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May 4, 2005

It Happens Every Spring

Chasing Ballparks in Minnesota and Florida

by Neil deMause

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To give you some sense of how long Twins owner Carl Pohlad has been trying to get the people of Minnesota to build him a new stadium, consider this: During his very first stadium campaign, the Twins ran TV commercials extorting...pardon me, extolling...the benefits of pumping public money into a new stadium, among which was the certainty that without a replacement for the Metrodome, the team would not be long for Minnesota. In one of these, the camera lingered on a young boy in a local hospital, being paid a bedside visit from the Twins' young outfield star.

"If the Twins leave Minnesota," intoned the voiceover, "an eight-year-old from Willmar undergoing chemotherapy will never get a visit from Marty Cordova."

The ad turned out about as well as Cordova's career. The eight-year-old, it turned out, had already died by the time it aired, testing the limits of "there's no such thing as bad publicity." Shortly thereafter, Minneapolis residents voted by a more than two-to-one margin to require a public referendum on any city stadium funding, effectively killing the Twins plan in its tracks.

That particular plan, at least. Nearly eight years later, Pohlad is still plugging away for his elusive taxpayer-financed digs, as is that other member of the stadium-grubbing class of '97, the Florida Marlins. With both the Florida and Minnesota legislative sessions wrapping up this month, the minions of Pohlad and Jeffrey Loria have been busily collecting pufferfish and hoping that this will be the year that their stadium dreams come to fruition.

In Minnesota, this is almost an annual ritual by now. Over the last decade, Minnesotans have seen proposals for Twins stadiums in Minneapolis, in St. Paul, in the suburbs; stadiums paid for by the city, by the county, by the state, or split three ways; stadiums paid for by cigarette taxes, slot machines, Indian casinos, sports lotteries, new player income taxes, existing player income taxes, interest-free loans from the state to Pohlad, interest-free loans from Pohlad to the state, and a brief play for public ownership, which enjoyed a brief flurry of interest before a local legislator memorably described it as "dead as a smelt."

After the 1997 vote, Pohlad tried to move the Twins to North Carolina's Triad region (where they would presumably have become the Triplets), only to slink back to Minnesota after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly rejected a stadium referendum; later he tried to cut a deal with Selig to contract the Twins out of existence, only to have a local judge issue a restraining order blocking the move as a possible violation of the team's lease. The stadium battles have become such a part of the landscape that a few years back, a Minnesota anti-abortion group took out billboard ads with a graphic of two fetuses and the slogan "Save the Twins!"

The flavor of the month now is for a downtown Minneapolis stadium, this time without a retractable roof, trimming the price from an outrageous $535 million to a merely exorbitant $478 million. The funding mechanism would be a 0.15% sales tax hike in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located. That doesn't sound like a lot, especially when it's described, as Twins execs invariably do, as "three cents on a $20 purchase."

Ah, fun with numbers. I've noticed that when politicians pitch a sales-tax hike to their constituents, they like to forgo discussing problematic percentages in favor of "cents," so that a 1% increase becomes a "one-cent sales tax hike." The trouble is that the difference between "one cent" and "one cent on the dollar" is one that eludes all too many people, not to mention newspaper columnists. So you get reporters like the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jim Souhan enthusing: "The deal is proportionate. Twins owner Carl Pohlad will pay $125 million. You'll pay less than you leave in the tip jar at Dunn Bros."

It sounds somewhat less trivial when you add the pennies up and find that the total county expense would be an impressive $353 million, or $320 per Hennepin County resident. That would leave Hennepin County shoppers paying for just about three-quarters of the total stadium cost--which Gov. Tim Pawlenty promptly remarked would be "within a national pattern of owners paying one-third" of stadiums' cost. (Maybe it's something in the water supply.)

After a long, contentious day of public hearings yesterday, the Hennepin County commission gave its thumbs-up to the Twins stadium plan late last night; the plan now goes to the state legislature, where Twins stadium plans traditionally go to die. State legislative opposition is actually lower this year than in the past--lopping off the roof means the state would no longer be asked to kick in any of its own money, which is precisely why Pohlad agreed to it--but there is widespread support for a voter referendum, which Twins management has said would be a "deal-breaker."

Sports teams have a funny relationship with voter referendums. I recall witnessing a stadium-conference panel debate years ago where one team exec argued that you should stay away from letting voters vote if at all possible; another exec--I want to say Jay Cross, then of the Miami Heat, though the details elude me at the moment--responded that he saw nothing wrong with referendums, since if you won they conveyed a sense of legitimacy to your plan. And, he added, you could always win if you spent enough money.

Given the latest poll numbers in Minnesota, there may not be enough money for even a stadium wizard like Cross to work his magic: 77 percent of Minnesota residents say they want a referendum, and two-thirds say they don't want public money involved. (Though strangely, only 54 percent oppose this particular plan, which involves oodles of public money; okay, it's definitely something in the water.) If there's one truism to stadium politics, it's that teams never want to see voter referendums when they're all but certain they would lose.

If this year's Twins battle is still in its early stages (for this year, anyway), the Florida Marlins' is approaching its end game (for this year, anyway). If anything, the Fishies' stadium campaign has achieved an even greater degree of stasis than the Twins. In December 2000, for example, I wrote on my Web site:

Finally, the Florida Marlins have reached a tentative agreement with Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami for a 40,000-seat retractable-roofed baseball stadium in that city's downtown. If approved by city and county commissions and the state legislature, the plan would use ticket and parking taxes, existing hotel taxes, naming rights fees, and stadium-area sales taxes to fund the bulk of the $385 million project. The team would kick in $6 million a year in rent, and change its name to the Miami Marlins."
Turn the clock forward four-and-a-half years, and that's basically where things still stand today: the total cost is now up to $420 million (though many believe that a retractable roof would drive the cost much higher), with the Marlins to supply $192 million and the city and county $198 million. If you're not from Minnesota, you've already calculated that this leaves a $30 million funding gap--a gap that the state legislature is being asked to fill by kicking back $2 million a year in sales taxes to the team.

After a frenzy of horse-trading that involved state subsidies for the Orlando Magic, spring training parks, and a NASCAR museum--really, you don't want to know--the Marlins bill finally passed the Florida House last week. It now has until the end of the week to make it through the state senate, where its chances would likely be considered better if the senate president had not, when asked if he'd consider giving the Marlins their money to keep them from moving out of state, remarked: "I don't negotiate with terrorists."

Both Pohlad and Loria are at a disadvantage, compared to the owners who went before them: They're coming in at end of the new-stadium trend, and the long lead time of false starts and failed move threats has given local opposition time to build. Also, keep in mind that both the Twins and Marlins play in stadiums that, while nobody would call them ideal for baseball, are still relatively new, having gone up in Ronald Reagan's first and second terms, respectively. It's more difficult to convince taxpayers, or legislators, to cough up money for a new stadium when they're still paying off the last one.

So while there's still a chance that one of these stadium plans will pass muster this month--hey, there's even a chance that Brian Roberts is for real--the odds are far better that they won't, and that the two teams will be back next year with even more wild-eyed schemes for spinning public dollars into stadium gold. Because no matter how much the Marlins and Twins owners make noise about pulling up stakes if their demands aren't met, if there's one thing last year's Expos sweepstakes made clear, it's that none of the Portlands or Las Vegases of the world are in any shape to gift them with a paid-for stadium plan, either.

It all almost makes you feel sorry for a guy like Twins president Jerry Bell, who's been issuing hopeful, vaguely threatening press statements on stadiums since the Marty Cordova days. Recently, Bell was asked by a reporter from MLB.com what the next step would be if, as usual, this stadium plan goes down in flames:

MLB.com: Nobody wants to make threats, but Jim Pohlad did say that if this proposal isn't accepted, he can't imagine what would be. Is it fair to say that this is the team's last chance to get a new ballpark built?
JB: I agree with Jim. If we can't do this, then I can't imagine what it would be.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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