Make Him an Offer

News last week that the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission had settled its suit against the Minnesota Twins and Major League Baseball was greeted locally by a prolonged fireworks display and dancing in the streets.

Or maybe that was the Twins' 23-2 drubbing of the Cleveland Indians.

Or maybe that was just a dream.

It was one of those dreams where you wake up and can't tell whether you were dreaming: I dreamed the Twins' stadium issue was finally put to rest when Carl Pohlad sold the ball club to Hennepin County. Think of the irony: County commission chair Mike Opat, shut out of any potential deal last month when state legislators passed their stadium bill, gets his revenge by buying the team. I know what you're going to say. You're going to say: It would never happen. You're going to say: If Hennepin County ever had the guts to buy the Twins, Bud Selig and Major League Baseball would never let the deal go through.

I know you're going to say these things, because Opat said them when I told him about my dream.

"I think it's an interesting idea," Opat allowed. "The intriguing thing about your proposition is that it would eliminate a very big variable, which is: Who owns this team?

"But," he added, "I don't know if they'd sell it to us."

Neil deMause, a New York journalist who has devoted a lot of time to studying publicly financed stadiums, agrees: "Major League Baseball gets to decide who they sell their teams to. And they can very easily say, 'Sorry, we're just not going to do it.'

"But it's a fantastic idea," adds deMause, who, along with co-author Joanna Cagan, wrote Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit. "It is infinitely cheaper to buy a team and then either run it yourself or sell it to someone else who will then run it, than it is to build a new stadium. This is exactly why baseball doesn't want to allow it--that and the fact that their books would be open."

Now that's a dream.

Still, the idea of a publicly owned team isn't quite as far-fetched as it may sound. Several minor-league baseball teams are community-owned. (There's also the oft-cited example of the National Football League's Green Bay Packers.) DeMause points out that after former San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc died, the widow of the McDonald's tycoon wanted to give the Padres to the City of San Diego as a gift, along with a trust to run the team and defray expenses. But Major League Baseball said no.

What about the economic viability of a team that's owned by the public?

"If the Twins aren't making some money, then Carl Pohlad's a lot dumber than I think," says deMause, citing the team's rock-bottom payroll (a reported $40.2 million--less than one-third of what the Yankees shell out). "If the county were to buy the Twins, then they would be faced with the same choice that Carl Pohlad faces: Try and win the World Series, compete with the Yankees, and lose money, or hope that you're going to catch lightning in a bottle with a bunch of young guys all at once before you have to pay them a lot of money."

Assuming you wanted to get out of the Metrodome, could you build yourself a new stadium and still come out ahead? Maybe.

"You look at building small," deMause says. For one thing, no retractable roof. "You look at [architect] Philip Bess's ideas; you look at existing parks like Wrigley. You might look at phased construction, where you start by building 30,000 seats and leave room to expand later on. You find a way to build as many luxury seats as you can fill, and no more. You try and work the luxury seating in a way that's not going to hurt your sale of the cheap seats to the regular public."

Could it be done? Could Hennepin County build itself a stadium and pay itself back?

"I think it's a definite maybe," says deMause. "But nobody will know until somebody does it." An experiment is under way in San Francisco, he notes, where Giants owner Peter McGowan built his own stadium with very little public financing: "We'll know more in 27 years, when Pac Bell Park is finished being paid off."

While we're waiting, Hennepin County's Opat ([email protected]; 612.348.7881) should consider making Pohlad an offer. At the very least, the Twins and Selig would have to respond. That in itself would be interesting. And who knows what might actually transpire?

"Owning a team is definitely better than owning a stadium," says deMause. "Because a stadium is just a lousy lease and a pile of debt. Whereas a team--a Major League Baseball franchise, even a terrible Major League Baseball franchise, is worth money, because there's only 30 of them. If you're looking to get back some equity for your investment, then that's an excellent idea. The only problem is that Major League Baseball, for exactly these reasons, is going to resist at every possible turn."


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