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February 17, 2009

Don't Build Angry

Stadium-Related Updates

by Neil deMause

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If you've received your brand-new copy of Baseball Prospectus 2009 this week, you'll have found an essay by yours truly on teams' plans for new stadiums. It's a piece that I filed back in simpler times known as "January," when we still shopped at Circuit City, the president was some former Texas Rangers owner, and A-Rod was only reviled in the press for his relationship with Madonna. The basics that are laid out in BP2K9 are still accurate, as the Marlins, A's, and Rays are all pushing for new homes, with the Marlins way in the lead; the Mets and Yankees, meanwhile, are preparing to open their new stadiums amid controversy over who's paying the $2.7 billion bill. Since then, though, there have been a few unexpected twists:

  • The final Marlins stadium vote, thought to be a mere formality after a legal challenge was swept aside last fall, turned into a bitter political fight involving screaming matches on the floor of the Miami city commission.

  • The A's abruptly abandoned the Fremont stadium site that they'd been prepping for since 2006 for another site across town-and were promptly met by hundreds of angry demonstrators at their first public forum.

  • The Mets' naming-rights deal with Citigroup came under fire after the bank received $45 billion in federal bailout funds, with everybody from tabloid columnists to Congressmen calling for the deal to be voided

Let's address the Marlins' situation first. As I blogged on Friday, what was expected to be the final approval of their now-$609 million retractable-roof stadium project (counting a $94 million parking garage) on the former Orange Bowl site devolved into mayhem after two of the four city commissioners balked at the agreement approved last year, with one calling it "a very bad deal" for taxpayers. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who'd voted for the complex public-funding plan last February, insisted on further concessions from the team, including cutting in the city on a share of the naming-rights money (as in most cases, the current deal would have the public getting nothing for the sale of the name of the publicly owned building) and guaranteeing that if the Fish were sold, the city and county would be repaid for stadium costs before team owners took out any profit for themselves. Marlins president David Samson promptly declared these provisions unacceptable, and the meeting broke up acrimoniously, and county commissioners who had been waiting in the wings to hold their own vote wandered home in confusion.

What happened in the last 12 months to turn Sarnoff into a public-funding hard-liner? There was that little matter of the economic collapse, of course, which has left Florida staring down the barrel of billions of dollars in budget cuts. It also couldn't have helped that in the days leading up to the vote, the Miami Herald devoted some of its could fall short of being enough to pay off stadium bonds, and that even as stadium subsidies go, the Marlins' deal "would be among the more generous to a team owner this decade." Or maybe Sarnoff just got buyer's remorse after seeing that the proposed stadium design looks like an oversized bagel slicer.

Regardless, the Marlins deal is hardly dead-notwithstanding stadium supporter Joe Sanchez shouting on the commission floor, "This deal is dead!" A fifth city commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones, is on maternity leave, but should be back in time to cast the deciding vote when debate resumes next month. Still, that would only send matters to the county commission, where the vote looks close as well, though stadium supporters are considering a parliamentary maneuver to require fewer votes to approve the plan.

In any case, the chances of the Marlins ending up in a new home by 2012 or so have to be better than those of the A's, who have seen owner Lew Wolff's plans for a stadium-and-condo-development in the southern East Bay town of Fremont evaporate along with the California housing market. (The final nail in the coffin came when the owner of the favored site declared itself "strongly opposed" to having a stadium and its attendant traffic on its doorstep.) The current Plan B is for a stadium somewhere near the planned BART rail station at Warm Springs across town-but given that Wolff doesn't own any land there, that the site wouldn't be eligible for community redevelopment funds, and that more than 700 chanting protestors turned out to oppose the plan at its first public airing, things aren't exactly off to a roaring start.

With Fremont stalled, there has been renewed speculation that the A's are instead considering San Jose, which is where everyone assumes Wolff would rather move to in the first place, if not for the niggling matter of it being officially designated as Giants territory. There was much excitement in A's-land after Bud Selig sent a letter to Wolff in December saying that if Fremont falls through, "you may begin to discuss a ballpark with other communities," with this interpreted as the go-ahead to pursue a deal with San Jose. Even if the Giants could be bought off, though, there are other obstacles there as well: A voter referendum would almost certainly be required for any stadium deal, potentially setting up a repeat of the Giants' attempt to move there in the early '90s, which was twice blocked by "no" votes in referenda.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the uproar over the name attached to the Mets' new stadium, Citi Field, now just under seven weeks away from opening. (Shea Stadium is all but gone already-to see what its gradual disappearance looks like as viewed from a model airplane and scored by Yes, hie thee to YouTube.) The kerfuffle began when those Congressmen, noting that "Citigroup is now dependent on the support of the federal government for its survival as an institution," demanded that "Citigroup dissolve the agreement they have with the New York Mets," or else be made to forfeit its federal bailout money. The resulting furor was ready-made for a New York media machine bored out of its mind in January-Newsday columnist Wallace Matthews took the opportunity to write that, as a condition of the Citi name, the Mets should be required to spend the proceeds on Manny Ramirez-but the likelihood of the name being changed is pretty close to zero, though there's a slim chance that Citi could end up reselling the name to another company if it proves too embarrassing for all concerned (or if the bank ends up being nationalized, as now appears likely).

So with all of this economic fallout wreaking havoc with the baseball landscape, is this, as some have started to suggest, a sign that the tide is turning, and that we'll soon see teams forced to build new homes by their own devices, or else make do where they are? Color me doubtful, and not only because the last time I predicted as much, what followed were some the most expensive ballparks, and richest public subsidies, known to humankind. It may not be their sport, but baseball owners surely took notice that soccer's DC United, economic winds of change be damned, yesterday announced plans to build a $180 million stadium in the Maryland suburbs-mostly funded by sales- and property-tax rebates. There's still a lot of this ballgame left to be played.

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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