May 16, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
Floridians Breathe Easy
In every city that has a major-league baseball team, there's a deep and complicated relationship between the team and the powers that be. A team offers the city visibility, and winning franchises offer reflected glory and a near-daily heartbeat during the season unlike any other business. Owners are among the city's most prominent public figures, beloved for their ability to bankroll local heroes, hated for their unwillingness to do so. Teams rely on local police for traffic direction and security; often the police rely on the teams to pick up their lucrative overtime. Then there's the transit authority, the symbiotic relationship with local press...all of these things make a baseball team's political leverage tremendous, and if you pay close attention, you can see it bend things to the team's wills, from road construction to a DUI charge that disappears quietly.
Stadium construction is where baseball spends its accumulated political capital freely, because getting a team a new publicly-funded stadium means tens of millions of dollars in pure profit for owners, at no cost. Baseball owners have traditionally twisted arms with threats of relocation, and almost always have gotten what they wanted. No team in recent history has relocated after the process of getting a new stadium has started. They may threaten to move, even during construction, but it's hasn't and it won't happen.
It's difficult enough to move any sports franchise. Fighting greedy owners trying to steal a local treasure is an easy political cause. It's not so hard to find sympathetic judges to grant restraining orders, to fight a long delaying battle to force a sale, and it's expensive for a team to buy its way out. You only have to look to San Diego, where a local well-funded nuisance managed to single-handedly hold up stadium construction for years, to see what kind of fun you can have with litigation. When Bud Selig bought and moved the Seattle Pilots, baseball got whacked in the head so hard they had to placate the rabid dogs with another expansion franchise.
Baseball won't do anything to a team with a stadium deal not only because it's hard, but because it would destroy their whole racket. The uneasy relationship between teams and their host cities is at its most strained when trying to get stadium deals done.
A brief hypothetical situation: it's 1991 and Jeff Smulyan owns the Mariners. The Washington State Legislature decides for no good reason to fund a brand new ballpark for the team. They float the bonds, start a new lotto game, put taxes on baby formula, kittens, and insulin. Construction starts, but the team gets impatient and moves to St. Petersburg anyway.
What would have happened? First, Jeff Smulyan and everyone he ever knew would have been sued into the ground by a vengeful and litigious opponent with an unlimited bankroll for prosecution of the fight, the great State of Washington. The mob would be led by a former state prosecutor who held baseball by the sack until they coughed up the Mariners: Senator Slate Gorton, a powerful, amazingly well-connected man with a memory for grudges and a mean streak that sent starving pit bulls scrambling away in fear. Smulyan would have been ruined, his troubled radio empire paralyzed by legislation, the team's finances so poisoned, weighed down in liens and summary judgments that it would likely have been impossible to take over. The Mariners would have been forced to return to Seattle to be picked up by local owners for pennies on the dollar.
Major League Baseball would be left without no credibility, no leverage. The little things would still get done, a product of being so important, but stadium deals, and new leases requiring credibility? No way, not for a while. None of the newest and best stadiums would have been built with public money for a couple years. There would have to have been local owners, huge up-front payments, massive penalties, to get anything significant done, including any substantial stadium improvements.
And worse, baseball would have been dealt a blow they couldn't recover from: states would know that if you were nasty and tenacious enough, you could beat the nation's only legal monopoly. That would have changed the starting point for debates. This is why I think baseball's not going to try anything in Florida. Florida has 25 electoral votes--not half of California's, but that's 25 members of Congress. When baseball threatened to contract and wouldn't name teams, even as people figured it was the Expos and Twins, Florida politicians were starting to line up to take shots at Bug Selig and taking the dusty law volumes off the shelves in their office to look up new and creative ways to screw him good before the next election.
This is why the Expos are screwed, and when we look at contraction candidates we should look at local political power above all things. If we want to look for serious contraction candidates, look for clubs that are getting tons of money from baseball's back-asswards revenue sharing plan, and don't have the political muscle of Florida--that is, in less-populous states. There are two: the Twins, if they don't get a stadium (took $19 million in sharing) and the Royals, who took $16 million. If Minnesota gets a stadium bill passed and the arbitrator doesn't (as is likely) rule against contraction as a concept, look for Selig to turn his attention a little south in America's heartland.
If a stadium gets funded, what Minnesota fans should be worried about isn't a continued threat of contraction or relocation. It's that the Twins will get a generous stadium funding package passed, ostensibly to make it easier for a new owner. Say, a modest $40-$100 million cost to the team, generous but almost standard lease terms (team sells naming rights, ads, maybe even gets to sub-let to other events). Prospective owners are turned away. Then Pohlad, having bled the region for years, never investing in the team, so close to Selig they share polyps, will retain the team.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.