Government warms up for wild pitch on baseball stadium
By Michael Lewis
It happens every spring: As baseball season nears, the first pitch is thrown to build a ballpark.
Already, politicians are warming up their pitches in the appropriate place: the bull pen. From the governor down to mayors, everyone is about to cash in on America's national pastime: throwing away public money.
Why? Well, we need another stadium so Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria can increase profits and join other owners in a frenzy to write $100 million-plus player contracts.
As it is, Mr. Loria banked a paltry few million in profit last year from a team he hasn't yet paid for. The league lent him money to buy the Marlins, so with bigger profits, he can pay his debts.
Maybe that's why the big leagues are focused on a stadium funded by you and me with profits going to the Marlins and thence to the league for all the owners to share. If we build a fancy stadium, every team will share in our largesse.
Like any fan, I'd love a ballpark downtown. The new site beside county hall is ideal for both fans and county officials who after spending our money on a stadium will be able to view games right from their high-floor offices, a Wrigley Field rooftop view on steroids (sorry if that word makes Major League Baseball cringe).
But fan or not, I have a few concerns about using 9 prime public acres and funding almost all of a half-billion-dollar stadium (most of what the Marlins pledge is just rent at bargain-basement rates).
I worry about taking a site reserved for a juvenile-justice center so adults can play baseball. But I suppose the teens will just hop Metrorail to a center somewhere in West Miami-Dade — just as soon as we build a Metrorail line there. Meanwhile, delinquents can stand around outside the ballpark.
As with every big public project, a stadium downtown would be a real estate deal. Such deals generally benefit folks whose names we all know. Certainly, government knows the lobbyists' names.
In fairness, this wouldn't be a deal where the county buys land from very good friends for a ballpark. But then, just who will sell us the substitute site for the juvenile-justice center?
And who'd handle construction? Will the Marlins oversee work on a stadium they don't own? Or will the wonderful folks who brought you the Carnival Center's hundreds of millions in overruns? And will stadium officials annually ask taxpayers to fund operating shortfalls, as those at the arts center are destined to?
Public officials say it's premature to cite costs or sources of funds. But they've targeted cash from Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency, most of whose board wisely say that over their dead bodies would money meant to aid poor areas go to Major League Baseball.
They've got a point. About 800 major-leaguers last year were paid an average $2,699,292, totaling almost $2.2 billion. And we're taking money from downtrodden Overtown for them?
The minimum major-league salary this year is $380,000 for a rookie who'll get more splinters sitting on the bench than hits. Meanwhile, the 13 county commissioners, who spend almost $7 billion a year, will get $6,000 each, or $78,000 collectively — a fifth of what the lowest-paid ballplayer gets for a summer's work followed by a five-month vacation.
Even so, elected officials will fall all over themselves to say they'll save baseball here by building a stadium. And they'll talk about the great economic payback.
In economic development, we spend $1 to get a $2 or $5 or $10 shot in the wallet. But a ballpark wouldn't create paychecks because the same number of people who'd work there would lose jobs where the Marlins play now, at Dolphin Stadium.
So we'll be told that a stadium will spark development nearby.
That could happen in Hialeah. But what would rise around this site, smack in the middle of federal, state, county and city government buildings? The best we could hope for is more government. Goodie.
By the way, since when did a government office complex qualify as a depressed area? Depressing, maybe, but depressed?
The folks who want to spend our money to support baseball and those $2.7 million average salaries aren't badly motivated. They just love to hear the crack of the bat and the accolades of voters. And maybe they even believe the Marlins would leave town if we don't throw them really big bucks.
But at a half-billion dollars, a stadium is a really bad buy — and really bad policy.
It would be far cheaper just to pay Mr. Loria's debt to Major League Baseball for him — or buy the whole team. That would just give strong mayor Carlos Alvarez a bit more to manage besides 30,000-plus employees.
Think how much profit the county could make running a team and paying players as little as we pay commissioners — about $3 an hour, less than half of Florida's minimum wage.
On the other hand, government could use that spare half-billion for true community needs. We must need something.
And if we can't find anything we need more than baseball, why not just cut a half-billion out of our taxes? Now there's a pitch worth tossing back to that government bull pen.