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The future of using public money to build new, unnecessary ballparks

Have we seen the end of new ballparks replacing old ballparks that are just a couple of decades old? I’d like to think so.

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San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks
Look at this hellhole. Better blow it up.
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

I used to believe cities needed public money for ballparks. My analogies were reasonable — the opera house, the civic center — and they came out of a desperation that you might not understand if you didn’t grow up with Candlestick Park.

Candlestick was a stadium that made the team base its advertising campaign around how awful it was. It was a park that was so horrible, their MLB All-Star Game promotion was a pin that announced, “Nothing this stupid would happen at another ballpark, right?”

“Gimme a new ballpark,” I screamed back then. “It’s basically the same thing as a museum.”

And there’s something to that argument. If you dig into the benefits of a publically funded museum, you’ll find similarities to the benefits of a publically funded ballpark. Both are cultural boons, and they allow for a shared community experience that’s extraordinarily important.

That argument falls apart, though, when you realize that the money flowing into a publically funded museum is mostly concerned with keeping the museum open, whereas any money flowing into SunTrust Park will be funnelled to Liberty Media Corporation (Traded as NASDAQ: BATRA, NASDAQ: BATRK, NASDAQ: FWONA, NASDAQ: FWONK, NASDAQ: LSXMA, NASDAQ: LSXMB, NASDAQ: LSXMK, OTCQB: BATRB, OTCQB: FWONB). The CEO of Liberty Media makes somewhere in the tens of millions, and Cobb County had to cut $1.1 million worth of grants to help pay for SunTrust Park. There isn’t a direct correlation between the two, but you can sure see who’s benefiting from this arrangement.

It would appear that museums and ballparks aren’t the same after all.

VOICE FROM THE BACK: Nationalize the baseball teams, then.

What? Who said that? That’s not the argument I was making — ha, ha — please don’t put me on a secret government list. But I will say that the Smithsonian doesn’t charge admission for any of its museums, and it’s incredibly great. Imagine that, but for baseball.

Sorry, we’re off track.

No, this comes up now because this is a current headline:

Arizona Diamondbacks can start looking for a new stadium

And it’s a bad headline. Chase Field was built in 1996. Let’s look at some other things that came into this world in 1996:

Which is to say, 1996 wasn’t that long ago. Chase Field is as old as, uh, RiceGum, who is still relatively new to the world.

This is the logical conclusion to a current trend that began with SunTrust Park. Baseball has, with the exception of Oakland, Tampa, and maaaybe, Toronto, Kansas City, or Anaheim, run out of cities that want new ballparks. This is the biggest testament to Bud Selig’s legacy. He was able to put the fear of the Expos into different cities around the country, and it’s led to a reality where Camden Yards is one of the oldest ballparks in Major League Baseball. So what happens when the demand lessens?

Demand is manufactured, that’s what happens. Turner Field was an Olympic venue that wasn’t a perfect fit for a ballpark, but it sure was already built and functional. There was still a push for a new ballpark in a different location, one that forced the Braves to pay the equivalent of a fourth-outfielder’s salary in debt service, but forced the bulk of the burden on the taxpayers. Globe Life Park still looks fantastic, with a unique design that’s both aesthetically pleasing and fan friendly, but they’re getting a new ballpark because Texas is hot.

Now Chase Field is endangered because the Diamondbacks’ paid-for ballpark has problems that were the problems of the landlord (Maricopa County), not the tenants. Well, that, and because the tenants want to be in a hipper, more vibrant part of the area. It’s possible Ken Kendrick and company will privately finance a new ballpark, or at least most of the costs. If he does that, though, it will break with baseball’s most important civic tradition: Never pay for anything the taxpayers will just give you.

The Diamondbacks — whose value has increased by nearly a billion dollars since Kendrick bought the team in 2004 — probably won’t pay for a majority of the ballpark. I would love to be proved wrong, but I’ve seen this rerun before.

So with these three ballparks — one open, one under construction, and one in the earliest stages of planning, let’s take a look at the future of public money for new ballparks.

We know that Rob Manfred wants to get to 32 teams for logistical reasons and that sweet, sweet expansion fee, and MLB will probably choose the city that either already has a ballpark in place or has plans to donate a ballpark to the extremely wealthy people who want one. But without speculating too much (and it sure would be irresponsible to casually mention how Las Vegas sure flipped for the Golden Knights), we’ll focus on the teams that already exist.

Who’s getting a new ballpark next? And will they usher in a new era of publicly financed boondoggles? My best guesses:

1. Oakland (2022)

The Coliseum really is past its prime, and with the Warriors and Raiders leaving, it would be nearly impossible to imagine a thriving city like Oakland losing their last franchise. After the Mt. Davis fiasco, it’s also impossible to imagine the city and county ponying up any money. There will be tax breaks and other accommodations that will prevent it from being entirely privately financed, but it will still be primarily financed with private money.

This isn’t a problem, considering the Giants are a proof-of-concept that investing in Bay Area real estate isn’t such a bad thing.

Chances of public boondoggle: Relatively low

2. Tampa (2023)

The site has been chosen, and it’s about time. Never forget that Tampa built Tropicana Field before they had a baseball team, and people were able to overlook its inherently gross Tropicana Fieldishness for years and considered it a viable solution for the Giants and White Sox if they didn’t get a new park. The Rays were there for about three innings before realizing that it was a gnarly ballpark in an unfortunate location.

Chances of public boondoggle: Medium to high

3. Atlanta (2024)

Advances in ballpark technology will allow the Braves to benefit from concessions that are 30 percent more efficient. The deal makes itself, really.

Chances of public boondoggle: Oh, hell yeah

4. Kansas City (2027)

Talks have quietly started for a new downtown ballpark, though they’re not serious right now. Still, expect this to be the newest front in the build-this wars after Oakland and Tampa.

Chances of public boondoggle: Low to medium. The difference with Kauffman Stadium is that it’s pretty nice, so the threats of relocation won’t be taken as seriously, especially if baseball has plans to add two more teams (which removes two possible threats).

5. Anaheim (2033)

The Angels play in the fourth-oldest ballpark in baseball, which is remarkable, and they’ve spent a lot of money renovating it. That’s still the plan going forward, and their lease runs through 2029. After that, there are a trio of three-year options, and I’m guessing Arte Moreno (or the current owners) will be ready to leave.

Chances of public boondoggle: Low to medium for the same reasons as Kansas City. It’s nice enough, which is going to lessen the demand for something completely new on the taxpayers’ dime.

6. Chicago (2034)

If you’re looking for a great read, check out Dayn Perry on the ballpark that almost was. Guaranteed Rate Field is the C-minus student of ballparks, and there’s nothing that’s going to push it into a B. At some point, the rich people involved will get tired of it.

Chances of public boondoggle: High. Never underestimate the potential for grift in the biggest of cities.

7. Toronto (2045)

The Blue Jays want to renovate Rogers Centre, going as far as to say, “I just can’t see a scenario where it would be advantageous for us to go somewhere else.” It’s hard to believe that something that was considered a marvel of a ballpark as recently as the ‘90s — and is in a vibrant part of Toronto — would be replaced.

We’ll have to wait a long time. I’m thinking 2045 is too soon, even.

Chances of public boondoggle: Low. Canada isn’t immune to an ol’-fashioned stadium boondoggle, but Rogers Communications isn’t the kind of owner that can cry poor. Well, none of them are, but Rogers would get the most emphatic middle finger, give or take.

That ... that should be it. Maybe Dodger Stadium is underwater, or Fenway Park literally starts to crumble, but I keep looking over the 30 teams, and I don’t see an obvious fit for a new boondoggle. It was hard enough to get places like Great American Ball Park and PNC Park built, so it’s nearly impossible to imagine a team with a satisfactory ballpark. picking that fight again.

The Diamondbacks’ or Rays’ new stadium might be the last of the boondoggles, then, depending on how much public money is used. And they all lived happily ever after, quietly paying regressive taxes on trivial things like “food” and “gas.”

Except Chase Field being replaced makes me realize this is all far, far too optimistic. Demand will always be manufactured. I don’t know if we’ll see plans for a new ballpark in Washington, Detroit, or New York in the next decade, but we’ll be slapped upside the head again by someone, and we’ll be incredulous that a team could possibly be arrogant enough to pull this stunt again.

The era of publicly financed boondoggle stadiums looks like it’s over, but never underestimate baseball’s desire to get those wax wings a little closer to the sun. Now that we know the Braves, Rangers, and Diamondbacks are willing to ditch relatively new ballparks, a precedent has been set. This isn’t over.

It should be, but baseball has perfected the art of stadium blackmail, and that’s a power that’s just too great to keep in its pocket, apparently. Don’t act so surprised by the next Chase Field.