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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.

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