Jock Itch

Thomas N. Collins

Sports columnists are charged with rendering conclusions cleverly. It's the strength of their convictions, not the depth of their analysis or breadth of knowledge, that makes them household names. If Gopher forward Miles Tarver has a bad afternoon at the freethrow line, it's a safe bet his manhood will be questioned in the morning edition. If Timberwolf Kevin Garnett executes a triple-double, more than one jocular pundit will claim he's worth every penny of his multimillion-dollar salary. When the tables turn, the columnists turn; Tarver becomes a hero, Garnett a goat.

There's nothing wrong with this style. Sassy, colorful sports columns, like clever editorial cartoons, engage because they're unabashedly arrogant, argumentative for the sake of being argumentative. Better yet, there's very little at stake besides entertainment, an athlete's fragile ego, or a fan's obsession.

Unfortunately, this year's biggest sports story has nothing to do with the harmless rantings of the armchair athlete. Carl Pohlad's year-long lobbying effort to acquire an open-air stadium for his Minnesota Twins is a tale of big business, political maneuvering, and public opinion. Questions involved include the pros and cons of public subsidies, the definition of metropolitan development, and the future of an entertainment industry in crisis. Last on the list, if it's on the list at all, is the game of baseball.

Still, sports gurus at both local dailies, particularly the Star Tribune, have spilled considerable ink on the issue. At first their columns were amusing. Then they became tedious. Now they're just self-serving, the product of a journalistic clique afraid of becoming even less relevant.

Faced with observations about their obvious self-interest, high-profile pundits at the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press have reflexively pointed to their Guild contracts. This "they can't fire me, so I don't care" argument might play on talk radio, but it doesn't wash. If a pro sports team leaves Minneapolis there will be less local sports content in the dailies; less local content means less opportunity for sports columnists to flex their muscle.

Without the Twins in Minneapolis, summertime sports coverage would be curtailed significantly in both dailies. There would be no special sections to accompany a home stand, no reports from the road, no need for postgame analysis. There would be no hope for the national publicity or marketing blitzes that ensue when the home team makes a playoff run or competes in a World Series. There may even be an effect on circulation: In Seattle, if the local baseball team plays and loses, the next day's single-copy press order is 12 percent larger. If they win, it's 20 percent larger.

What's more, in a market of Minneapolis's size, daily columnists double and triple as TV commentators and radio talk-show hosts. If even one major-league sports team leaves town, the demand for commentators goes down. For an established columnist to say they don't have a personal stake in the stadium debate is like a film critic arguing they wouldn't care if there weren't any first-run theaters in the metro.

The old school, wise to these realities, hasn't wasted any time shilling for a shiny new ballpark. Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman has called every Pohlad offer his best and last, scolding critics for daring to question the motives of a multimillion-dollar entrepreneur. Hartman's colleague, Patrick Reusse, ceaselessly worries that if legislators don't keep the Twins, Minneapolis will become a ghost town (cue the Iowa and Idaho references). Never mind that the country's biggest, best ballparks--including the frequently referenced Camden Yards in Baltimore--lost money last year, he's been in favor of every Pohlad offer to date. The Pioneer Press's Joe Soucheray, who doesn't write sports full-time, argues it's the sanctity of the game, not the size of the price tag, that matters most.

"The sanctity of the game." "The beauty of baseball." From day one, these tenured writers have refused to care whether America's pastime has overextended its potential. "The continued presence of major league baseball in Minnesota is more important to me than many of the things on which the state's politicians choose to spend my tax dollars," Reusse wrote in January. "Baseball is more important to me than Minnesota retaining its status as welfare Nirvana, in contrast to the national reform effort."

Less blatant, but equally telling, have been attempts by the Strib's Dan Barreiro and his PiPress equivalent, Bob Sansevere, to apply the rules of sportswriting to the task of political commentary. Instead of admitting his bias up-front like Hartman and Reusse, Barreiro (who also hosts an afternoon talk show on KFAN with Chad Hartman) has attempted to analyze the ABCs of each deal with a feigned air of objectivity. In the process, he's concluded stadium opponents are gutless opportunists, unwilling to take a definitive stand. Barreiro also argues over the methodology of his own newspaper's opinion polls, "wondering" out loud whether more people care about the Twins than we've been led to believe.  

Last summer, in tune with his usually even-handed approach to issues of the day, Barreiro was willing to engage in a dialogue with KFAN listeners calling to question Pohlad's motives or wonder whether pro sports were spiraling out of control. Now he's sick of all the nit-picking, all the talk. When Pohlad offered $100 million in the middle of the special session--$100 million that turned out to be a whole lot less in real dollars--he couldn't imagine what else Minnesota's representatives could want. Now, just a couple of weeks later, he' throwing mud on legislators who aren't embracing Pohlad's latest scheme, his last, last offer.

"[House Minority Leader Steve] Sviggum would say no if Pohlad turned over the team to the state, wrote out a check for $350 million... donated another $200 million for new schools, and agreed to monthly floggings at the corner at Chicago Avenue and Kirby Puckett Place," Barreiro opined in last Friday's Strib.

You have to admit the guy's one hell of a sportswriter.

In a perfect world, the ravings of agenda-laden sports columnists could be written off as just one part of the news mix. Unfortunately, there has been precious little counterbalance from news reporters or business writers at either daily. The one exception is PiPress reporter Patrick Sweeney, who continues to scoop his counterpart, the Strib's Jay Weiner, on key stories. Before anyone, and better than anyone, Sweeney's analyzed the viability of baseball in North Carolina, entertained the idea that Pohlad may be bluffing, and completely and clearly broke down proposals being entertained by the Legislature. His coverage has been both objective and enlightening. The PiPress has also featured a number of well-sourced stories about whether or not professional sports can actually benefit a local economy.

Meanwhile, staffers at the Strib have been grumbling about the increasingly incomplete coverage in their paper, and many are reportedly red-faced over the heavy lifting the editorial board has done for Pohlad. When asked to go on the record with these frustrations, Strib employees refuse, claiming that even in-house criticism has resulted in hostile treatment from management.

The rank and file is also hard-pressed to provide a comprehensive explanation for their newspaper's half-baked stadium coverage. Some say there haven't been enough resources; others charge Weiner--who's responsible for a bulk of the beat--doesn't have enough business experience to evaluate complex proposals. No one will say, on the record or off, that there's a conscious, coordinated push to slant stories one way or another.

But neither is there evidence suggesting pressure from on high to improve coverage. Stories about the tenuous nature of Carl Pohlad's agreement with Don Beaver, pro sports' economic woes, and barriers facing baseball in North Carolina have consistently come late, if at all, and have been buried deep in the paper. Analytical perspective has been replaced by a "he said, she said" approach from front to back. Last Friday's front-page story about Pohlad's latest offer, for example, left readers wanting for any explanation of how a deal would affect the state's general fund, or any hint of how the absence of one owner could affect an already crippled franchise. Conclusions such as these were left to the sportswriters and an editorial board whose cheerleading has been taking on a desperate tone.

"The people have more than spoken; they've fairly shouted 'No,' in percentages rising now into the 60s," an October 23 editorial read. "But as frequently happens when passion gets involved, the people may be mistaken. It is the responsibility of the Minnesota Legislature, as it meets today in special session, to 'refine and enlarge the public views'... in order to calculate the best interest of the state."

What the edit board was more likely calculating were the best interests of their owner, Cowles Media. Last spring, Editorial Pages Editor Susan Albright told City Pages that the board reports to Publisher Joel Kramer, who reports directly to Cowles. Cowles has given an unspecified contribution to Minnesota Wins, the pro-stadium lobbying and PR effort founded by Bob Dayton, and stands to benefit financially if a stadium is built in downtown Minneapolis.

"It's probably not a deal that parties on either side would have agreed to on their best day," the edit board concluded on Sunday. "But then the good day, and all the better ideas for a new baseball stadium, have run out. Except for the gun pointed at everyone's head, cocked to signal the end of major league baseball in Minnesota, this is all that's left."  

The questions the Strib seems unwilling to ask are, who's pointing the gun at whom, and why.

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