Friday roundup: Remembering Jim Bouton, and the latest in stadium shakedown absurdities

One day maybe 16 or 17 years ago, I was sitting at my computer when my phone rang and a voice at the other end said, “Hi, this is Jim Bouton. Can I speak with Neil deMause?”

Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor that the author of Ball Four (and winner of two games in the 1964 World Series) was calling me, we got down to business: Bouton was in the midst of writing a book about his attempts to save a nearly century-old minor-league baseball stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and had some questions about how attempts to save old ballparks (and save the public’s money on building new ones) had gone in other cities. We soon fell to chatting amiably about the nuances and absurdities of the stadium game — I’m pretty sure Jim had only one setting with people he’d just met, which was “chatting amiably” — and eventually ended up having a few conversations about his book and his work as a short-term preservationist and ballclub operator. (The preservation part was successful — Wahconah Park is still in use today — but he was eventually forced out from team management.) I got to meet him in person for the first time a couple of years later when he came to Brooklyn to talk with local residents then fighting demolition of their buildings to make way for a new Brooklyn Nets arena, an issue he quickly became as passionate about as everything else that touched his sense of injustice; when I learned (at a Jim Bouton book talk, in fact) that the initial edition of Field of Schemes had gone out of print, he enthusiastically encouraged me and Joanna Cagan to find a publisher for a revised edition, as he had never been shy about doing for his own books, even when that meant publishing them himself.

The last time I talked to Jim was in the spring of 2012, when he showed up at a screening of the documentary Knuckleball! (along with fellow knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, and Charlie Hough) to help teach kids how to throw the near-magical pitch. We only got to talk briefly, as he was kept busy chatting amiably with everyone else who wanted a moment with him. Soon after that, he had a stroke, and eventually developed vascular dementia, which on Wednesday took his life at age 80.

I’m eternally grateful to have had a chance to spend a little time with one of the nicest, smartest, funniest world-famous authors and ballplayers you could ever hope to meet, especially when we crossed paths on a topic that was so important to both of us. The image I’ll always retain of Jim, though, was of getting ice cream with him near his home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and him looking at my cup and exclaiming, “Sprinkles! That’s a great idea!” and then sprinting back into the shop to get some added to his as well. To the end, Jim Bouton remained boyishly intense about things that were truly important, whether fighting General Electric to save an old ballpark or eating ice cream, and that’s a rare and precious gift. My sympathies to his wife, Paula, and to all who loved him, which by this point I think was pretty much everybody.

And now, to the nuances and absurdities of this week’s stadium and arena news:

Friday roundup: IRS hands sports owners another tax break, A’s accused of skimping on Coliseum land price, Rays could decide this summer on … something

Happy Friday! Here is a fatberg of stadium and arena news to clog up your weekend:

  • San Jose Mercury News columnist Daniel Borenstein says the Oakland A’s owners could be getting a discount of between $15 million and $65 million on their purchase of half the Oakland Coliseum site from Alameda County, which is hard to tell without opening up the site to other bids, which Alameda County didn’t do. You could also look at comparable land sale prices and try to guess, which shows that the A’s owners’ offer is maybe closer to fair value; it’s not a tremendous subsidy either way, but still oh go ahead, just write us a check for whatever you think is fair is probably not the best way to sell off public assets, yeah.
  • St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says he expects to hear by this summer from Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg whether Sternberg will seek to build a stadium in St. Pete or across the bay in Tampa. Of course, Sternberg already announced once that he was picking Tampa and then gave up when nobody in Tampa wanted to pay for his $900 million stadium, so what an announcement this summer would exactly mean, other than who Sternberg will next go to hat in hand, remains unclear.
  • Fred Lindecke, who helped get an ordinance passed in St. Louis in 2002 that requires a voter referendum before spending public sports venues, would like to remind you that the soccer stadium deal approved last December still has to clear that hurdle, not that anybody is talking about it. Since the soccer subsidies would all be tax kickbacks and discounted land, not straight-up cash, I suspect this could be headed for another lawsuit.
  • Cory Booker and James Lankford have reintroduced their bill to block the use of federal tax-exempt bonds for sports venues, but only Booker got in the headline because Lankford isn’t running for president. (Okay, also it’s from a New Jersey news site, and Booker is from New Jersey.) Meanwhile, the IRS just handed sports team owners an exemption from an obscure provision of the Trump tax law that would have forced them to pay taxes on player trades; now teams can freely trade their employees like chattel without having to worry about taxes that all other business owners have to, thank god that’s resolved.
  • Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant, for some reason, revealed that “Seattle is having a meeting to try to bring back the Sonics,” but turns out it’s just Chris Hansen meeting with a bunch of his partners and allies from his failed Sodo arena plan, not anyone from city government at all, so everybody please calm down.
  • The rival soccer team that lost out to David Beckham’s Inter Miami for the Lockhart Stadium site in Fort Lauderdale is now suing to block Beckham’s plans for a temporary stadium and permanent practice facility there, because this is David Beckham so of course they are.
  • Publicly owned Wayne State University is helping to build a $25 million arena for the Detroit Pistons‘ minor-league affiliate, and Henderson, Nevada could pay half the cost of a $22 million Las Vegas Golden Knights practice facility, and clearly cities will just hand out money if you put “SPORTZ” on the name of your project, even if it will draw pretty much zero new tourists or spending or anything. Which, yeah, I know is the entire premise of this site, but sometimes the craziness of it all just leaps up and smacks you in the face, you know?
  • The Philadelphia Union owners have hired architects to develop a “master plan” for development around their stadium in Chester, because they promised the city development and there hasn’t been any development and maybe drawing a picture of some development will make it appear, couldn’t hurt, right?
  • Wannabe Halifax CFL owner Anthony LeBlanc insisted that “we are moving things along, yeah” on getting federal land to build a stadium on, while showing no actual evidence that things are moving along. “The only direction that council has ever given on this is ‘dear staff, please analyze the business case when it comes,’” countered Halifax regional councillor Sam Austin. “Everything else is media swirl.”
  • Never mind that bill that could have repealed the Austin F.C. stadium’s property tax break, because its sponsor has grandfathered in the stadium and any other property tax breaks that were already approved.
  • Hamilton, Ontario, could be putting its arena up for sale, if you’re in the market for an arena in Hamilton, Ontario.
  • And finally, here’s an article by the Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak on how an MLS franchise would be great for Sacramento because MLS offers cheap tickets and a diverse crowd who like public transportation and MILLENNIALS!!!, plus also maybe it could help incubate the next Google, somehow! And will it cost anything or have any other negative impacts? Yes, including $33 million in public subsidies, but Tony Bizjak doesn’t worry about such trivialities. MILLENNIALS, people!!!

Friday roundup: What time is the Super Bowl article rush going to be over?

It’s too cold to type an intro! I miss the Earth before we broke it. But anyway:

Newspaper sends reporter to look at Detroit’s arena district renaissance, finds mostly vacant lots

Hey, remember how the Detroit Free Press reported the week before last that the new Red Wings and Pistons arena had turned its neighborhood into “a dynamic, connected stretch that has grown and attracted new businesses and investment with the promise of much more to come”? Well, the Guardian actually sent a reporter to look at the arena district, and found that the reality doesn’t match up with the press release:

There are few places to live in the District, and little to eat. Vacant, decaying buildings make up entire city blocks. There are almost no lights, save for those illuminating surface lots and parking garages.

Okay, then! But what do Detroiters themselves think?

Sean Swierkosz, general manager of the longstanding sports bar Harry’s, watched the Ilitches make progress, “but then it stalled”, he said. “I feel like I’m looking over the fence at my neighbor’s yard at his half-finished project or garage.”

Sure, but, you know, it’s Detroit, right? Isn’t a half-finished project better than none?

Notably, the landscape looks much different just a few blocks across The District’s borders, where Detroit’s neighborhoods are alive with redevelopment. Lofts list for as much as $650,000, and large residential projects are under way in the adjacent historic Brush Park neighborhood. Further up Cass Avenue, new restaurants, bars, and shops flourish on streets resembling the Ilitches’ banners’ renderings.

Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson remarks that while it’s common for sports venues to have little or no impact on their surrounding neighborhoods, “it is extremely rare to see a stadium cause a neighborhood to go backwards.” But then, it’s also extremely rare for a new arena to replace all its seats just one year after it opened because the original ones made it too obvious when nobody was sitting in them.

Friday roundup: Chargers L.A. move still a disaster, Raiders still lack 2019 home, Rays still short of stadium cash

I’ve been busy getting my post-Village Voice life rolling this week — here’s my first article for Gothamist, on how to fight Amazon’s monopoly power, and I’ve also started a Twitter account for following ex-Voice news writers as we keep up our work for other outlets — but Friday mornings are sacred, for they are stadium and arena news roundup time:

Friday roundup: Bad MLB attendance, bad CFL loans, bad temporary Raiders relocation ideas

And in other news:

Friday roundup: Why Pistons fans can’t bear to watch, Broncos land grab move, Donald Trump could win Morocco the World Cup, and more!

All evidence to the contrary, spring (and the spring end-of-legislative-session season) must be getting nearer, because the stack of weekly roundup news items in my Instapaper is getting longer and longer each week. Better get down to it:

Friday roundup: Pistons disguise empty seats as other-colored empty seats, Olympics tourism is bad and likely to get worse, Suns have no clue about arena plans, and more!

Off we go! In my case, literally: I’ll be traveling all next week, so if you don’t hear much from me around here, hold tight and I’ll catch up with all the news on my return. In the meantime, keep yourself warm at night with this week’s worth of fresh items:

  • Pyeongchang’s surge in tourism for the Olympics is unlikely to be sustained in future years, according to a study that shows tourism levels quickly drop back to normal, when they even have an Olympic uptick in the first place. (Overseas visitors to London were actually down in the summer of 2012.) Given that you can still walk up and buy tickets to most of this year’s Olympic events, I wouldn’t count on it being an exception to the rule. Hope the locals enjoy all those new hotels!
  • Phoenix Rising F.C. is designing a new MLS-ready stadium on the site of its current temporary stadium on the Salt River Pima reservation, and claims it will pay the whole $250 million cost. That would sure be nice, but then that’s what we were told in Sacramento, too.
  • The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is sponsoring bills in state legislatures that establishing bans on spending public money on pro sports stadiums, which would kick in as soon as 25 states agreed to join the compact. Better they spend on that than on trying to buy Congress, certainly, but as sports economist John Vrooman noted to the Arizona Republic, this wouldn’t stop the other 25 states from continuing to spend to try to lure teams, at which point the whole system would break down. Vrooman said really any legislation needs to happen on the federal level, and “unfortunately for local taxpayers held hostage, that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.” You gotta believe, John!
  • The projected cost to restore Miami Marine Stadium — remember Miami Marine Stadium? — has risen from $45 million to $59.6 million, and Miami has only $50.4 million set aside to pay for it, and yeah, that’s not good.
  • If you were wanting a long, fawning profile of the Golden State Warriors COO in charge of building their new arena, the Associated Press is here to serve. I’m more interested in the accompanying photo of a giant model of the arena, which makes the upper deck seats look kinda crappy thanks to an intervening clot of suites and club seats, but other images that show the end seats make it look not so bad, so I’ll withhold judgment until somebody (maybe even me!) sees the new place with their own eyes.
  • Hey, Phoenix Suns president Jason Rowley, how are your arena plans going? “‘What’s the best solution?’ It hasn’t been figured out yet.” Are you thinking of going in on an arena with the Arizona Coyotes? “There really hasn’t been a whole lot of conversation between us and the Coyotes.” Any hints at all about what your plans might be? “There are so many pieces to an arena conversation that it’s very difficult to identify one thing that would either be a go-forward situation or one thing that would impact where you’re ultimately going to end up.” The Suns have an opt-out in their current arena lease in 2022, so expect more heated rhetoric once we get closer to that date.
  • The Detroit Pistons are putting black seat covers over the red seats at their new arena during their home games, to make it less obvious how many empty seats there are. The covers are removed for Red Wings games, because the Red Wings’ team color is red, so I guess for them it’s not embarrassing, it’s promotion of their brand? The Pistons are also letting fans move down from the upper deck to the lower at no cost to make the empty seats look less bad on television. Hope Detroit is enjoying all that economic development!
  • At least Detroit got lots of local construction jobs from the arena, and that’s one thing no one can take away! Unless you believe the claims of a local construction worker’s lawsuit against one arena contractor, which says he was only hired to meet the project’s 51% local hiring quota and then immediately fired, while at the same time suburban workers were brought in under fake addresses. And even then, city data shows that only 27% of total workers on the arena project lived in Detroit.
  • MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says he approves of the Tampa Bay Rays‘ preferred Ybor City site for a new stadium — it’s literally his job to say this, so no surprise there — and has told Tampa business leaders that they need to be “engaged in this effort” because “it’s good for community over the long haul.” He then added, “It’s crucial that we get a facility here that allows the Rays to get more toward the middle of the industry in terms of their revenues,” which pretty much sounds like, Hey, local corporate titans, one of your brethren isn’t making as much profit as he’d like, please give him a bunch of your money so his bank balance looks better, okay? More power to him if that sales pitch works, I guess, but I’m in no way confident it will take a significant bite out of that $400 million-plus funding hole, and remain concerned it’s mostly misdirection so that whenever the Rays eventually go to taxpayers hat in hand, they can say, Look, the business community is already chipping in, you gotta do your part too, capisce?

Friday roundup: Islanders close to Nassau deal, Olympic stadium to be razed after four uses, and it’s rethink your MLS stadium site week!

And in other stadium and arena news this week:

Have a great weekend, and see you Monday!

Handicapping Deadspin’s “Worst Stadium Scam” Vote

Deadspin is holding its second annual Deadspin Awards, and among the categories, you will be excited to know, is Worst Stadium Scam. And it’s set to be a tight race, with these candidates, not all of which are technically from 2017, but let’s not nitpick:

  • The Raiders robbing Las Vegas
  • The Flames trying to rob Calgary
  • The Falcons robbing Atlanta
  • The Louisville Cardinals robbing Louisville
  • FC Cincinnati robbing Cincinnati
  • The Pistons and Red Wings robbing Detroit

Even though these seem mostly selected by which stories were covered by Deadspin in the last year (Nashville SC robbing Nashville didn’t make the cut, nor did the Cavaliers robbing Cleveland), that’s a pretty solid selection. The Raiders and Falcons stand out for the scale of the subsidies — the Raiders will get $750 million in state cash while paying zero rent, while the Falcons will end up getting almost that much over time — and the Falcons have the bonus scamminess of hiding $400 million of their payday in a “waterfall fund” that will keep paying out long after the stadium’s opening. The Flames and FC Cincinnati haven’t been successful in their shakedowns yet, but are notable for trying (and failing) to get a more team-friendly mayor elected in the former case, and for demanding subsidies on the grounds that their owner has never asked for them before so he’s due in the latter. The Red Wings and Pistons are getting about $350 million in public money from a bankrupt city (or from a state that is otherwise starving a bankrupt city, at least), while the Louisville basketball arena deal is just a nightmare without an end.

I’m not going to reveal how I voted, except to say that it was a tough decision, and I won’t be unhappy at all if one of my second choices takes home the prize. Go cast your ballot now, and give extortionate corporate behavior and terrible public policy the shiny trophy it so desperately deserves.