Dreams of Field

The Minnesota Twins are convinced the public will eventually buy them a new $300 million stadium. They have reason to believe.

Baseball economists estimate that the surviving teams would have to fork over as much as $200 million per franchise to make the contracted clubs and their owners go away. Where that money would come from is anybody's guess. (And if the owners have so much excess cash lying around, why not use the money to help franchises like the Twins build new ballparks?)

Major League Baseball also faces the sticky proposition of explaining to the notoriously powerful Major League Baseball Players Association why it's necessary to eliminate jobs. "The players just aren't going to stand for it," argues Fort. With contract negotiations between the league and the union set for the end of the season, and memories of the disastrous 1994 baseball strike still lingering, it's hard to fathom that the owners would do anything to agitate the players.

"I think that if Major League Baseball tries to do it they're going to get their butts dragged into court by everybody under the sun," observes Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and author of numerous books on sports economics. Lawsuits would likely be filed not only by the municipalities losing franchises, such as Minneapolis, but also by cities still hoping to land teams, including Portland and Northern Virginia. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth has already promised that he will wage a lengthy and costly legal battle to keep Major League Baseball from closing down either the Marlins or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

An even greater threat to Major League Baseball: By contracting teams it would throw into jeopardy its anti-trust exemption. The league has long operated as a unique, congressionally protected monopoly, giving it full authority to decide where teams are operated and by whom. Legislators from districts that lost teams would salivate at the opportunity to scrutinize baseball's operations. "That's where the real danger lies for Major League Baseball," warns Fort. "For the next year and a half, all Mr. Selig will do is sit in front of congressional panels and answer questions."

"[Talk of contraction is] very much being used as a threat to scare cities into building stadiums," argues Field of Schemes author deMause. "In all likelihood it's something that a couple of owners came up with and was seized on by Bud Selig to say, 'Hey, this is a good stick to threaten cities and the players union.'"

Rep. Phil Krinkie (R-Shoreview), an ardent foe of public funding for stadiums, finds the mere mention of contraction insulting. "That's almost a stupider sham than 'We're gonna move 'em down to North Carolina,'" he chafes. "They keep perpetuating these scams, these charades, these lies in order to hoodwink the Legislature into supporting the stadium."

 

In the Fifties, when the Twin Cities first dreamed of luring a Major League Baseball franchise to Minnesota, the City of Milwaukee had similar plans. The Twin Cities had the advantage of a larger population base, but Milwaukee held the trump card: a brand-new baseball stadium waiting for any team that would take the bait.

Milwaukee got its baseball team in 1953, enticing the Boston Braves west. The Twin Cities eventually responded by building Metropolitan Stadium and luring the Washington Senators to town in 1961.

Miller Park opened its doors in Milwaukee this spring, after the Brewers threatened to skip town if the city didn't help build a new stadium. Miller Park is a $400 million, 43,000-seat park, with a retractable roof that opens or closes in just ten minutes. Every modern amenity is present, including a T.G.I.Friday's restaurant and 550 television screens. More than three-quarters of the cost was covered by public sources. When the Twins visited Miller Park last month for the first time, team TV commentators Bert Blyleven and Dick Bremer could barely contain their envy, lauding everything in the house but the toilets (320 for women; 309 for men).

Blyleven and Bremer may soon be able to crow about their own park. The Twins made major headway this year at the Legislature, convincing lawmakers they could pass a stadium bill without suffering the wrath of the public. The stellar play of the Twins on the field, coupled with the inertia of stadium foes, has seemingly loosened the purse strings at the capitol.

Legislative watchers argue that since the senate bill easily passed through committees in 2001, a stadium proposal would have been virtually assured in that chamber if it had come up for a vote; the house would have been a dogfight. "The house was tough," observes James Girard, a Twins lobbyist and former state revenue commissioner. "All I can say is, I think we were making a lot of progress. Whether or not we would have gotten there in the end, I don't know."

Senator Johnson, sponsor of the ballpark bill, also believes that Governor Ventura, who has gone on record against publicly financing stadiums, may also be more amenable to a bill in 2002. "I have talked to some people close to the governor, and I think he has become much more interested in a ballpark," ventures Johnson. "I don't think he's doing cartwheels, but I do think he's willing to listen to the proposals."

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