“A savvy negotiator creates leverage”: That time the White Sox pretended to move to Florida to get stadium money from Illinois

One of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself occupied during our sports-deprived present has been watching old baseball games, especially those from the ’70s and ’80s with ridiculous uniforms. Most recently I landed on a Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers game from 1988 at Comiskey Park, which featured this:

…plus lots of discussion from Tigers announcers George Kell and Al Kaline about what a shame it would be if the White Sox moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Readers of Field of Schemes the book and Field of Schemes the website will be familiar with this as one of the most memorable move threats of the early modern stadium-grubbing era. To recap: Unhappy with their historic but insufficiently state-of-the-art stadium, White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn had asked the Illinois state legislature for a new one, at public expense. And since giving the local sports team owners $150 million to build a new stadium across the street from the old one wasn’t entirely popular — Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, Reinsdorf later recalled, advised, “It’ll never happen unless people think you are going to leave” — Reinsdorf hopped on a plane to St. Petersburg, Florida, which was in the process of building its Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field) in hopes of luring an MLB team, a trip that made headlines back in Chicago and helped prompt the banners at that Tigers-White Sox game in late May.

By June 30, the Illinois legislature was ready to vote, with a midnight deadline if proponents didn’t want to have to muster a three-fifths majority, likely an insurmountable obstacle. And thanks to arm-twisting by Thompson — plus a bit of subterfuge by house speaker Michael Madigan, who set his watch back by four minutes so that a 12:03 am vote could be recorded as being at 11:59 pm — the new stadium bill was approved, 30-29 in the state senate and 60-55 in the state house.

Reinsdorf’s Florida jaunt clearly had made an impact: The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the vote flatly stated that rejection of the stadium subsidy bill would have “[left] the Sox no choice but to leave the South Side for St. Petersburg.” But was Reinsdorf serious, or just following Thompson’s advice to throw a scare into the Illinois populace? Seven years later, Cigar Aficionado magazine asked the Sox co-owner about it, and received a response for the ages:

“A savvy negotiator creates leverage. People had to think we were going to leave Chicago.”

As for St. Petersburg, city officials there kept shopping around for another team to lure to town, eventually helping the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers create leverage to score new-stadium deals at home as well, as memorialized in a FoS magnet. Finally, it looked like the city had hit paydirt when San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie, frustrated at having failed four times to get stadium-subsidy referendums passed in the San Francisco Bay Area, announced he was selling the team to Tampa Bay businessman Vince Naimoli. The rest of the National League owners, however, voted to reject the sale and to tell Lurie to instead sell to local supermarket baron Peter Magowan, which he did, saving the Giants for San Francisco.

This time, though, Naimoli had actual evidence of MLB interference in St. Petersburg landing a team — since Lurie had actually announced a deal, unlike Reinsdorf and other earlier owners who’d merely played footsie with Tampa Bay. He sued MLB, and, with the league unwilling to risk its decades-old antitrust exemption in a court battle, within two years was awarded the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as an expansion franchise, setting the stage for another relocation-threat saga that continues to this day.

Anyway, go watch that Tigers-Sox game if you want an interesting glimpse at the origin story of the sports move-threat campaign. Those White Sox fans with the “Stay In Chicago” banner likely didn’t know that they were unwitting pawns in a political battle over hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, and knowing baseball fans they might not have cared if they were. But they — and Reinsdorf’s “savvy negotiations” — have echoes in every sports stadium battle of the last 30 years, and likely will for the next 30 unless cities start calling owners’ bluffs. Not to mention setting their watches right.

A’s, Rays celebrate Wild Card game with dueling move threats by proxy

The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays faced off in the American League Wild Card game last night, before a sold-out crowd at Oakland Coliseum who paid an average of $129 for tickets on the resale market. One might think this would make it harder for the teams’ owners to claim that they’re doomed to failure on and off the field without the new stadiums they’re seeking — which means it’s time to pull out everybody’s favorite entry in the stadium-grubbers’ playbook, the oblique move threat:

Now, you will notice that neither of these threats came explicitly from the teams’ owners: A’s president and de facto stadium campaign spokesperson Dave Kaval limited himself to saying he was “surprised” by the city lawsuit, while leaving the heavy threatmongering to Manfred. And Sternberg insisted that he wasn’t the one who revealed that he bought Wild Card game tickets for Bronfman (they wouldn’t be sitting together, he said), but rather a member of Bronfman’s executive team who tweeted about it.

Still, sports team owners have a long track record of levying move threats by proxy, since it allows them all the leverage benefits while avoiding the nasty bits about being burned in effigy by outraged fans. It’s particularly unlikely that Manfred would be dropping threats in interviews without the explicit permission of A’s ownership, since the 30 MLB owners pay his salary; as for Bronfman, it’s possible that Sternberg said, “Here’s some tickets, now keep it under your hat that I paid for them, it would look really bad if people thought I did this just to rattle sabers about moving to Montreal during my team’s first postseason appearance in six years” and someone in Bronfman’s crew got Twitter-happy and ignored this, but somehow that doesn’t seem the most likely scenario.

Anyway, the Rays drove the A’s out of the playoffs with a pile of home runs, which means now we’ll get to see how attendance at Tampa Bay’s much-maligned stadium looks for games that really matter. Tickets for the A.L. Division Series vs. the Houston Astros go on sale today at 4 pm, and I for one will be as glued to the SeatGeek resale prices as to the start of the N.L. Division Series that’s happening at the same time.