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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT
When Arrogance Rules
By Tom Goldstein
On the evening of May 18, 2002, two days before the Minnesota legislature would adjourn for the year, state lawmakers approved a financing bill authorizing the funding of a new Minnesota Twins stadium somewhere in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. (As expected, Governor Jesse Ventura signed the bill into law a few weeks after the legislative session ended.) Ostensibly, the $330 million "retractable-roof-ready" outdoor stadium will be paid for with the proceeds raised from the sale of thirty-year revenue bonds, with the Twins required to pay $120 million in advance into an investment account that will supposedly generate enough earnings to not only cover about half of the annual interest costs for the bonds, but somehow grow large enough to also retire the principal amount of the bonds when they become due.
Not surprisingly (and apart from the general financial skepticism expressed by many), there are a few problems with the legislation, not the least of which being that the Twins have no intention of putting any up-front money into a stadium project. The team doesn't say this in public, of course, but even before the ink had dried on the new legislation, Twins president Jerry Bill expressed "concerns" about the bill. The chief concern, of course, aside from the Twins wanting to have a retractable roof added to the deal (something they've already begun suggesting can be done through a lease arrangement with a major construction firm), is that the bill effectively excludes the city of Minneapolis from being home to the new structure.
In 1997, in response to the Twins first legislative push for a new building, local community activists in Minneapolis helped pass a referendum that amended that city's charter to limit public expenditures on a new stadium to no more than $10 million. As a result, if the Mill City (as it's known to locals) is going to serve as a potential host for the new stadium, it will need to partner with the much larger Hennepin County, whose population base is better able to support the new taxes that would be required to pay the other half of the annual interest payments that the revenue bonds require. Unfortunately, the final language of the bill excluded the participation of counties, a result achieved in part by the efforts of St. Paul's new mayor, a veteran legislator who apparently was able to apply the necessary influence to produce a bill that must delight the monied interests in the Capital City, where the inferiority complex of my adopted hometown can be quite palpable among longtime residents.
But don't count Minneapolis out just yet. In order for a city to have a chance to become host to the new stadium, it must first pass a referendum in which local residents agree to raise the sales tax for its bars and restaurants by as much as five percent. Given that a previous such effort in St. Paulin which the city sought just a half-percent sales tax increase to fund new digs for the Twins in 1999failed miserably at the polls, it's by no means certain whether the constant threat of contraction combined with the war chest of St. Paul's downtown business community will sway the electorate. In fact, it's quite possible that no referendum will even be placed on the ballot, as the Twins have thus far rebuffed St. Paul's mayor in his attempt to get an exclusive deal from the team guaranteeing that the club would move to that city if a sales tax increase was approved by St. Paul voters. And if no referendum is passed by September 30, the new legislation comes off the state's books.
Of course, that is exactly what the Twins are hoping will happen. Because, as St. Paul's mayor will soon discover (if he hasn't known all along), the Twins have no interest in moving across the river from Minneapolis. Nor do they have any intention of putting one dime of billionaire team owner Carl Pohlad's money into a new stadium deal, something that's always been obvious to those of us who have followed Minnesota stadium politics the past five years and witnessed firsthand the club's machinations each legislative session.
Instead, the team expects that it can simply return to the legislature in 2003 to get a new bill passed that puts Minneapolis into play and, with any luck, includes an extra $100 million or so to cover the expense of a retractable roof. Such arrogance is possible when you spend millions of dollars annually on a bevy of lobbyists who can blanket the legislature year after year. (On the evening of May 18, when not more than three Twins fans were present at what was supposed to be a "huge" rally at the state capitol, I counted at least thirty-five individuals who were identified to me as either Twins lobbyists or those affiliated with the lobbying efforts of the cites of St. Paul and Minneapolis.)
Approximately four years ago I began what can only be described as a quixotic quest to somehow change the nature of stadium politics in Minnesota. It was around that time that I became familiar with the work of Philip Bess, a Chicago-based professor of architecture who has been arguing since the mid-1980s that what Major League Baseball sorely needs is not extravagant retro stadiums like Camden Yards or Jacobs Field, but modern versions of historic ballparks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park that cost hundreds of millions of dollars less to construct (than retro stadia) yet are still capable of generating the additional revenues that today's out-of-control game seems to require. Phil's vision for how a team could build an updated "traditional urban ballpark" (the label he came up with to describe the classic concrete and steel ballparks that were built in the early 1900s) was turned into a monograph that he titled City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense About Cities and Baseball Parksand was originally published in 1989 by the predecessor to this journal, The Minneapolis Review of Baseball. The slim, saddle-stitched publication made a heck of a lot of sense in 1989, and arguably is a major reason why modern baseball stadia incorporate any traditional ballpark features in their design.
In 1989, however, stadium design wasn't even on my radar screen, but when I encountered Phil's original volume in 1998, I realized that his vision was all the more compelling, especially against the backdrop of the $420 million retractable-roof-stadium that the Twins had sought and failed to get from the Minnesota legislature in 1997. While I had experienced in person the multitude of shortcomings one faces when watching baseball at the Metrodome, I had also taken in games at Fulton County Stadium, New Comiskey Park, and Jacobs Fieldand found none of those places particularly satisfying, either. What was missing was the camaraderie among fans, the kind of baseball experience that comes from being close to the action at places like Wrigley Field and Tiger Stadium, as well as several minor league parks. Places where baseball is the focus, not the sideshow.
Somehow I concluded that Minnesota could be the place where modern baseball fandom could be revived, where the state's progressive political tradition would serve as a crucible for a grand experiment: the building of the first traditional urban ballpark in eighty-plus years. I believed that even a corporate-dominated franchise like the Twins would inevitably warm to the incredible spark that a return to the intimate ballpark tradition would provideespecially in light of the financial success that the Cubs and Red Sox had enjoyed throughout the 1990s with their historic parks. Perhaps even a Twins national cable network would be a possibility. But first I had to get the word out. City Baseball Magic had to be reprinted. So that's what I did.
Three years later I'm still awaiting the Twins official response.
In retrospect, I suppose it was pretty naive to expect the Twins would pay any attention to the concepts in City Baseball Magic, let alone that anyone in Major League Baseball would show interest. After all, if one concedes that Philip Bess is the maverick ballpark guru that I believe him to be, then one would also have to concede that virtually every team in baseball could survive with a much less extravagant venue. And such heresy just isn't permitted in the debate about stadia these days, especially when it suggests that modern traditional ballparks could probably be built almost exclusively with private funding.
Thus, more and more I become resigned to the inevitability that the Twins will likely prevail in their incessant push for a new outdoor stadium, retractable roof or not. After all, when a team has a contingent of lobbyists and a supplicant media in its pocket, what chance is there that any political leaders will care about a little book full of ideas that might be one of the keys to baseball's long-term survival?
In the end, however, Bud Selig and his fellow owners should be paying close attention to the words and ideas of people like Philip Bess when they talk about ballpark intimacy. Because with attendance continuing to stagnate or plummet at brand-new stadia in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee, baseball will soon realize what many others have already begun to understand: unless your team is going to win every year, you better have something else besides Ferris wheels and theme-park restaurants if you plan to retain your fan base. Especially when there's no Mark McGwire around to revive the game after the impending work stoppage that looms over this season becomes a reality.
TOM GOLDSTEIN expects to go to his grave with thousands of copies of City Baseball Magic in his possession. He and his son attended their first-ever game at Fenway Park in late June.
This column first appeared in EFQ 19:3, Summer 2002© 2002 Tom Goldstein
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