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Don't call it a sellout – because it wasn't

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – The sellout kerfuffle started at 10:17 p.m. The New York Yankees announced the attendance for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series – 49,688 – but didn't call it a sellout, as is standard practice. Someone tweeted that it wasn't a sellout. And so came the observation: Bernie Madoff must've had just as many Yankees fans as clients as he did Mets fans.

The team later amended its announcement, insisting that it had sold all of the available tickets, even if its own official Web site notes that total capacity at new Yankee Stadium is 52,325. That wasn't the point. The mere possibility of an ALCS game in New York taking place in front of empty seats was almost too peculiar to consider.

Welcome to the new Yankee world, brought on by Yankee Stadium v2.0, the $1.5 billion jewel that has scared the middle class away from the Bronx. It's a shame, too. Those fortunate enough to have hundreds of spare dollars lying around reveled in a brilliant CC Sabathia(notes) performance in the Yankees' 4-1 victory against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday night. They saw Mariano Rivera(notes) notch a save, Hideki Matsui(notes) drive in a pair of runs and Alex Rodriguez(notes) acquit himself well in another postseason game.

They witnessed the best team in baseball – and the most exclusive.

Why tickets remained the morning of the game was a question no one could answer. It was the Yankees' first ALCS home game since 2004. In the country's biggest city. With the largest and most passionate fan base. Not on a school or work night. Showcasing perhaps the best Yankees team this decade.

The players blamed the weather. Yes, it was cold: 45 degrees. Which is 19 degrees warmer than it was in Denver toward the end of Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Phillies and Rockies. Who, by the way, sold out their 50,109 tickets nearly a week before the game.

The weather is easy subterfuge for a difficult reality: The Yankees, the franchise with everything, killed the Golden Goose.

When they opened the stadium April 16, the Yankees were charging $2,625 for their Legends Seats. This was ridiculous even in boom times. After the stock market crashed and brokers no longer could receive freebie tickets, it was simply stupid. So the Yankees cut the prices in half – and they still didn't sell.

Even with cheap bleacher seats, the message was obvious to every proletariat Yankees fan: The new stadium was the domain of kings, and peasants need not bother. While the Yankees sold out only seven games – the opener and six against Boston – the chances of a postseason game beneath capacity seemed impossible. Yankees playoff tickets used to be tougher gets than the hottest Broadway show.

"It'll be packed up tomorrow," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher(notes) said.

Actually, at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, the day of Game 2, tickets were available. Lots of tickets. Not just ones from scalpers or secondary-market sources, either. Tickets on the Yankees' official site, sold through its official gouger (Ticketmaster), from the cheap seats to the holy-bleep seats.

For those who care to pair their ballgame with champagne, untaken were Section 25, Row 5, Seats 9 and 10. The price: $1,406 apiece. Plus the $7 convenience charge, of course, because taking an extra $7 is such a convenience.

That the second-priciest tickets in the stadium weren't gobbled up isn't earth-shattering. They're in the Legends section, where empty chairs dotted television broadcasts all year. The scene was always embarrassing: Sabathia, their $161 million pitcher, throwing to a catcher in front of a bunch of unfilled seats.

Scarier was that a pair of $101 tickets in Section 312, Row 4 was available Saturday. They're excellent seats, at the cut of the outfield grass, near the edge of an upper deck that offers a sweeping view of the field. They are reasonable, ones that don't cost a month's rent, the sort that average Yankees fans could treat themselves to without getting their electricity shut off.

Only those average Yankees fans are now conditioned to believe they can't afford a ticket. They may be on the hook for $850 million in taxpayer money used to fund the stadium – and the team's clubhouse with six flat-screen TVs and personal computers for every player and frosted glass dividers between lockers and a replica of the stadium's frieze bathed in blue lights – but the privilege of seeing them in person?

Not anymore.

"I don't know," Swisher said. "You're going to have to talk to everyone else. I haven't been here long enough."

Here's a history lesson then: In 1995, the year before their four-championship dynasty started, the Yankees drew 23,521 per game. By the time they closed old Yankee Stadium in 2008, the average attendance had doubled to 53,069. It dropped this year to 45,918, and for the first time since 2002, the Yankees didn't lead Major League Baseball in attendance.

Perhaps, then, Rivera – who has been here 15 years, which is long enough to understand – can confirm that, yes, the Yankees priced their blue-collar fans out of the regular season, not to mention October.

"I'm not the right man to answer that kind of question," Rivera said. "I'm a worker. I'm not the one who makes prices. I want every fan of New York to come – to be able to come – and enjoy the game."

Everyone wants that. The Yankees shouldn't be an exclusive club to which access comes through money. They are a public trust, a religion, an addiction. Even the fans the team alienates can't give it up. So they watch on TVs and in bars and celebrate nights like Friday, when the greedy owners in the ridiculous stadium with the bourgeois fans shivered through what may or may not have been a sellout.

The new Yankee world feels the same as the old Yankee world in only one way: They won.