Selig Plays Hardball on Stadium Deals
By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page A01
First of three articles
MILWAUKEE -- The soaring brick ballpark on the outskirts of this city took the lives of three ironworkers. It cost a Republican state senator his job and set back taxpayers a sum equal to the Milwaukee County parks budget projected over the next decade. It nearly exhausted the political capital of the former governor, Tommy G. Thompson, who championed the stadium to keep Wisconsin "major league."
But Thompson won't set foot in the place.
Last year, when the ballpark's tenants, the Milwaukee Brewers, invited Thompson to Opening Day, he declined. He did it to protest Brewers owner and Commissioner of Baseball Allan H. "Bud" Selig, who, Thompson said in an interview, provided misleading financial information to get the stadium built, then broke promises to use the increased revenue to make the Brewers competitive.
"There were just so many misleadings and mischaracterizations," said Thompson, now Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration.
Selig, in turn, accused Thompson of reneging on a promised $50 million loan in what he called a "Machiavellian" reversal by the former governor. Robert A. DuPuy, who is both Selig's personal attorney and Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer, called the charge that Selig misrepresented the Brewers' true financial picture to the state "a patent lie."
The rift between the commissioner of baseball and the governor who championed his ballpark is a microcosm of the rupture in the private-public partnership that Wisconsin forged to build Miller Park. In many ways, the story of the bedeviled $413.9 million stadium, which came with a leaky 12,000-ton retractable roof and 70 luxury suites, is the story of how modern baseball is played -- not on the field but in the offices and boardrooms where Selig, a former Ford dealer, presides over a $3.5 billion industry that is exempt from the most basic laws of American capitalism.
The story is uniquely relevant to Washington and Northern Virginia, for both are trying to get into the baseball business. They are competing to persuade Selig to move the Montreal Expos to the nation's capital, which infamously lost the Washington Senators to Arlington, Tex., in 1971.
Selig, as commissioner, has singular control over "relocation," as the process is known inside baseball. His hand-picked relocation committee consists of DuPuy; Brewers Chairman Wendy Selig-Prieb, the commissioner's daughter; longtime Selig ally Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox; Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks; consultants; and MLB staff. Although a 75 percent vote of baseball's 30 teams is required before a team can move, no vote will be taken until Selig knows the outcome, according to baseball officials familiar with the process.
Selig's price in Washington is the same as it was in Milwaukee: a state-of-the-art publicly financed ballpark. No stadium, no team. But to at least one Wisconsin official, Miller Park is a cautionary tale.
"I would be very, very nervous if I was a taxpayer in the Greater Washington, D.C., area," said state Sen. Michael G. Ellis (R), the former majority leader and a Selig critic. "Nobody is better equipped to show people how to fleece the taxpayers into building them a new stadium than Allan H. [Bud] Selig. He could write a textbook on how he committed the taxpayers of Wisconsin to build a stadium at no cost whatsoever to the Seligs."
In exchange for the Expos, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has offered to build a fully funded ballpark at one of four downtown locations, at a cost ranging from $278 million to $383 million. Northern Virginia has offered a $360 million ballpark as the centerpiece of a 400-acre development project near Dulles International Airport. Portland, Ore.; Monterrey, Mexico; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Norfolk; and Las Vegas also have made bids for the Expos.
In an interview this month, Selig said he planned to make a decision after the July 13 All-Star Game in Houston.
"This thing has taken longer than it should have," he said. "But it's been almost to our advantage in a way. It's given the cities applying a chance to get their houses in order a little more."
This series will examine the relocation process, Selig's role in it, and what they reveal about the insular culture that is Major League Baseball, the official name for the business entity that is the national pastime. The information for these articles was drawn from court documents, lobbying records, congressional testimony and interviews with MLB officials, owners, players' union representatives, club employees and representatives from the seven North American locations vying to land the Expos.
Beyond its romantic history and symmetrical genius, baseball is fundamentally a government-sanctioned cartel -- defined in the dictionary as a group of businesses that maintain a monopoly. It is protected by a 1922 Supreme Court decision that exempts the sport, uniquely, from antitrust laws. It is led by Selig, whose status as both team owner and commissioner would violate conflict-of-interest rules in all the major professional sports leagues -- the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
Selig, who assumed the responsibilities of commissioner in 1992 -- and was elected permanent commissioner in 1998 -- has made construction of ballparks the centerpiece of his business strategy as baseball's chief executive officer. His aggressive personal lobbying, including direct and implied threats, has helped baseball obtain $3.22 billion in public subsidies for 15 new or renovated ballparks -- including his own -- over the past 12 years.
MLB officials say the new stadiums anchor teams to their communities, provide economic and cultural benefits to cities and generate revenue to help teams acquire players and stay competitive. The stadiums, they argue, are like other infrastructure investments, such as airports and highways, that make cities viable. Without the construction of Miller Park in a medium-sized city like Milwaukee, Selig said, there would be no baseball here.
Political commentator George F. Will, one of the Selig's closest advisers, said in a recent speech that baseball's new ballparks are "monuments" that testify to Selig's status as the greatest of the nine commissioners in the sport's history.
"When people ask you, 'When was baseball's golden age?' The answer is: 'You're living in it,' " said Will.
Critics argue that baseball uses its antitrust exemption to carve the nation into protected regional monopolies. They say it is able to divide markets to leverage public money for stadiums that raise franchise values and earn hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for baseball's owners, eight of whom were named to the 2003 Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company