Negotiations for "Baseball in our time' ignore the basics
By Michael Lewis
As county and Miami city officials debate where to dig a money pit in which to fling hundreds of millions for Major League Baseball, they're wrestling with the wrong questions.
Debate shouldn't focus on whether to shoehorn a stadium into a downtown site that's far too small or instead spend taxpayers' money to tear down the historic Orange Bowl and build there.
Site should come after the key issues, not before. If I were elected to safeguard my community's wellbeing, I'd be asking:
•Should we be handing a business $800 million — a $500 million stadium with bond interest over 30 years — or do we have better uses for public funds? Anyone who can't find better doesn't deserve to be kindergarten president much less commissioner.
•What would the public get for a handout to the Marlins? Studies prove baseball doesn't attract tourists or create jobs. Tourists are here anyway and would spend their money on something else instead of a ballgame. Workers at a new ballpark would just leave jobs at Dolphin Stadium.
•Can Miami be major-league without Major League Baseball? Ask Paris, London, Rome, Buenos Aires, Madrid or … Somehow, all seem to muddle through.
Those facts should be decisive, but government is still hell-bent on bending over for baseball. So because the city and county are willing to defy logic and open taxpayers' wallets, even the most pliant commissioner ought to ponder these issues:
•How much is too much? A $500 million stadium is on the table — that baseball plug number substituting for the $168 million that was on the table for what became the $472 million-and-counting Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
Even assuming costs don't escalate — though they will — $500 million plus interest translates into a construction cost of about $13.50 per fan at every game for the next 30 years at the 2 million fans minimum County Manager George Burgess expects. By the way, the Marlins haven't drawn that well in a decade. The lower the attendance, the higher the cost per fan.
Is that a smart subsidy? We'd be better off letting the Marlins build their own stadium and just paying the team $10 for every fan who attends.
•If we build it, shouldn't the Marlins pay? Their rent would never cover costs. The Marlins would pay $10 million to $12 million in rent a year. Yet the public's annual cost to retire construction bonds would be about $27 million, not counting costs of actually running the stadium.
•Can the Marlins uphold their bargain?
That's pivotal. The deal on the table says taxpayers would fund almost all construction costs, yet the Marlins would choose the design, run the job and be at risk for overruns.
Given the cost escalations at Miami International Airport and the performing-arts center, that might sound like a smart guarantee — if we could count on the Marlins.
Unfortunately, we can't. Even if the operators had credibility, they still act like paupers — perhaps rightly so.
They bought the team with money borrowed from Major League Baseball that's not repaid. The stadium deal calls for them to pay $45 million, which would also be borrowed. A team deep in debt that overran construction costs by a hundred million or so — low by Miami standards — would leave the bills once again on taxpayers' backs, guarantee or no guarantee.
That, friends, is no guarantee. It would give the Marlins a free hand to spend whatever they wanted, content in the knowledge that they'd never pay a dime of it.
One thing is sure: Major League Baseball will never pay for anything. The league's owners all demand a stadium but not on their nickel.
The only way Marlins owners could be responsible for overruns is if the present group flipped the team to someone with a bankroll. But that would happen only after a stadium rises and markedly increases the value of the team — and only after taxpayers have funded all cost overruns incurred by the Marlins Construction Co.
Unfortunately, commissioners will never examine a guarantee against inevitable overruns. A guarantee gets them off the hook with voters, even if its value is less than the guarantee Neville Chamberlain returned with in the Munich Agreement with Hitler assuring "Peace in our time."
So, the final question:
Isn't it the height of stupidity to sign a binding agreement during negotiations that if either the city or the county sees the light and for any reason rejects a final contract, or if the Marlins make unreasonable demands, taxpayers would reimburse the Marlins for all their expenses, accumulated over the years, in seeking a new stadium?
That, good friends, is what the deal on the table projects — if officials sign, either the Marlins get a new stadium or taxpayers pay them for their trouble.
Because city and county commissioners sway with the breeze and the Marlins are prickly and unpredictable, how could we possibly sign up for what will become a straight payoff to the Marlins when a deal blows up?
With all of those very real issues to debate, the city and county have ignored the basics they should have tackled first.
Instead, they've done the predictable: They've skipped ahead to debate in which location we will be made fools of.