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April 21, 2004

Can Of Corn

D.C. Caves In

by Dayn Perry

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Although it garnered little attention from the fourth estate, commissioner Bud Selig has promised that MLB will decide this summer on a permanent home for the league's uneaten marshmallow peep, the Montreal Expos. Relocation will at last put an end to the farcically conflicted arrangement we have presently, one that involves the 29 owners providing haphazard oversight for a competing franchise. The cynic in me (and that inner cynic has been highly cultivated during the Selig administration) says that MLB's blatant foot-dragging on this issue has been an effort to put the screws on competing locales to ramp up the corporate welfare that's an indelible part of the stadium boom in baseball. If that was the case, then league honchos may commence slapping backs and sharing cigars.

Washington, D.C. officials have unveiled a plan to provide the Expos with a $340-million, baseball-only stadium entirely at the expense of taxpayers. That D.C. so gleefully welcomed MLB to the public trough and that the Expos will eventually land within the Beltway is about as surprising as when Detective O'McBrubakerohannally, who just mentioned to his partner and to regular viewers of "Badge of Dignity" that he's two weeks from his pension, takes a fatal bullet on that routine summons-service detail.

D.C.'s hefty population base and high levels of discretionary income aside, this has always been about who would offer MLB the most subsidies. To that end, D.C. has the advantage. Washington, since it's not a part of a county, isn't required to subject bond offerings--a likely vehicle for stadium financing--to public referenda. (Northern Virginia, for instance, must dirty its hands with the democratic process, which makes it a far less likely destination.) So long as the D.C. city council countenances them, it's a go. As presently conceived, the financing package would draw its dollars from business taxes and taxes levied on tickets, parking, concessions merchandise and other stadium-related booty. So while a bond offering doesn't appear to be in the immediate offing, let's see what happens once the inevitable stadium cost overruns show up.

It also appears that the city won't have its druthers on stadium location. City officials would like a downtown ballpark, but, perish the thought, the prospective ownership group would then be required to cough up some dollars of its own. That, in the words of ownership point man Fred Malek, is not what MLB wants: League officials are insisting that a stadium be built without any contribution from the new team owners.

(If you're not acquainted with Malek's interesting and relevant back-story, you should be. He was a member of President Nixon's infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President, but avoided prosecution in the Watergate Scandal. Years later, as the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Malek was forced to resign after it came to light that he once put together, at the behest of Nixon, a list of Jews working for the Bureau of Labor and Statistics--the "Jewish cabal" that Nixon often fretted over. Malek would later cut his baseball teeth as co-owner of the Texas Rangers alongside George W. Bush and others.)

No matter your political leanings, this wanton example of corporate entitlement should rankle you. Conservatives should want those dollars to remain in the pockets of citizens; liberals should want those dollars spent on essential services and improved social programs. In short, we should all be able to agree that spending public money on baseball stadiums (the economic benefits of which consist mostly of purveying a modest amount of low-wage, seasonal employment) is a bad idea. Chalk another one up to the gaping disconnect between what politicians do and what people want them to do.

Another consideration, and point in D.C.'s favor, is that Selig may view the relocation of a team to the Beltway as a palliative for lawmakers who might otherwise threaten to yank baseball's anti-trust exemption the next time there's grievous labor strife within the industry, just as they did last time. It's no coincidence that MLB spends more money lobbying Congress than all other U.S. professional sports leagues combined. And although Baltimore owner Peter Angelos has played the good soldier throughout recent history, don't be surprised if his bleatings of territorial rights are ignored in part because he was the lone owner to oppose the use of replacement players a decade ago.

All of this neglects a more fundamental problem: the orchestrated neglect of baseball fans in Montreal. Montreal is now frequently pilloried as a "bad baseball town"; Expos tickets are as in demand in Quebec as a pirated download of the Patch Adams soundtrack. But that's the predictable upshot when you consider the litany of affronts to the fans of Montreal: Your team's erstwhile owner doesn't negotiate an English-language television contract or a radio deal and allows a lease on downtown stadium land to expire; your team is threatened with contraction; your team, a nominal contender in 2003, is ordered to play one quarter of its home games in Puerto Rico; your GM non-tenders the best player in franchise history; plus scores of other offenses from years earlier, some dating back to the days of former owner Charles Bronfman. And there you have a self-created attendance problem made to order.

If you're a fan of one of the teams that hasn't or has no plans to indulge in the recent stadium-construction binge, you should probably be worried. If MLB and a pliant owner can systematically disembowel the Expos in order to leverage a publicly financed ballpark in another city, they can do it to your team, too. If this game weren't such blessed perfection on the field, I'd likely wash my hands of it.

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