Thursday, December 16, 2004

MLB's Capitol Punishment

Editorial note: cross-posted at The Diamond

It's Selig, Not Cropp, Pulling the Switch on this Execution

The city council of the District of Columbia heroically drew a line in the stand against corporate welfare -- sort of -- by voting Tuesday to require that any new ballpark in the district be financed at least 50% from private sources. Bearing in mind that the city is still picking up over $400 million of required infrastructure improvements and property acquisition via the right of eminent domain, and is committing to over $100 million in actual stadium construction costs, you wouldn't think requiring Major League Baseball or its designated new owner to pick up about $120 million or so would be a big deal. After all, the District is not just kicking up $600 million plus in new funds, it's providing a reasonable facility (RFK Stadium) right away, and it's building a capital facility that, unlike, say, an arena or a convention center, has virtually no use other than for a single industry to use 81 days in a 365 day year.

The pushback from the baseball establishment has been spearheaded by the likes of Tom Boswell, respected long-time columnist for the Washington Post. Bos wrote a screed against Council Chair Linda Cropp that was well beneath his stature as a baseball writer:

By a 10-3 vote, the council demanded that at least half of the cost of any new stadium be built with private financing, which does not exist, rather than public funding, as stipulated in D.C.'s deal with baseball...A stadium in search of hypothetical funding, funding that may never be found, is not a stadium at all. It is just a convenient political lie.
Of course, the "deal" DC had agreed upon was entirely formulated by DC's Mayor without the participation of the council, in a series of literally back-room meetings with MLB. Back-room meetings done out of the glare of the public spotlight in order to divert taxpayer money to corporate special interests is hardly a new thing in Washington, and public handouts to baseball are nothing new. Our President turned a $106,000 personal investment in the Texas Rangers into a $10 million payout when he sold his small interest in the team, largely due to a completely publically-financed ballpark in Arlington, Texas. City after city has caved in to the special interest that is baseball, a multibillion-dollar highly profitable enterprise that has now had nearly 80% of its capital facilities built at taxpayer expense.

Baseball continues to try to sell the old bar of soap of "economic development" as being the ultimate payoff for a city, even though respected economists like Smith College's Andrew Zimbalist have thoroughly debunked the myth of the ballpark-as-development-engine. And MLB itself will profit by well more than the $120 million it or its buyer for the Expos/Nationals will be asked to pony up for the ballpark -- just on the sale price of the franchise. You'd think that if the Expos/Nats were being run for the benefit of the sport overall, a little investment in a ballpark would be a small downpayment for an almost immediate financial return.

I think Linda Cropp and her nine colleagues are heroes. They haven't voted down baseball in DC, as Boswell so disingenuously suggests. They've simply said that in a time of economic hard times, in a city with limited means as it is, raising taxes of over $700 million is simply too much. We'll throw in $600 million if the industry to benefit puts up $100 million or so, they're saying. Throw us a bone. Give us a sign that this is a genuine public-private partnership, and we'll take it on faith after that that the District will get all these alleged benefits baseball is pledging, and in return you can play in what is by far the largest untapped sports market in the hemisphere.

But the intense, insane greed of baseball, the belief that if they cave in for even one dollar they will no longer be able to milk the public trough, may keep baseball out of DC. And to the DC council I say: more power to you. The line has to be drawn somewhere. If you don't get a baseball team, the city will go on. It will be sad, because baseball fans deserve a team, but extortion -- and that's what this is -- is not a way to do business, build good government, or try to redevelop portions of the city that need some help.

When I lived in Pittsburgh, I paid a portion of my taxes every year to pay for Three Rivers Stadium, thirty years after it had opened. For a while I paid for Three Rivers and the new PNC Park and the new football stadium (the latter of which was at least partly privately-financed). That has not resulted in a big downtown development boom -- the area around PNC is still dedicated to parking, not new businesses -- nor even a winning baseball team. Even the attendance at Pirates' games isn't that much better, after the mismanagement of the club continues to drive fans away with poor play on the field. This is the kind of damage the movie "Field of Dreams" has done -- city after city, like Pittsburgh, has mindlessly obeyed the ethereal commands of "If You Build it, They Will Come" without looking at the actual realities.

Fans should really care about this. Baseball's spiraling labor costs have come 100% as the result of the voluntary actions of the owners. The owners' response has been to get a big portion of the costs of any business -- capital costs for a facility -- to be paid by taxpayers, and in turn they try to spend even more of their money on labor (players) in the vain hope that that's the way to turn a profit. Smart clubs like Oakland and Cleveland proved that large gobs of money is not necessary for a competitve team; Oakland doesn't make a pile of money, but it's solvent in an old facility (paid for by public funds, of course, albeit nearly 40 years ago). San Francisco built the best ballpark in the majors entirely with private money, and they continue to sell out and remain competitive with a mid-level payroll (OK, and a guy named Bonds -- who takes up a good portion of that payroll.)

So, as a baseball fan, I say: Linda Cropp is a hero to the sport, and to her city. A city with continuing crime and public health problems, that can't even raise its own revenues in the manner which the citizens desire because of the lack of true "home rule" and a meddling Congress, can't afford to spend that amount of money without some kind of return. Asking baseball to put up a small portion of the cost of a facility which will be useful only to a monopolistic business is a very, very small thing to ask, and it took guts to demand it as a price of admission.

I have no doubts Mr. Selig will pull the switch after giving DC residents the bait. But this switch will kill baseball for another generation of kids in DC, who had the poor choice of paying with their schools and hospitals for baseball tickets. They'll likely grow up to be soccer fans instead, and we, as baseball fans, will all be poorer in a generation.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

New Pitchplay: October Surprise (Jack Ryan IV)

I've posted my most recent Pitchplay, October Surprise: A Clear and Present Danger to Red Patriot Games at my Pitchplay blog.

Playing Kids' Games on 'Roids

Editorial Note: Cross-posted from The Diamond

The grandstand plays on steroids, the great non-scandal, non-issue being blown up for a variety of reasons, continue. As noted here a few days earlier, Senator John McCain is threatening unprecedented legislation that would overturn specific portions of a negotiated collective bargaining agreement. Whether McCain is doing it just for the publicity, or because he believes that steroid use in baseball is a more important issue than the stunning deficits or the war in Iraq, or there's a secret agenda here to undermine the very basis of all collective bargaining and workers' rights, I can't say. What I can say is that the distraction of blowing up this issue serves many masters, very few of them the actual interests of the baseball fan.

The White House weighed in on the issue of steroids the other day. When I say "The White House" I mean the President's Press Secretary says something ostensibly on his behalf, which is the way our Presidents in modern times communicate on issues they don't want to be quoted on directly. Here's a small part of what Mr. McClellan says on the President's behalf:

Players use drugs -- players who use drugs undermine the efforts of parents and coaches to send the right message to our children.

Whatever happened to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? If the grand jury testimony from Giambi and Bonds hadn't been leaked, children wouldn't be hearing about this in the press. Of course, it's ludicrous to blame the messenger -- the press, which has an interest in selling soap, is going to use the story to fill its printspace and airwaves. MLB will press back on this for fear of hurting its attendance, and also to weaken the players' union. The Yankees have an obvious interest in villifying Giambi so they can more easily void the gigantic contract they have with him, which was probably a mistake with or without steroids behind Giambi's MVP-level of production. As I've noted, the politicians are using this as a distractor, since it's an issue the average person is going to agree with -- rich spoiled athletes that lose games for me and cause my ticket prices to go up are the villains, and I'm going to ignore far worse political problems because this is something I can identify with.

In point of fact, this is a ludicrous argument logically. If the kids didn't know Bonds and Giambi et al took steroids, they wouldn't be encouraged themselves to take drugs. Now that they do know, they can see how the hatred and invective being directed towards them is hardly an admirable thing. So thinking that the important issue behind the steroids use in baseball is our kids is shameless. "It's for the kids!" How could you be against something that's for the kids? The steroid issue may be about competitive integrity, it is probably more about money, and it is full of gray areas, not cut and dried abuses. But mixed messages about drugs to our kids? No way. Those come from other sources, ranging from the pharmaceutical industry ("Take your Ritalin") to the gigantic sports industry that produces student-athletes who can't read to the sports moguls (our President among them) who profit from the end product of the scholastic corruption of sport in our country.

I honestly think that if we're going to send the message to our children that drugs are bad -- perfomance enhancing drugs are bad -- the best way would be to stop putting an emphasis on winning at any cost to the exclusion of all other considerations. Without widening this discussion out to Wall Street, Social Darwinian economics, staying-the-course no matter what, and never admitting mistakes to preserve the sense of infallibility that certain parties use as their philosophy of culpability and responsibility -- let's just point out the obvious, that we have a Winning is Everything culture in sports, which is closely allied with the Money is Everything culture.

It's that kind of attitude that tempts players at all levels to get an extra edge via the use of pharmaceuticals. Why it's OK to, say, buy a medicine to get an erection and it's not OK to buy a medicine to get bigger muscles elsewhere is a debate beyond the scope of this humble column. Why steroid precursors like Andro are (or at least were) OK and steroids are not, why hyperbaric chambers are fine but blood doping isn't, and similar odd differences in what seems to constitute cheating often seems oddly related to who is selling, regulating, or making money off each of these performance-enhancing techniques. You can imagine the conundrum of the poor athlete who is told his performance is tied to his compensation as a free agent or in arbitration, or in high school to his ability to get a college scholarship or not, or even in the basic approbation of his status as an athlete in his person, might also not be able to make these distinctions.

Steroids are dangerous, potent substances which nevertheless have common uses in medicine. Their abuses in sports that make them dangerous are often as closely related to their misuse by persons without medical training who do not understand side effects, contraindications, and inappropriate applications and does. I would not defend the use of steroids under the table as either "fair" to sports -- any more than it was fair for the Red Army hockey team to compete in the Olympics against collegiate teams from the US -- or a good idea from a health perspective.

To repeat myself a bit: the leaking of grand jury testimony is the serious crime here. The players testified willingly under the constitutional guarantee that they would not be criminally implicated, in the interests of getting the drug dealers at Balco. The social contract with Bonds and Giambi has been violated, in that they will be paying a high cost in image and reputation. This is probably deserved from an ethical standpoint, but not a legal one. If I wrote something saying certain Senators had been cocaine addicts, leaking medical records illegally obtained from their rehab clinics, I'd be sued to within an inch of my life

I do not have sympathy for cheaters. But similarly I have no respect for those who are trying to further villainize athletes for being part of a system for which they are only marginally culpable, merely to advance their own external agendas.

Monday, December 06, 2004

John McCain's Grandstand Play

This is Your Brain Trust on Drugs

Editorial Note: cross-posted on The Diamond Angle's blog page.
Grandstand Play: 1. Any play that is staged to elicit applause. The play may be a simple one but it is embellished and made to look difficult and even heroic. 2. adj. Descriptive of a flashy style of playing. "When necessary, bench a man for each attempt at grandsand play. Most coashes need a little courage in this respect." (Coleman R. Griffith, The Psychology of Coaching, 1926.

-- Dickson's Baseball Dictionary

The old bait and switch is underway with the alleged "steroid scandal", and the "integrity of the game" is not at the heart of the matter. If we look past the huffing and chuffing at what's actually going in, there's utterly no new evidence of widespread steroid use in the sport. I'm not saying this might not be the case, but what has the collective sports establishment's panties in a twist is some leaked grand jury testimony that was sworn out months and months ago, focussing on one provider of the 'roids (Balco), which was already pretty well-known. Oh yes, of course the big new name associated with the case is Barry Bonds, the biggest figure in the sport, guaranteed to attract attention.

There are a few things about the present circumstances that make me deeply suspicious about both the motives and methods directed at "cleaning up" baseball. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who clearly is gearing up for a Presidential run in 2008 -- after having been a good soldier for the present administration in the 2004 election campaign, despite obvious personal misgivings about the integrity of the campaign -- will introduce legislation in Congress next month to deal with the "steroids issue". You'll hear this touted in the media soundbytes as "anti-steroid" legislation, but in reality it will be a bill that will selectively override portions of the collective bargaining agreement dealing with drug testing and imposing a Federal set of drug tests on a specific sport.

Congress long ago should have removed baseball's anti-trust exemption. It's unique to the sport, and has resulted in an oligarchic management structure that has been immune from many market forces, most especially most fair labor standards practices. The players have organized an effective union as their only recourse, as many traditional avenues for redress against ownership are not open to them in the court system. One need only look at the history of collusion among the owners to see this -- as far as I know, Steve Garvey is still trying to collect the balance of his award from the 1980s collusion case.

There has been a crime committed here. No, it's not Bonds using Steroids. As with McGwire using andro, which is a legal substance now and was not banned by baseball when he took it, it's probably the case that whatever Bonds took was not an illegal substance nor banned by baseball at the time. The facts may trickle out eventually, amidst all the speculation about who did what knowingly when. I'm under no delusions that Bonds didn't think he was trying to get an edge up by playing around with some gray areas, and that, like Giambi, he was taking an idiotic risk with his health and reputation. But scandalous cheating? Rampant illegal activity?

No, the crime that was committed was the leaking of sealed Grand Jury testimony. The confidentiality of testimony in such cases has always been an essential part of our criminal investigative system. In order to establish the culpability of Messrs. Anderson, Conte, et alia in manufacturing and distributing illegal drugs -- and possibly administering dangerous drugs to people like Bonds without their knowledge -- grand jury proceedings typically give minor offenders and/or victims the blanket of confidentiality for their testimony in order to get the "big fish".

The problem here is that from a populist perspective -- not a legal one, and not a factual one -- is that Bonds is the "big fish" as far as the politicians are concerned. John McCain isn't going to make political hay by going after Victor Conte. He is by going after Bonds, who is extremely visible and not well-loved by many. I don't have time to go into why Mark McGwire is not being similarly exorciated by the media and the pols, but let's just leave it that he doesn't make as inviting a target as the hard-to-love Bonds.

And the proposed solution wouldn't just change the labor agreement baseball and the player's union spent a long time working out. It would establish a precedent for the government intruding into such agreements, which could be extended to virtually any workplace in the future, in response to a problem that seems to be vastly overstated with respect to both its extent and its possible effect on the competitive integrity of the game. (And for that matter, while as a baseball fan I'm kind of ticked off at the idea, I have to ask myself: who dies if a bunch of baseball players cheat? Who dies, say, if there's not enough flu vaccine because Congress has wildly inconsistent laws about not requiring drug manufacturers to provide a sufficient supply?)

This is a great opportunity for the populist reactionaries in Congress to appear to be doing something about cheating and drugs and overpriced baseball players -- something few people in this country are going to rally to support! -- and at the same time getting the foot in the door to be able to completely dismantle sports unions, something that would suit the Senators' buddies in the front offices just fine.

Let me propose an analogy. Let's say you're working at Starbucks, and you're paid a bonus based on how many people you serve. A couple of your co-workers are, in violation of company policy, drinking double lattes laced with Vivarin in order to get extra energy to serve customers faster. A couple of these employees were the best in the store to begin with, a couple were pretty good but seem to have gotten better awfully fast and awfully supiciously.

The news breaks about the great Barrista Scandal of 2004, in which it is leaked that several -- it's unclear how many -- of your co-workers have been taking the Vivarin solution to try to get that performance bonus. Your friendly neighborhood Senator then passes a law saying you -- who have never taken a Vivarin in your life -- will have to undergo mandatory caffeine testing. The contents of your urine will be chemically analyzed and released to whom, you do not know. Everything in your bloodstream, from birth control pills to the residuals of that poppy seed muffin (which can false-positive test for heroin) is going to be in a database someplace utterly inaccessible to you. You'll only hear about it if you're going to be suspended or fired for a Positive Caffeine test, and you won't necessarily be able to appeal to try to prove the caffeine came from a source that was not a forbidden Vivarin tablet. Your health insurance may be cancelled without warning because your HMO gets a hold of the suspected drug results. You can be fired without recourse or even severance because of the result of just one bogus test.

Federal testers will show up and demand urine tests from you while you're at home asleep, on vacation, at a job interview, or in the middle of the work day in front of all your colleague barristas -- you can't be certain when, because they'll have the right to make you pee in a cup whenever they want. If you happen to practice really hard at mixing Cafe Mochas and improve your performance dramatically, you'll receive special scrutiny from the Federal Pee Investigators.

In exchange for this, as a barrista you'll have the moderate possibility your co-workers who have been cheating won't find a new way to cheat and will stop using the Vivarin, returning some small level of parity to your competition for that bonus.

That's roughly what the various legal proposals for "dealing with the steroids scandal" entail. Whether you work at Wal-Mart or for the San Francisco Giants, that's the kind of treatment you can expect. But it's being sold as "cleaning up baseball." Who could oppose that?

Does Congress have anything better to do? Well, there are record deficits, two wars going on, a health care crisis, terrorist threats, an active plan to reform the nation's intelligence agencies hung up in a political dispute, and a frozen omnibus spending deal rife with pork and even larger deficits. So I'd rather modestly suggest the Congress might put its attention elsewhere.

Or is that the point? Is the point of making steroid use in baseball to distract the public's attention from real problems, to make a grandstand play on a populist issue that few people would disagree with?

There's been a lot of talk about putting an asterisk next to Barry Bonds' name in the record books, or disqualifying him from the Hall of Fame for cheating. Yet the last I heard, baseball is a team sport. I haven't heard anybody suggest that the Boston Red Sox be retroactively awarded the 2003 American League pennant. What?? Well, Jason Giambi hit a homer in Game 7 of the ALCS -- without that homer, the Red Sox would have had a two-run lead, there would have been no extra innings and no Aaron Boone walk-off. If we're going to do over the record book, we should do-over the game results too.

Yes, it's ridiculous. The whole thing is becoming absurd.