Marlins won't win with Las Vegas gambit
By Michael Lewis
As the Florida Marlins use the stalking horse of baseball-hungry Las Vegas to squeeze more cash for a stadium here, events in Washington suddenly play a keystone role.
Two Marlins executives flew to visit the Las Vegas mayor between talks to close a $47 million financing gap in a deal for a new stadium here and solve the thorny issue of guaranteed payment for stadium cost overruns.
Gambling capital Las Vegas is dying for a team. A sudden breakdown in efforts to return baseball to Washington gives Las Vegas two targets - the former Montreal Expos, who a few weeks ago became the Washington Nationals; and the Florida Marlins, who might become the Las Vegas Double-Dealers.
Last week, the District of Columbia Council startled Major League Baseball, which owns the Montreal/Washington team, by voting to pay only half of a stadium's cost - the other half must be private, the council ruled.
Baseball officials said that in that case, Washington wouldn't get the team permanently though it might play for a year or two in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which is being refurbished for $16.5 million, until some city builds a stadium. Las Vegas has been the frontrunner.
Here's baseball's dilemma: It wants to auction off the team. If a new owner had to pay half of a stadium's $531 million cost, bids would fall. Since 29 teams would split proceeds, each could get $9 million less if Washington officials make private enterprise pay for private profits - a stance from which they partially backed off this week.
It wasn't always this way. Teams once built and owned ballparks. Then when baseball discovered it could hold a city hostage by threatening to move, owners stopped paying. But a new San Francisco stadium was built with all but $15 million in private funds, so it can be done.
Back at home, the Marlins are $47 million short for a $420 million ballpark. Miami and Miami-Dade County are on the hook for all costs, and the Marlins want to keep it that way. They don't plan to put in a dime. They want government - which means taxpayers - to pay.
The Marlins claim they're already pledging $192 million for stadium costs that don't include the infrastructure needed to get people to a site near the Orange Bowl or money to take land from which hundreds must be evicted.
But the Marlins' claim includes $162 million in rent payments, about $4.5 million a year. Rent is operating income, not capital investment. And the other $30 million the Marlins claim would be ticket surcharges paid by customers.
So the Marlins and the Expos/Nationals are playing exactly the same game: seeking stadiums at 100% public expense and threatening to run to Las Vegas - or some even less desirable location - if they don't get the money.
Clearly, the Expos/Nationals are first up for Las Vegas because the wallets of 29 teams' owners, not just one, are at risk.
Unfortunately for baseball, Las Vegas is not an option, despite what the commissioner might say.
Just remember why baseball has a commissioner. It had none when gamblers paid eight Chicago White Sox players to lose the 1919 World Series so bettors could clean up. The scandal nearly ruined baseball, so owners hired a commissioner to rebuild trust by distancing every player from anyone tied to gambling.
Pete Rose, a great player, is not in baseball's Hall of Fame: He has been banned from baseball because the commissioner believes he placed bets on games.
Move baseball to the gambling capital of the nation? No way, though it's a good ploy to get Washington and Miami to spend more.
As for payback from baseball, study after study shows there is none. A ballpark is a net loss. It doesn't create jobs, just shifts them.
And the argument that a city cannot be big league without baseball?
No one is going to forget the pivotal roles of Washington and Miami with or without a ballclub. Kansas City, maybe. But not the nation's capital or the capital of Latin America.
A 1982 novel, "Shoeless Joe," by W.P. Kinsella, is always cited when building a ballpark. It spawned the movie "Field of Dreams" and the catch phrase "Build it and they will come."
But remember this: The "they" in the quote is not referring to fans who flock to a ballpark but players who show up to play. And who were those players in Kinsella's novel? The Chicago White Sox whom gamblers paid to lose.
Major League Baseball would be crazy to bring back the White Sox/Black Sox memory in Las Vegas. And the citizens of Washington and Miami would be crazy to spend a penny more than is now pledged for parks that would funnel every penny to owners rather than taxpayers.
Draw a chalk line in the sand: Enough is enough. Let baseball pay for something itself.
The teams have nowhere to go. In negotiations, the pressures are on them, not us. Las Vegas is an empty threat, a gamble nobody will take.
As for the threat of losing a team, look to the title of another baseball book: "Fear Strikes Out."