Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
2005-11-22 20:38
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The Rockies don't get compared much to their original expansion partners, the Florida Marlins, because there's frankly no comparison. We have one playoff appearance since 1993; they have two championships. The Marlins have been completely disassembled and rebuilt since the Rockies were any good. But, they're going to move and we're staying in Denver. Why?

Since the early '90s, every major league team except for the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Yankees without one has been agitating for a new stadium. Bud Selig, for all you might want to say about his other qualities, has managed to turn major league baseball's antitrust exemption and relative scarcity into a hard and fast policy: if a city wants to attract (or keep) a team, public funds have to buy it a stadium. At the same time, new ownership groups have been selected not on on the basis of access to capital but on closeness to the existing cartel and willingness to work the established system. And so taxpayers have sprung for an ugly domed thing in Milwaukee that claimed several workmen's lives and yet still has a leaky roof. The public has tripled the value of the Pittsburgh franchise for its eventual sale while seeing no improvement whatsoever on the field. They've built a barn in Detroit nobody likes while leaving old, charming Tiger Stadium to rot, still standing less than a mile away. And although it's hardly a phenomenon unique to baseball, we've been subjected to stadium names that change more often than Reggie Sanders changes uniforms, all in an effort to prevent baseball's owners from having to pay any money whatsoever towards improving their own business's infrastructure. Comiskey to U.S. Cellular. Enron to Minute Maid. Bank One Ballpark to Chase Field. Joe Robbie Stadium to Pro Player Park. When does it all end?

The only team to finance its own park in the last 20 years is the Giants. It may be a coincidence, but Pac Bell Park -- or whatever it's called now, I guess nobody's perfect -- is by far the nicest of the new generation of quirky, asysmmetrical ballyards, as well as one of the most consistently filled. For their trouble San Francisco has received a black mark in the book of most other baseball owners, especially those still trying to find their free meal ticket in Minnesota, South Florida, Oakland, and elsewhere. Don't let the fans know it's possible to pay for your own ballpark and field a competitive team! That's like taking away our license to print money!

As for the Marlins, I wrote when the Rockies travelled there early on the season that they were only some $30 million away from getting their own flip-top baseball-only facility right next to the Orange Bowl. Now they're going to move over $30 million? Apparently so. And why wouldn't they, when some city -- likely Portland or Las Vegas -- will be more than willing to promise them that money and so much more? MLB hasn't quite reached the depths of the NBA, where certain owners move teams into situations where they know they have no hope of long-term success just to secure a few seasons of free rent and guaranteed minimum ticket sales. But look at the quagmire in Washington, D.C., where MLB is some four years behind schedule on finding a new ownership group for the former Expos. Are there groups with the capital to get a stadium built at least in part with private funds? Of course there are. Would baseball rather steer the team into the arms of a more cash-poor group who will guarantee not to rock the free money boat the current owners have sailing? You bet.

The Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard is playing the owners' tune when he blames the Marlins' failure on "the worst major-league city in North America." Hey, I can't blame Miami fans for staying the heck away from Pro Player, home of the only outfield fence ad in baseball that can be seen from outer space. I can't blame them for not coming back after the embarrassing '98 post-championship fire sale either. They're not one of the worst major-league cities on the continent, they're one of the first to get smart. If Las Vegas or Portland wants to pay for their own version of the Tigers or Pirates and watch 20 years of .500 ball in half-full (but extremely profitable) tax shelters, that's their business.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' new ownership is slashing ticket prices, loosening restrictions on outside food, and giving away parking spaces in an understanding that building a successful baseball franchise is not necessarily about ending up in the black every year. The Devil Rays, never close to the Marlins' (or even the Rockies') equal on the field, have it all over them when it comes to a business model.

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