April 7 against the rival Boston Red Sox.
In the meantime local business owners are uncertain for their future. Yosef Abbadi, who manages Ballpark Sport Shop on River Avenue, noted that stadiums were closed to fans in 2020, and didn’t open up to full capacity in the 2021 season until July 1.
“I’m in no position to say how the players should feel and what they are getting, but I know players are like employees, and they have the right to get what they deserve,” Abbadi said. Ballplayers, he added, “are the ones that’s filling [teamowners’] pockets and without the players, these owners and the commissioner are nothing — and without the fans, we’re nothing, because our business is from the fans.”
Abbadi, whose business was previously threatened by a scrapped 2019 merchandising deal with Nike that excluded local souvenir shops, urged the league to reach a deal with the player’s union — and not just because of his business interests.
“I’m a baseball fan. I want to enjoy that too, and the MLB is taking that away from us,” he said.
Robinson urged the MLB to consider the lockout’s effects beyond the ballfield, noting that “90%” of The Dugout’s revenue comes from home game crowds.
“I would like to request — maybe do a walkthrough of the neighborhood and talk to people in the neighborhood to see how the stadium not being open affects so many in the neighborhood by these games not taking place,” he said.
Robinson and Goodman noted that The Dugout is the area’s only Black-owned business.
“Those of us that are seasonal, some of us are just not going to make it,” Robinson said.
Around the corner from The Dugout is Yankee Tavern, a restaurant and bar that opened its doors in 1927 and attracted the likes of Babe Ruth.
Though today it operates year-round, serving hungry fans as well as visitors to the courthouse two blocks over on Grand Concourse, owner Joe Bestone said the “heart of our businesses is the Yankee crowd.”
As a restaurant, he said “We are the one that services the employees more than anyone else, but again — there’s no one here. It’s devastating the area.”
Bestone, 67, said the business is still reeling from the pandemic, which made them lose close to $1,000 a week in revenue, he said, despite his efforts to cut costs and reduce staff. He said he only has eight people on payroll right now, half the size of his usual crew.
“That’s eight people out of work right now… It really is a ripple down effect,” he said. “It’s really, really tough. We’re struggling to stay open, we’re not making money, we’re losing money. I’m still losing money.”
Balls in the Air
Also uncertain is the future of hospitality workers at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, whose seasonal employment is also in the balance.
UNITE HERE Local 100, which represents workers at both stadiums, did not respond to a request for comment about the lockout.
In a statement in January, the national union — which represents workers in 21 ballparks — said it stood by the Major League Baseball Player’s Association and its fight for a new contract.
“Our industries may differ, but our fight for a level playing field between owners and the workers that generate the owners’ wealth is the same. Team owners are billionaires not unlike the companies that we take on, too,” the statement read.
Also weighing on The Bronx is the uncertain fate of a proposed arena next to Yankee Stadium for the NYCFC soccer team, a venture involving the Yankees and City Football Group, which is controlled by Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahan of Abu Dhabi.
Last year, the Yankees and city Economic Development Corporation reached a deadlock over 5,000 parking spaces the Yankees say they’re due. The project would also require buying and relocating an elevator parts factory on East 153rd Street.
Yankees President Randy Levine declared the project dead last summer — but after NYCFC won its first Major League Soccer championship in December, then Mayor-elect Eric Adams said his administration would “re-engage” discussions for the new soccer stadium.
City records show that a lobbyist for NYCFC interacted with Adams last fall in his capacity as Brooklyn borough president, to discuss “determination regarding real property” and “issues relating to a proposed sports facility for professional soccer.”
A spokesperson for Adams did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.