The Baseball Thing

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This first thing you have to do, if you want to ask normal journalistic questions about a big sports project, is prove that you’re a decent American and not some pansy, creampuff college boy who spent his adolescence holed up in a study carrel reading Herbert Marcuse and comic books instead of masturbating to the Mike Andrews/Reggie Smith rookie card like the normal guys.

Well, I had that particular baseball card. What I did with it is my business. If you want a more recent example, last Saturday night at a party, Jim Bouton sought me out and said a whole bunch nice things to me about a radio show we had done 30 hours before that. I glowed all night. Seriously. Jim Bouton made me glow.

I know how this works  In 1998, I opposed the Patriots deal from day one. The Courant, meanwhile, lost control of its bowels. The newspaper issued its first “Extra” in God knows how many decades. “TOUCHDOWN!” read the banner headline.  The editors and publishers behind this shameful breach of journalism had done exactly zero analysis. They were too dizzy from prospective jock-sniffing. A week or so later, the Courant sports section did a jolly list of 100 Great Things About the Patriots Coming to Hartford. Maybe it wasn’t 100. I don’t remember. I do remember that one of the great things was “Bruce Armstrong will beat up Colin McEnroe.” I was asking too many questions, you see. The sports department didn’t like that. They thought an offensive tackle should beat me up.

One more piece of bona fides: I’ve spent my adult life wanting the best for Hartford. Sometimes this has involved cheerleading. Sometimes, criticism. Sometimes it has involved active participation in the creation and performance of culture here. I work in Hartford, play in Hartford, park in Hartford. Tonight I have tickets for Hartford Stage, a Dwight Evans throw from the proposed new stadium.

OK? Jeez!

I still think there are some questions to ask and things not to like about this plan. Some of them will be dealt with in my Sunday column. Here are some others.

1. Will it work economically? Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist laid it out pretty well elsewhere in the Courant. If the city collects $500,000 in rent and pays a couple million in debt service, how does the city not lose money? Mayor Segarra apparently has a few ideas, but so far, they’re just that.  Any idea  that requires state approval is dicey because …

2. What does this do to Hartford’s profile at the Capitol? It’s pretty clear the Dan Malloy wants no part of this initiative. Segarra did not bring him along, and that may have consequences when Hartford wants something else from the state: the legislature and/or the governor. “Really? You need X? Funny. You seem to have $60 million lying around for baseball.”

3. Will it work economically for the Solomons, owners of the Rock Cats? Not that I care about their happiness. But if they finance ten percent of the stadium and quintuple their rent, is the franchise going to be OK? There are good reasons for asking about this.

The team playing in the $12 million Bernie Robbins Stadium in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which opened in 1998, folded in 2009. Wilbur Banks, a spokesman for Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, said now renamed Surf Stadium has hosted youth baseball tournaments and concerts since the team left.

That’s the nightmare scenario. The franchise folds, and Hartford gets stuck with …what?Lord White Elephant

4. What about Hartford’s Moody’s rating?  From the same article:

Moody’s Investors Service cut Ramapo’s rating two steps to A1, the fifth-highest level, in 2012, citing “considerable exposure” to the debt used to fund the stadium and two years of deficits. In October, Moody’s confirmed the grade and assigned a negative outlook.

5. Can we talk about the size and cost of this thing? Paul Doyle’s article today suggests that it’s in line with the trends, but that’s a little sneaky because most of Doyle’s examples are AAA teams. There’s a bigger gap in the economics of AA and AAA than the slight difference in letters would imply.  Also, the next step is looking at how many of these projects can be considered successful. Paul mentions Akron but fails to note that the building, designed for 9400, drew an average of 4220 last season. Here’s a helpful analysis on minor league stadium size. The authors do caution against paying too much for seats you don’t need, which then spreads out into additional maintenance costs.

6. I’m troubled by the degree to which this has been presented as a fait accompli, negotiated in secret and then rolled out with the Council votes supposedly already lined up, sans open public debate. There’s a public hearing Monday night, but, really, what they’re telling us is that its too late to ask questions. This is happening. Well, when was the right time to ask questions? This is antithetical to open, responsive government, and it’s also the way a lot of bad ideas become real things — because there’s nobody in the room asking the hard questions.

7. As a matter of regional policy, it doesn’t really make sense to spend $50 mililon or more in public dollars to move a private business 13.4 miles. If they want a new building, the Solomons should build one. As Ralph Nader said about this on WNPR, maybe it’s time for the capitalists to start acting like capitalists.

8. Bouton is in a terrific documentary coming out later this year. It’s called “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.” It’s the amazing story of a renegade minor league team in the 1970s, and it makes many wonderful points. But for now, consider this one. If we build the stadium and get behind the team, there will come a day when the Hartford nine are piling up wins and charging toward the playoffs, and what will happen? One of the best players will get called up to the Twins. And two more will get moved up to Twins AAA to replace other guys who got called up.  Never forget, the citizens of Hartford will be providing a service not only to the Solomons but also to the wealthy owners of the Twins, who will extend to us all the gratitude and respect you would extend to a paper towel.



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