Bury baseball stadium bonds as Barry goes "Out on Bonds'
By Michael Lewis
As Florida Marlins executives toil to cement a deal to get you and me to build them a baseball stadium, the ground under them gets shakier.
Four weeks ago I noted in this space that County Manager George Burgess had told a bond oversight board that a deal had to be struck within a few weeks to get the team into a new stadium in 2011, when its lease at Dolphin Stadium expires.
But last week the focus of baseball shifted from bond oversight to Bonds oversight, as baseball's biggest name — in terms of home runs and possibly illegal performance enhancers as well — was indicted on four charges of perjury and one of obstructing justice.
It's unfair to say that as all-time home run king Barry Bonds goes, so must go the Marlins' bid for unfettered access to the public purse. But it's no stretch to say that the Bonds case, and spinoffs that could ripple widely, could turn baseball from America's Pastime to America's past time.
Here in Miami, baseball has never gotten the attention, or attendance, that other sports have. As the Barry Bonds saga turns into a criminal case in which tabloid headlines are sure to read "Out on Bonds," baseball's popularity will not be rising.
Financing for a stadium rests on issuing bonds for 35 or 40 years, to be repaid by a slice of Marlins ticket revenues. If the Bonds case and others that may follow bury ticket sales, repaying the bonds will be as problematic as Mr. Bonds.
Meanwhile, the Marlins are at work again selling off their big names to cut costs. Miguel Cabrera, a third baseman whom team announcers have touted as a future member of the hall of fame, is about to become another member of the All-Star Team's big former-Marlins club. He will be traded to save $10 million in 2008 salary.
But don't expect owners Jeffrey Loria and Co. to plunk those savings into a stadium.
In fact, they and Major League Baseball — the confederation of team owners to which the Loria group owes millions that it borrowed to buy the Marlins — now say that since they're getting an inferior stadium site from the community, they'll fund even less in construction than they'd promised.
The community is trying to foist the historic Orange Bowl grounds on the poor old Marlins, who'd rather have something in the heart of downtown, preferably on the waterfront. That land would only add several hundred million to the cost of a ballpark that's already at the half-billion mark, but then, that would be the public's money, so why worry?
So, let's see, since we last chronicled the ballpark saga four weeks ago, the Bonds case has surfaced, Mr. Cabrera is packing his suitcase, Major League Baseball says the site they were okay with in August is now dogmeat and, oh yes, the frustrated Miami City Commission has told the Marlins if they don't make a firm deal by Dec. 13, forget about the Orange Bowl land or any city money.
Meanwhile, as the Marlins retract their old vow to put $45 million into a stadium, the New York Yankees are about to sign Miamian Alex Rodriguez to a $275 million contract so that he can play with them until he breaks Barry Bonds' home run record. They'll pay one player half the price of a Miami stadium.
Now, factor in one more impediment to the stadium: everyone in Florida government is trying to change property tax laws that underpin both Miami- Dade County's and Miami's income stream. So many heavy-hitters have their oar in this that the outcome could be anything at all.
How can government deal away a half billion when it has no idea about future revenues and when the property values upon which taxes are based are about to decline next year for the first time in memory? It's fine to say the money comes out of this pot or that pot, but in the end there is only one pot that pays the freight — us.
The stadium dealmakers have already missed by weeks the deadline that County Manager Burgess floated last month, but they're staring at one sure deadline that should influence any misguided efforts to send money Mr. Loria's way.
Barry Bonds is due to make his first criminal court appearance next month. The exact day is December 7, 2007, a date that will live in baseball infamy. A government deal to hand baseball what is essentially a free ballpark would be equally criminal and equally infamous.