Dreams of Field
In mid-April the Minnesota Twins had the best record in the American League. The perennial cellar dwellers had shot out of the gates to win 9 of their first 12 games heading into that evening's dustup with the Kansas City Royals. Shortstop Cristian Guzman was riding an 11-game hitting streak; Doug Mientkiewicz had already belted three home runs--one more than during his entire 1999 rookie campaign.
Off the field, the franchise was hoping to capitalize on its team's hot streak. Much like they did in 1997, the Twins were at the state Legislature, pushing a plan to replace the 20-year-old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome with a $300 million, open-air ballpark that could later be outfitted with a retractable roof. Their proposal called for $150 million in financing from the Twins and other private sources: $100 million would come from a state-backed no- or low-interest loan; the remaining revenue would be generated by state-issued bonds and a tax exemption on construction materials. The scheme was more straightforward than the Twins' pitch in 1997, and owner Carl Pohlad had finally agreed to contribute a sizable but unspecified lump of cash from his own bank account (according to Forbes, the owner's net worth is $1.8 billion). In addition, no funding mechanisms would kick in until Major League Baseball agreed to make significant structural changes, including increased revenue sharing among its 30 teams.
Sen. Dean Johnson, a DFLer from Willmar, and Rep. Harry Mares, a Republican from White Bear Lake, each introduced bills that hewed closely to the Twins' blueprint. The team then bankrolled 19 lobbyists to blanket the capitol and schmooze legislators. In the first six months of the year the Twins spent nearly a million dollars on lobbying efforts--more than any other public or private organization in the state.
On April 17 Mares's bill had been stalled in the Local Government committee, where it didn't have the votes to pass. The team kept pushing, determined to debate the merits of a new ballpark up until the final days of the legislative session.
That same evening, a meeting on the ballpark issue was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the downtown headquarters of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA). For more than a year, Minneapolis citizens, local businesspeople, and city officials had been crafting their own stadium plan. A city-appointed panel of 17 citizens, dubbed C-17, had spent the fall hashing out ballpark options. Stadium experts had been flown in, financing options mulled over, and a potential site identified. The final proposal called for a cheaper, scaled-down ballpark in downtown Minneapolis paid for with little or no government dollars. The meeting was to be the first time that city officials and members of the C-17 committee would brief the Twins on their work.
Representatives from the city's planning, finance, and public works departments, along with employees of the MCDA, were on hand. First Ward city council member Paul Ostrow was in attendance. Betsy Hodges, co-chair of the C-17 committee, was present to speak for the citizens' group.
The only interested party that didn't have a presence was the Minnesota Twins--even though MCDA deputy executive director Keith Ford had been assured that team president Jerry Bell, or someone else representing the team, would attend. "I expected that somebody would be there," says Jim Forsyth, project manager for the MCDA, who was leading the city's ballpark efforts. "For whatever reason I guess the Twins felt that the time wasn't right. I think they still had hopes for their bill in the Legislature." Hodges says she was "somewhat bewildered" by the Twins no-show. "There was no downside to them meeting with us," she adds.
The initial summit would likely have been little more than a meet-and-greet. But the snub is significant. Despite repeated rebuffs from voters and their legislators over the past seven years, the Twins have been unwilling to settle for anything less than a $300 million, roof-ready stadium subsidized by taxpayer dollars. It seems nothing has changed.
Three months after the fact, the Twins' president says he still doesn't know why he failed to attend the April meeting. "I think they scheduled the meeting on a day I was out of town," Bell says, talking on the phone from his office. He then dismisses the City of Minneapolis as an inconsequential player in the Twins' end game: "I don't really look at the city as a source of funding for a ballpark anyway."
Bell and the Twins chose instead to spend the rest of the spring beating the legislative bushes for dollars. The effort almost reaped dividends. In April and May a seemingly endless parade of pro-stadium legislators made their way into the Metrodome's broadcast booth to hawk the ballpark plan during Twins games. Meanwhile, the Star Tribune's Sid Hartman and the St. Paul Pioneer Press's Charley Walters sternly lectured fans that if a new stadium wasn't built Major League Baseball would engage in "contraction," and simply eliminate the fiscally challenged team--like yanking a noxious weed from a flower bed. It didn't hurt, of course, that the Twins were engaged in a Lazarus-like rise on the diamond, defying the baseball Gods by winning with a roster of young, low-paid no-names.
"In '97, to bring up a ballpark was like having leprosy," quips Senator Johnson. "This past initiative, people wanted to have a beer with you."
In the end, only the protracted gridlock between Democrats and Republicans over major spending bills prevented the ballpark issue from coming up for a vote. "I think the Legislature was by and large more receptive than they were in the past," avers Bell. "We were up against a deadline. I don't think the Legislature was going to approve a ballpark bill and not approve a budget."
Although the Twins' plans didn't make their way to the floor this year, the issue is far from dead. The groundwork is already being laid for the 2002 session, when the Twins will almost certainly be back at the capitol with their legion of lobbyists. The team is so comfortable with its future prospects that in late July Bell floated the idea of tacking an $80 million to $120 million retractable roof onto the wish list, ballooning the total bill to $400 million-plus. And last week House Speaker Steve Sviggum announced that by September a legislative study group will be created to examine stadium options for the Twins, Minnesota Vikings, and the University of Minnesota's football team. In retrospect a measly $300 million ballpark that is only roof-ready might have been a bargain.
Given this shift in the legislative wind, it's no wonder the Twins are ignoring the work of the C-17 committee, with their pie-in-the-sky plans to privately finance a smaller, cheaper ballpark. Against the backdrop of a winning season, legislators no longer fear that they will be sacrificing their political lives by voting for a stadium bill. And those activists who led the crusades against the Twins' ballpark plans in '97 and '99 have been worn down by the team's doggedness. "They can basically wear you down," says Julian Empson Loscalzo, a veteran of the failed campaign to save Metropolitan Stadium. "You don't have the resources, you don't have the money, you don't have the time."
The Rapid Park car lot is isolated on the northern fringe of downtown Minneapolis. Commuter cars line the cracked blacktop on weekdays. Elevated roads, designed to efficiently shuttle the masses in and out of the city each day, loom overhead. The rear of the Target Center lies to the southeast; beyond it are the towering skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis. To the northwest sits a massive tan and brown garbage incinerator, belching out smoke as dump trucks deposit their toxic loads.
This ten-acre slab of blacktop is where Minneapolis baseball boosters want to build a new home for the Twins. In place of the parking lot would be an intimate, 40,000-seat, open-air ballpark. A pedestrian mall would allow Twins supporters to make their way to bars and restaurants in the Warehouse District. Seldom-used railroad tracks near the site would shuttle state enthusiasts from St. Cloud directly to the ballpark's doorstep. Looking out from home plate, fans would take in the downtown skyline.
The process that led to the selection of the Rapid Park site began in early 2000. Jim Campbell, chairman of Wells Fargo Bank of Minnesota, joined John Schueler, then-publisher of the Star Tribune, to form the nonprofit group New Ballpark Inc. (Schueler has since left the Twin Cities and is now publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News.) Their mission was to determine whether it was possible to construct a privately financed baseball stadium. Public-relations consultants and lobbyists Mark Oyaas and Chuck Neerland were brought on board to shepherd the group's efforts. Oyaas says that the two of them got involved in the cause because of their love of the game. "This is something we care about," he explains.
Just a week after the media reported that New Ballpark Inc. had been formed, the Twins announced that they would be creating their own citizen panel: Minnesotans for Major League Baseball. The team enlisted 124 people in the effort, including heavy hitters such as former U.S. Representative Tim Penny, restaurateur Leeann Chin, and former Supreme Court Justice A.M. (Sandy) Keith. Despite the presence of so many civic pooh-bahs, the independence of a panel handpicked and bankrolled by the team was questionable. "Every one of them had a connection to the Twins," Oyaas says dismissively. "It was straight out of their rolodex."
The report the Twins-sanctioned organization ultimately produced essentially became an outline for the team's legislative efforts in 2001. In six months' time, the work of Schueler and Campbell's New Ballpark Inc., and the idea of a privately financed ballpark, was quickly eclipsed. "They've had their legs cut out from under them," says fervent stadium foe and Roseville democrat Sen. John Marty, when asked about New Ballpark Inc. "[The Twins] are doing everything in their power to undercut them."
Despite the presence of Minnesotans for Major League Baseball, New Ballpark Inc. members plowed ahead with their work. In June of 2000, they turned to the City of Minneapolis for its blessing and the C-17 committee was picked by the city council and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Some of the committee members were veterans of past efforts to derail the Twins' stadium plans. The Rev. Ricky Rask led the campaign to thwart the team's legislative efforts in 1997. Betsy Hodges works for Progressive Minnesota, the nonprofit group that helped defeat St. Paul's stadium referendum two years later. Tom Goldstein is publisher of the baseball journal Elysian Fields Quarterly, and has been a fervent critic of spending public dollars to build sports stadiums. (Goldstein wrote "Ballpark Frankness," a cover story published in City Pages September 8, 1999, detailing how he believed an intimate neighborhood ballpark could be constructed for less than $200 million.)
Despite the presence of so many naysayers, the panel quickly came to the conclusion that the Twins were an important asset to the state and that a new stadium was needed to make the franchise viable. Wheelock Whitney, who helped lure the Twins to Minnesota in 1961, was brought in to provide a history lesson to the committee and offered to put up a $100,000 of his own money toward the private stadium effort. Representatives from Cleveland, Denver, and San Francisco were flown in to discuss their own ballpark experiences. Economists laid out the sorry financial disarray of Major League Baseball, in which small-market teams such as the Twins are somehow expected to compete against franchises like the New York Yankees, which has a payroll four times as large. Each meeting was broadcast on television; summaries were posted on the group's Web site, www.newballparkinc.org.
"It was remarkable," gushes Nick Koch, an architect with Hammel, Green and Abrahamson who helped facilitate the meetings. "This process was done publicly, with a spirit of inquiry and with nothing held back. It was a process that was literally led by ideas and principles."
The City of Minneapolis endorsed the C-17 report in March. It then directed staff to look into possible locations for a ballpark. Various city departments graded five different locales on characteristics such as parking availability, mass-transit opportunities, and proximity to entertainment and housing. The decisive winner was the Rapid Park site.
One of the key advantages of the area is its potential access to mass transit. A light-rail stop is slated to be located nearby, as is a North Star commuter station that would eventually provide rail access to St. Cloud. Parking options in the area are abundant, with more than 7,000 spaces located within 15 minutes' walking distance. Rapid Park is also in close proximity to the Warehouse District and its flourishing assortment of bars and restaurants. Another bonus is that the owner, Land-Partners II, Limited Partnership, is interested in having a ballpark built on the lot. The MCDA estimates that it would cost $10.4 million to purchase the land.
On April 6 the Minneapolis City Council, endorsing the Rapid Park location by a 12-0 vote, ordered city staff to brief the Twins by April 20. That introductory meeting was scheduled for April 17. The Twins never showed up.
In the 1950s, when local power brokers were looking to transform Minneapolis into a first-tier American city, Metropolitan Stadium was built to lure a Major League Baseball team. The effort was initially aimed at the New York Giants, who had grown frustrated with their archaic home and the Big Apple's over-saturated baseball market, which then featured three teams. After years of teasing, though, Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who also operated the minor league Minneapolis Millers, ultimately opted to light out for San Francisco.
Fifty years later Minnesota baseball fans are once again paying close attention to the Giants franchise. On four different occasions during the Nineties, San Francisco residents went to the polls and voted down public financing for a baseball stadium. The central objection is familiar to anyone who has followed the Twins ballpark debate over the last six years. The citizenry simply didn't want to subsidize a multimillion-dollar corporation or its wealthy owner.
Fed up with its inability to pry money from the taxpayers, the Giants decided to move the team to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1992. National League owners vetoed the move. After a change of ownership at the end of that year, the Giants had no other option but to build a park with private dollars. It was a novel concept, to say the least.
The last baseball stadium built without the help of taxpayer money was Dodger Stadium in 1962. In the last decade, as new ballparks have popped up all over the country, government has footed, on average, 75 percent of the bill. Most people familiar with the economics of baseball doubted the Giants could afford to build a stadium and support a winning team without getting weighed down by debt.
The financing package the team came up with relied on creativity and a booming economy. More than half of the stadium's $319 million cost was secured via a loan that the team will pay back over 20 years. Another $77 million was acquired by selling 15,000 permanent seat licenses; for a fee of between $1,500 and $6,000, fans essentially purchased the right to future season tickets. Corporate sponsorships accounted for an additional $57 million. The bulk of this came from selling the stadium-naming rights to telecommunications conglomerate Pac Bell, which will shell out $50 million over 24 years.
A small amount of public support was required as well. The City of San Francisco provided $15 million in tax-increment financing for site preparations, such as razing an existing facility and adding a light-rail station.
Pac Bell Park opened in 2000 to rave reviews and packed houses. The ballpark's location, overlooking San Francisco Bay, provides a breathtaking backdrop. When a home run is deposited into the bay, a trained dog dives into the water and retrieves the ball, much to the fans' delight. Every game was sold out last year, and 95 percent of the 30,000 season-ticket holders renewed for the 2001 campaign.
Perhaps most significant, despite having to pay $18 million annually on its stadium loan, the team turned a profit for the first time since new ownership took over in 1993. Staci Slaughter, the team's vice president for public affairs, declines to get into specific dollar amounts, saying only, "It wasn't a huge profit, but we're in the black."
Part of the reason for the Giants' early financial success has been continuing creativity by the team's management. In addition to hosting ballgames, the Giants have rented out Pac Bell Park for more than 100 non-baseball events, ranging from arena football games to rock concerts to wedding receptions. In fact, Pac Bell Park has been so successful that the Giants' ownership is now contemplating whether to privately finance another 20,000-seat arena nearby.
While Pac Bell Park has so far been deemed a boon, sports economists caution that the true financial picture will not be clear for years. The 20-year loan is a significant liability, and if attendance drops (which is likely as the novelty of the new stadium wears off) or non-baseball revenues decline, the team could find itself back in the red.
"It's certainly a model to show that it can be done," says Neil deMause, co-author of the 1998 book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit. "But I think basically you're gonna have to look back at Pac Bell over 10 years or 20 years and say, 'Did it pay for itself?'"
New Ballpark Inc. has drawn inspiration from the San Francisco model. Mark Oyaas and Chuck Neerland helped craft a plan to raise $50 million from private businesses. It calls for raising $130 million through a new for-profit company. Approximately $80 million of the money would be invested in corporate bonds, while the remainder would go toward construction costs. Together the investments would earn an annual return of about 5.5 percent.
Oyaas claims that they have received $30 million in commitments from businesses such as Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, but he allows that they've got "a hell of a long ways to go." He hopes that a meeting held with local business leaders at the end of July will jump-start the effort and that they will have a "sales force out on the street" by fall. Oyaas stresses that New Ballpark Inc. is no longer demanding that the stadium be built exclusively with private funds.
The plan receives a cautious endorsement from Bill Lester, executive director of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission, the agency that oversees the Metrodome. "The $50 million seems achievable," he says. "It's a viable option; I think it has good potential."
Still, New Ballpark Inc.'s efforts have been stymied by a lack of enthusiasm from the Twins. Team president Jerry Bell says that he's not familiar with the details of the effort to raise private dollars. "I assume if they have a plan that they want to go forward with they would talk to us about it, but they haven't lately," he maintains.
A frustrated Oyaas counters that the group has been attempting to explain the plan to the team for months: "It's clear we have to do a better job of communicating with the Twins, because if they are indifferent or not interested, why in the hell would we waste anybody's time?"
In October 1997, with a special legislative session dedicated to the Twins stadium looming, Carl Pohlad signed a letter of intent to sell the team to a group of businessmen who were interested in moving the franchise to North Carolina. The bluff almost worked.
As Star Tribune reporter Jay Weiner detailed in his book Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles, the letter of intent was a red herring cooked up by the Twins and their chief political ally, then-Gov. Arne Carlson, in order to blackmail the Legislature into approving money for a new stadium. There was never any real chance that the team would fly south.
Four years later the threat du jour is "contraction." Twins officials themselves never utter the word, but on a weekly basis the sports gossip columns and call-in shows are filled with alarming tidbits about how Major League Baseball is going to get rid of up to four existing teams. The theory is that by eliminating struggling franchises, which are currently subsidized by their wealthy counterparts, the remaining teams will get a bigger piece of the league's financial pie. With their outdated, Teflon-roofed stadium, lackluster attendance, and revenue that lags some $85 million behind the league average, the Twins have been marked as a prime target.
Last month, when the Twins traveled to Milwaukee's new, state-of-the-stadium Miller Park, Brewers' owner and baseball commissioner Bud Selig renewed the contraction threat. In an interview aired on Fox Sports Net before the Twins' Friday-night game, and then again in snippets throughout the contest, Selig stressed that Major League Baseball in Minnesota was an endangered species. "If anybody thinks contraction is just a bargaining chip, they're crazy," Selig blustered.
But others intimate with the economics of baseball believe contraction is exactly that: a "bargaining chip," Carl Pohlad's letter-of-intent taken to the extreme. "The chances are nearly zero and the obstacles many," argues Rodney Fort, an economist at Washington State University and co-author of Pay Dirt: The Business of Professional Team Sports.
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."
Last week House Speaker Steve Sviggum, the state's top Republican, told the press he is forming a policy committee to examine stadium issues. It was another significant step forward for the Twins. Last year at this time no sane legislator would go near a microphone and utter the words Twins and stadium in the same breath.
"Have they primed the pump?" asks Rep. Krinkie. "Is their PR machine working? Yes. I heard a number of legislators say, 'Oh, this is very different from what it was in 1997.' But for a student of the stadium game, it's no different. It's the same thing. It's a billionaire coming over to get state money to build a ballpark."
In 1996, as the Twins were gearing up to take their first swing at the Legislature, Senator Marty began cranking up his own opposition campaign. Even before a plan was on the table, he had locked scores of legislators into a "no" vote. Marty is hoping to use the layoff before the 2002 legislative session to mount a similar effort.
But even he concedes that the Twins have gained the upper hand. "They could well get their stadium next year," Marty allows. "I would've said two years ago, or even a year ago, that the chances were slim. But never underestimate the power of lobbyists and millions of dollars and campaign contributions to make a difference in the political process. With that kind of money, they've got a pretty good head start on everybody else."
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