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As Long as We Remember...

August 16, 2004

Proving P. T. Barnum Right Again

Tony Soltero

One of the enduring challenges that we humans face on a daily basis is separating emotion from reason. This constant inner struggle affects us in almost every aspect of our lives.

"I really love that big, powerful Silverado -- but that Honda will give me much better gas mileage, and exactly how much desert driving am I going to be doing in Maryland anyway?" This scenario, and many others like it, pops up all the time.

It is with this thought in mind that I deal with the idea of the Washington area acquiring a baseball team, namely the Montreal Expos. As a big baseball fan, I'd love to have twice as many games available for me to attend in a season. I'd love to be able to hop on the Metro after work and take in a ballgame. And a franchise in D.C. would be an enormous boon to Northern Virginia baseball fans, giving them an option other than driving up to a hundred miles to see the Orioles if they want to catch major-league action.

Emotionally, I would welcome a team to D.C. with open arms. I think most of us would.

But then the rational part of the mind kicks in. And once we take a closer look at the surrounding circumstances, the bloom falls off the rose pretty fast.

See, there's this little matter of a ballpark. Teams need stadiums to play in. And these cribs don't exactly come cheap.

Not only are these ballparks pricey. The current trend is to have the local taxpayers foot the bill for them. And major-league baseball (as well as the other major American sports leagues) has been able to get away with this for over a decade.

In these tight fiscal times, with the national economy in crisis, and with cities and municipalities barely having enough money to plow snow off the streets, how do they manage to find funds to erect these new green cathedrals?

It's an especially appalling situation when one considers that pro sports teams are owned by extremely wealthy individuals, who can certainly raise the capital to build their own ballparks.

But pro sports franchises, well aware of the emotional attachment local fans have to their teams, aren't above using blackmail and extortion to socialize the costs of their physical structures. And far too many citizens just play right along, fearful of losing their teams if they don't throw their money at the owners.

Major-league baseball accomplishes this by keeping the number of baseball franchises artificially scarce. By leaving one market "open," it has been successful in coercing major-league cities into building publicly-subsidized ballparks, lest they pull up stakes and move into that vacant market.

Over the last 30-odd years, that "open" market has been Washington. Over the years several franchises have been "rumored" to be coming to Washington, only to have their host city come through with an 11th-hour offer that usually involves bushels of taxpayer money thrown at owners, often at the expense of schools and roads.

The NFL used Baltimore that way for years. Remember all those hoops the home of the Colts had to jump through to prove its "worthiness" for a franchise, and still never got one until Art Modell did to Cleveland what Bob Irsay had done to Baltimore?

Several years ago, the Expos ownership group began to agitate for a new public stadium. When the city of Montreal refused to play ball, so to speak, the franchise owners stopped trying to win, and consciously and deliberately dismantled what had been a fine team with a thriving fan base. With the team just going through the motions, the fans abandoned ship, and now baseball has the perfect excuse to move the team.

But only to the city willing to prostrate itself to the Lords of the Baseball Realm. The Expos have been dangled to Washington, Portland, Las Vegas, and even Monterrey, Mexico. If you build it, we will come -- but only if you also pay for it.

It would be one thing if with this public money came public accountability. But baseball teams have become very adept at obfuscating their real profit figures, employing all kinds of creative accounting tricks to cry poverty even as revenues soar, thanks in large part to the local taxpayer.

The most egregious example was that of this year's Milwaukee Brewers. Despite record revenues in 2003 and thanks in large part to their new publicly-funded stadium, the franchise cut player payroll to the bone, effectively extending its middle finger to Wisconsin fans and taxpayers.

Is this the club Washington wants to join? Does a city that can't pay for its schools, decent law enforcement, and basic street maintenance really need to take on this kind of new expense?

Emotionally, it would be great if D.C. got a team. But rationally speaking, we should get on board only if the stadium funding is privately sourced -- as Peter Magowan did in San Francisco.

If the owners are going to reap the profits generated from the franchise, it is only fair that they provide the bulk of the capital investment.

The city of Los Angeles has successfully stood up to the NFL, effectively telling the league that it would welcome a team, but only on the city's terms, not the league's. The NFL needs L.A. more than L.A. needs the NFL.

Let's hope the Washington municipal government shows similar backbone, even if it means denying their emotional desires for instant gratification.

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