Suicide Squeeze

D. Kimber

It's been said before, but rarely has it been demonstrated with such force: The public is way ahead of the media, the corporate honchos, and the politicians. Who would have thought a year ago that opposition to a tax-financed stadium could withstand promises, threats, and nostalgia-soaked commercials? Certainly not Carl Pohlad, who is neither a greedy monster nor a philanthropist, but a consummate businessman following the trail blazed by Chrysler and Northwest Airlines: When there's free money available, you'd be stupid not to get in line.

Of course it's not over. Polls may run overwhelmingly against stadium subsidies, but results flip to almost 50-50 when you introduce gambling (as if official addiction-peddling were any more desirable than raising taxes). And that new "community ownership" pitch--based on the theory that the Great Unwashed will roll over and purr as soon as Carl Pohlad's name is gone from the deal--may yet prove a stroke of marketing genius.

But even if lawmakers cobble together a deal in the next few days, something remarkable seems to have happened. In preparing this special section, we asked a collection of regular people--anyone, that is, except official spin doctors--how they'd feel if pro sports left town. Most were sports fans, some passionate; many had a vested interest in sports. Yet even those we'd slotted as boosters failed to panic at the prospect of losing a team. (There were exceptions: Northeast Minneapolis fan Helen Pierce says she'd pitch in $50 if that would help the Twins stay, which in itself makes you want to wring someone's neck in the team's front office--they should be giving her money, for all the times she's hauled her 80-year-old body downtown to cheer.) And if stadium votes around the country are any guide, this is not an isolated case of stubbornness: What we're witnessing may well be the beginning of a movement.

In this issue, you'll find the responses to our unscientific survey. In addition, Britt Robson looks at what could happen after a deal is done (Jock Itch); David Schimke dissects the media hype (The Perils of Pohlad); and economist Mark Rosentraub lays out the case for taking pro sports out of the Soviet era (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break). Let the games begin.



Like others born and raised in Minneapolis, Kim Hines--whose recent work includes a show about Toni "Tomboy" Stone, the first female pro player in the Negro Leagues--has seen her share of pro-sports-team moves, and the memory helps her stay cool about the prospect of the Twins taking off. "It would be like the Lakers leaving," she says. "This, too, shall pass."

"It will be worse for a while because we'll have listen to all these men whine from the top to the bottom. But they'll whine, and then after a year they'll spend all their time trying to get another team. It will be different if the team stays here. If our schools need stuff or the arts community needs things, then the city or the state better come up with the money. Because they have now set a precedent.

"I was a part of [former Mayor Don] Fraser's arts initiative. Communities were asked, 'If you had this chunk of money, how would you want to have it spent in your neighborhood?'... I was in three of those community groups and a lot of people showed up and talked about how sports was fun, but the arts saved their lives. They understood very early that they were not gifted in that athletic way, but at least with the arts they had a way of expressing themselves. And if you wanted to be active you could do dance or tumbling." (Britt Robson)


   bar manager

There's a red neon Twins sign proudly displayed in the hallway from which Champp's Manager Mark Landreville emerges to meet me. Whether or not it stays up rests on the decisions of Carl Pohlad and the Legislature. But for someone whose livelihood supposedly depends on pro sports, Landreville appears surprisingly lukewarm. "I'm actually kind of sick of the whole thing," he confesses.

Champp's doesn't get all that much Twins traffic, he explains: "I don't know, maybe Twins fans don't go out before games," or maybe the Metrodome is too far away from the bar's First Avenue location. Vikings fans are more likely to brave the distance; they make up most of the bar's Sunday business. "And we're totally packed before Timberwolves home games. If [all three] left, we'd probably have to close up."

Yet Landreville is partial to the notion of an outdoor stadium, which he suspects would draw more visitors than the Dome. "Can't they put a retractable roof on that?" (Wittman)  



Craig is obviously not this bookie's real name; he requested be withheld along with details about his business, which remains illegal in Minnesota. Personally, he says, he'd like to see the Twins and the Vikings remain in the area. But their exodus wouldn't put him out of business: "Except for the few who bet with their hearts rather than their heads, most [Minnesotans] don't bet on the Vikings." Not to mention the Twins--Craig himself won't even invest the money for a ticket. "Until '91, I used to go to 10, 12 games a year. And there were a lot of people like me. But since then, I've lost interest.

"You really can't fault Pohlad. He's a businessman, and he's not in business to lose money. On the other hand, owners have screwed themselves. It costs a family of four over $100 to go to a game. As far as staying home and watching the game on TV, half of the time, the Vikes aren't on.

"Anyway, football is football. People will watch just about any game. And gamblers will always find something to bet on." (Egan)


   bus drivers

Perhaps the whole debate about how to finance a new Twins stadium would have been settled by now had legislators been privy to the conversation in the break room at the Metro Transit's Fifth Street Garage. "I can tell you how they can build that stadium," driver Bud Rowell says. "The first way is to use some of that $2 billion surplus they've got in the coffin and then replace it as the stadium makes money. Or do like they did for the flood victims and get Pohlad on the air saying, 'Here's my $11 million,' and Kirby can donate $1 million, and in two weeks they'll have their money. Heck, I'll send 'em $100."

While stadium opponents have been vocal, Rowell says, supporters have been quiet, causing the idea to be unjustly maligned. "What people don't understand is that we're not building it for the Twins but for the people of Minnesota. If you want baseball, then you have to pay for it."

Across the room, however, driver Tom Minks says he's stopped paying attention to sports. "With the money they make it's a slap in the face to the working man. Look what we had to do a few years ago--go on strike. It's an insult."

Besides, says Gloria Westphall, who has driven Route 16 past the Dome on game days, game-goers almost never ride the bus: They drive themselves, causing traffic backups all the way to the river. (Kelly Wittman)



You'd think that operating on Nicollet Mall, where small shops are soon to be displaced by Target and office towers, would pit an independent-business owner against all government-sponsored construction projects. That is, until you have all the facts: Michael Drivas, the proprietor of Big Brain Comics, is "a huge, sick football fan. A Packers fan." Thus, he says, he sympathizes with Minnesota fans who want to keep their teams.

But Drivas's pity is tempered with pragmatism. "I don't really think the Twins will go anywhere. When I lived in San Francisco, they held five different referendums and the Giants never left." His main concern is how a stadium will be funded. "They just couldn't increase the downtown sales tax any further. I think if you own a business, and it requires a venue, you have to figure that into your cost of business. I wouldn't mind if the stadium was built, but we don't have to give away the farm." (Christina Schmitt)



"They're not going to leave, are they?" says Miss Richfield when asked about the hullabaloo surrounding the Vikes and the Twins. "Are they going to take the stadium? How are they going to move that thing?" Ah, current affairs are a trifle when you're an aging beauty queen. But despite a hectic schedule of eight-hour sales, bingo, and her popular radio show on the Christian station KLAP (Kneel, Listen, and Pray), Miss Richfield has kept a cubic-zirconia-studded finger on the pulse of her town. If the Dome busts, she notes, a lot of people around 75th and Emerson are out of jobs staffing parking lots and peddling beer.  

"I don't know if I believe that these owners are so strapped," she surmises. "I mean, we're hauling it in at the VFW bingo games, and we're only charging $1.50 a card--and we're giving away great prizes, like coolers." She caresses a faux-mink shawl. "Then again, the money might be a little tight, the poor things. It seems like the players only have two sets of clothes."

If anybody's got the right to gripe about overblown entertainment, it's Miss Richfield. Color Me Richfield, her homemade, one-man/woman sell-out show at the tiny Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, probably drew bigger crowds than some of last season's Twins games. And you don't see her asking for an expanded, publicly funded theater--although, if the sports teams vacate the dome, she says she'd like to do her next show there, to help the city of Minneapolis.

But whatever people say about greedy owners, something about her blue-collar upbringing brings Miss R squarely back behind the average Twin and Vike. "When it comes to the ballplayers, I'm nothing but a big athletic supporter. And I don't blame 'em, talking about wanting another stadium. It's so crowded down by the Dome. They've got to go someplace to where they've got some room, where they can spread out and have some parking--maybe head out to Bloomington, tear down that mall, and put up something that'll attract the crowds, like a stadium and an ice arena."

And what if Minnesota's sports teams took off altogether? Miss R glances at her Vikings schedule: "It seems like they leave town a lot anyway." (Scott Carlson)


  Elliott Park Neighborhood Association

On the opposite side of the Dome from Sawatdee, Loren Niemi also recalls promises of economic salvation for depressed neighborhoods during the first big stadium push. "There had been a lot of talk about how it was going to create jobs. And it did, but they've only been part-time jobs that don't pay a living wage." Nor, he adds, was much done to mitigate the adverse effects of a stadium in residents' backyard--problems like public urination. "We've spoken to the police about this," says Niemi. "It's the Viking fans who pee all over the place, not the street drunks."

Despite the lack of bladder control among game goers, Niemi says he'd like to see the Twins and Vikings stay in Minneapolis, as long as the deal shakes out right. And should the Legislature fail to work something out, Niemi contends it would hardly spell the end for neighborhoods like his. After all, he says, "if you look back at history, we did very well before the Twins arrived." (Egan)



Used to be that Helen Pierce and her friend would take the bus from their Northeast Minneapolis high-rise to the Metrodome. "We'd have lunch and see a game. We'd always sit in the upper deck along the third-base line. You can see everything just fine from right there, and I like to have a rail in front of me when I'm in that building.

"Then my friend died and I haven't been out to many games since. I don't feel like I'm missing much when I can listen to Herb Carneal and John Gordon, though--they're so good I almost feel like I can see the game. Every year when the season ends I just don't know what I'm going to do. I enjoy football, but there aren't nearly enough games. And there's very little on television that interests me. I do watch Murder, She Wrote, and I have a video of the 1991 World Series that I'll take out and watch once in a while.

"I honestly can't think of them leaving. I'd give them $50 if it would help. I still remember watching the 1987 World Series on television, and I was here by myself and I got all excited. There have been so many wonderful moments."

If worst came to worst, Pierce guesses, she could always follow the Cubs on WGN. "But I certainly hope the Twins don't leave. And I might as well tell you that I've even gone so far as to pray about it." (Brad Zellar)


   hat retailer

One of the screens on the wall of video monitors dominating the Hat Zone is flickering in and out of snow. A clean-cut twentysomething sales guy swats at it with his foot, hoping to jar it back into synch with the other dozen-or-so TVs projecting a bass-heavy sound wave across the third floor of the Mall of America.  

This is the smaller of the two storefronts the Hat Zone occupies at the mall, and National Sales Manager Frank Brown estimates that on a typical Saturday the nook sells about 25 caps. But two weekends ago when the Vikes spanked the Patriots at the Metrodome, he sold 100 hats. Prima facie evidence, he says, that pro sports has an economic multiplier effect Twin Cities businesses won't miss until it's too late.

Sports, he insists over the throb of the music video, is a hype kind of industry. And he's off on a familiar rant: The basic problem with sports in Minnesota is the lame, fair-weather fan base. Brown himself is from a city with a beloved NFL team, where people understand the importance of new stadiums and aren't afraid to dig deep for hats, jackets, loge-level tickets, and skyboxes. Want proof? he asks, turning toward a group of hatless heads hesitating at the store's entrance. The Hat Zone in Kansas City sells almost nothing except Chiefs hats. And it's thriving. (Hawkins)



The toothy and affable program director of the Minnesota Historical Society's St. Anthony Falls office runs tours of the historic milling district around the falls. If the new Twins stadium gets built, it's likely to be plunked down in the middle of his route. But that doesn't worry David Wiggins much. "We interpret the history of the riverfront," he says. "If this is the latest wrinkle, we can interpret that too. They've been building a lot of big things down here for a long time."

Supposing all of them head out of town--Vikes, Twins, Wolves? That doesn't worry him either. "I don't anticipate a rash of suicides over the falls. The places that really need sports teams, like Nebraska," he offers, "are not as blessed with other things to do as we are. That's part of the problem sports teams have in keeping their stadiums full. Every time they are offering a game there are plenty of other things to do."

In fact, Wiggins claims, the loss of professional sports could be a net gain: "We need to learn to appreciate our real world. There's entertainment value in our sports teams, but it's not the same kind of value you find in the Mississippi--the value of a place, the meaning of a place. When our distractions leave, we might appreciate it more." (Joseph Hart)


   packers fans

A handful of Packer bars have sprung up in the Twin Cities, but Gabe's by the Park remains the granddaddy of them all, going on 15 years of hosting the green-and-gold faithful. And though the crowd wastes few opportunities to rip on Vikings fans, Minnesotans' reluctance to finance stadiums isn't a common gripe. "That's just screwed up, if people are so weak they can't tell the teams to hit the road," says Brent Potvin of Little Canada. "Pay your own bills." What if it were the Pack threatening to leave Green Bay? Could he justify spending tax dollars on them? "I don't even think I could do that," he says. "To see these players get paid that much, and then have the team turn around and say, 'Well, the city or state owes us something,' I don't think I could do it."

Green Bay native Chris Brown, who now lives in Minneapolis, isn't so sure. "If I were in Wisconsin, and they were saying, 'We need this to keep the team around,' I'm sure that people would rally," he chuckles. "We'd come up with ways to justify why we had to do it." Meanwhile, he says, spurned Vikings fans do have options. "I always welcome them into the fold," Brown says, "as long as they realize it's a one-way trip." (Pribek) CP


   policy wonk

"I honestly believe that if the Twin Cities lost all its pro-sports franchises, it would look like a cold Omaha," Erik Hare says in measured, serious tones. He can't keep it up for more than 10 seconds, however, before bursting into a compulsive giggle. "Having said that, Omaha isn't such a bad place. Have you ever been there? It has a low crime rate, people tend to know their neighbors, and they never have their NFL games blacked out."

A politically plugged-in research engineer, Hare has lived up the street from the St. Paul Civic Center for the better part of a decade. And while he's generally opposed to public subsidies for sports facilities, he's of a divided mind when it comes to whether hockey would be good for his West Seventh-corridor neighborhood, Irvine Park. When the International Hockey League's Minnesota Moose played downtown, his neighborhood watering hole filled up with fans on game nights. But the regulars stayed away, so Hare's not sure if there was a financial bounce.  

More significant is March Madness; the annual high-school basketball, hockey, and wrestling tournaments. "These kids come in from Roseville or wherever and they're in the big city and they're having the time of their lives. Pro games full of adults--they're not as fun."

Hare sounds surprisingly lukewarm for a homeowner about to end up within slapshot distance of an NHL expansion team. But let him range onto the topic of arenas-as-urban planning, and he's suddenly animated. The Target Center, Whopper-box facade aside, is at least smack dab in the middle of Minneapolis's night life, he notes. But both the Civic Center and the Metrodome are surrounded by barren concrete aprons. And under the Twins' proposal restaurants and bars would be inside a new stadium's walls.

"It's the stupidest damn thing, and why a city would promote that is beyond me," Hare rails. "The idea of spending money [on a sports facility] is that it's an investment: Bring people in and they spend money. But if you subsidize their entire experience, you never collect." His biggest fear for St. Paul, he says, is that "we blow the wad on hockey and leave the empty concrete wasteland around it. That sort of prepackaged thing is pure evil." (Beth Hawkins)



The owner of Shannon Kelly's Brew Pub, a neighborhood pub located a stone's throw from the Civic Center, still licks his chops thinking about the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament held in St. Paul in last year. His Sixth and Wabasha eatery attracts suits from Ecolab and The St. Paul Companies by day, hotel workers and tourists at night. But during the tournament, "people would come before and after the game. The revenue generated that day would be more than a 30 percent increase." Going pro--the National Hockey League promised the city a franchise last spring--could mean more of the same, McGovern says. "It's gonna be like having a WCHA hockey tournament 45 to 50 nights per year."

What's more, he adds, pro sports boosts downtown traffic even on non-game nights. "It dispels the enigma," he explains. "People say, 'Let's go downtown. It only takes five minutes to get there, parking is easy, and there's a lot of restaurants.'"

Yet McGovern won't grant pro teams carte blanche, drawing a careful distinction between stadium subsidies across the river and the proposal to build a hockey arena in St. Paul. "The hockey deal is just a loan," he says. "The baseball thing has to be repaid--by taxpayers." For now he'd rather keep those dollars in his pocket. And if that means no stadium, or even no hockey--well, "life will go on." (Joel Hoekstra)



The stadium deal has never come up on "Let's Motivate," the biweekly KMOJ-FM show in which a gaggle of kids sit down with Travis Lee to discuss current issues. "They're not really interested. They can count, too. They count the millions the athletes and the owners are making, and they realize that they're not putting forth. All of us would like to get our whole lives subsidized, but just because we see a crack in the wall doesn't mean we get to demand a new house."

As for the Twins' recent commercial--the one appealing to legislators to preserve the chances of kids in North Minneapolis to see pro games--Lee chortles. "Let them put their money where their mouth is. I was an intern with the Twins organization for a while. They don't have a lot of minorities in the front office, and they don't even have that many on the field. Five African American players at one time is about the most they've had.

"I think kids in North Minneapolis aren't concerned about going to the Metrodome, they're concerned about a place to play in the neighborhood. They have to sell cakes and wash cars to pay for uniforms. They can't afford sneakers. Kirby Puckett has done a lot, but the rest of the athletes aren't doing it, and the kids know it." (Bauerlein)


   real-estate agent

"I've never sold a home to a professional athlete," Sandy Green muses during a break between client appointments at her house in Minneapolis's Wedge neighborhood. The puke-yellow-shingled renovation-project-in-progress serves as headquarters for her independent agency.  

"However," Green continues, "I've sold a lot of homes to people who are interested in soccer and in tennis. I've had people who wanted big, flat yards so they could play volleyball. But when you talk about the major leagues--the people I've sold to, from $400,000 homes to $55,000 homes, can't afford to go to those games, and they don't care what happens to those teams."

Does the presence of teams, and their stadiums, affect real-estate values? "For commercial property, maybe. For residential? Look, how many people really want that kind of thing in their back yard? There's the parking problems, and the congestion, and people littering on their way in and out. I suppose it makes a difference for corporations when they have people visiting who want these fancy seats. Me, I've been to one Timberwolves game, and I had free tickets." (Bauerlein)



The owner of Sawatdee on Sixth and Washington avenues recalls the economic promises made by Minneapolis officials in 1982 with the bitterness of a bride left at the altar. "When the Dome was being built, they had projected that business would be up and prosperous," she says. "But it never materialized. We get nothing from the Twins fans. The Vikings are better, but they're only here five or six times a year. On the other hand, U2 and the Rolling Stones packed them in here. We didn't have enough room to seat everyone."

When the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission began to eye her property as a potential site for a new stadium last year, Harrison waged a one-woman war. "I went to the Sports Commission hearings regularly and protested," she says. "I don't want to move. When you move, you lose customers." And although the commission settled on a different site, Harrison maintains the decision didn't dampen her passion. "The city wants big business," she charges. "They want to vote on this issue with no consideration for voters or business owners. They're not pro-small business in this town."

Rather than focusing on the Twins and Vikings--both of whom, she hastens to add, she likes--the city should concentrate on bringing in a variety of events. "I would rather see a lot more concerts. [Concert-goers] come downtown and spend money. Unlike the sports fans--they come in, go into the Dome, eat there, and leave. Even the Promise Keepers brought in more business." (Mary Ellen Egan)


   sports instructor

Steve Winfield has his own publicly subsidized sports dome, over on Rice Street in St. Paul. The city of St. Paul built it two years ago in a joint venture with Inside Sports, the nonprofit where Winfield is lead instructor. There's Little League baseball and girls' fast-pitch softball, soccer, and the occasional martial-arts class. Athletes from University of Minnesota programs have come over to do clinics, Winfield says, "and so has my kid brother, Dave."

Yes, Winfield says, pro-sports teams are important in motivating kids: "Even if you don't attend a bunch of games, for kids to be able to read about it and hear about it, the appearances by the players and things like that, are an incentive to think about wanting to play."

What they play, however, varies with the times and the preferences of adults. "When the Twins won the World Series, participation in baseball soared. There were a lot of places around the state where they actually had to build some more Little League parks." Now that the team stinks, soccer has regained its spot as the fastest-growing sport in Minnesota.

All of which means that while Winfield is anxious to keep pro sports in town, he admits to wanting to see teams held accountable. "Communities ought to be more consistent with that. Some of the pro-sports owners have gotten spoiled, with people bending over backwards for them. If the owners put a sincere effort into seeming like they're trying to be a part of the community, investing in the community, having the organization and the players involved, it would endear them more to people." (Monika Bauerlein)


   sports librarian

Every few minutes a line forms at the Minneapolis Public Library's sociology, religion, and sports reference desk, and every time Ted Hathaway skillfully produces a book to address even the most outlandish question. But when asked to envision a city without professional sports, he doesn't pause to look up the answer. "No big change," he blurts out, hastily adding that he's not just a fan, but a member of the American Society for Baseball Research. "It's not the same as it was 20 or 40 years ago. There are better places to spend our money. Most of the people who'll make all of the money off this [new stadium] don't even live in the state." His stare darkens as he assures me once again of his love for the game. "I am tired," he says, "of this kind of blackmail." (Katharine Kelly)  



You'd be hard pressed to find anybody who has had a more symbiotic and longstanding relationship with the Minnesota Twins and professional sports in the Twin Cities than Ray Crump. Crump started working as a batboy at Griffith Stadium in Washington when he was 10, and was the batboy for the visiting Yankees on April 16, 1953, when Mickey Mantle hit a 565-foot home run, the longest recorded in major-league history. When Calvin Griffith brought the Twins to Minnesota in 1961, Crump came along as the equipment manager, a position he held until 1984. Since 1986, Crump and his souvenir shop/oddball museum have been hunkered down in the shadow of the Dome, and he has experienced the good times and the bad of the local sports scene as keenly as anyone.

"As it is, I can't give away Twins merchandise," he scoffs. "This last summer was almost as bad as the strike years; we'd get people milling around in here before Twins games buying Vikings stuff. It's ridiculous. Manufacturers don't even want to make Twins stuff, and who can blame 'em? Sure, on a personal level it's important to me that they keep baseball here, but the way things are going I don't even know if I'm gonna be in business if and when they get a new stadium built anyway.

"I don't feel they even need a new stadium. It's been more than proven that if you put a winner on the field here, they'll pack the Dome. The bottom line is that Pohlad is responsible for selling the product, and he hasn't done anything.

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