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Day 17

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Bush League

Why MLB Owners Support the Prez

by DAVE ZIRIN

They didn’t think he was good enough to be their baseball commissioner and follow in the immortal footsteps of people like Bowie Kuhn and Ford Frick, but the Major Leagues’ cabal of billionaire owners is ponying up the dough to keep George W. Bush in the White House.

A recent Associated Press review found that the former Texas Rangers owner has had his palm greased by over half of the 30 Major League Teams. Seven owners even hold the distinction of being "Bush Rangers", meaning they raised at least $200,000 each, and six are "Bush Pioneers" signifying $100,000 a piece.

Bush’s most ardent supporters in the owners box are a rogue’s gallery of right wing ideologues with the bucks to back it up. There is Detroit Tigers owner with his own Republican electoral ambitions Michael Ilitch, San Francisco Giants owner and Safeway union buster Peter Magowan, Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, best known for trying to contract his own team, and another figurehead of a decaying empire, George Steinbrenner.

Owners love Bush for a more complex reason than the usual ardor billionaires exhibit toward their tax cutter in chief. Baseball owners all yearn the same brass ring: they want to extort municipalities and tax payers to pay the tab for new state of the art stadiums ñ and no one ever fronted a stadium swindle better than George W. Bush.

Stadium deals are the modern day ëhealth tonics’ once sold a century ago to carnival attendees as cure-alls for everything from gout to syphilis. Stadiums are exalted as the difference between a cutting edge city ready for the globalized world of tomorrow, and a sleepy town left behind in the dust. The Stadium pushers ask the question: "Do you want to be nostalgia or the future? Do you want to exist calcified in a Thornton Wilder play or be featured in InStyle magazine?"

When the Twins’ Pohlad failed to fleece the locals in a stadium referendum, one of his minions bemoaned that the Twin Cities would become (heaven forfend) "another Bizmark, North Dakota". Even though report after report from the right wing Cato Institute to the more centrist Brookings, dismiss stadium funding as an utter financial flop, owners and cities still dream of getting working people to pay for play pens they could barely afford to enter themselves.

The sad dreams of billionaires are projected onto Bush who set the standard for large-scale extortion, when his ownership group got the state of Texas to pay for The Ballpark in Arlington. Dubya after an adult life of incompetence and failed business ventures finally got his dream job, as managing partner of the Rangers. For an initial investment of $600,000 ñ borrowed of course – the then President’s son had to endure the toil of attending home baseball games and smiling a lot for the cameras.

But while Bush smirked his forties away, the owners behind him (think a dozen Dick Cheney’s in ten-gallon hats) threatened to move the team if the city of Arlington did not foot the bill for a new park. The local government caved and in the fall of 1990, they guaranteed that the city would pay $135 million out of an estimated cost of $190 million. The remainder was raised through a ticket surcharge. In other words, local taxpayers and baseball fans footed the entire bill This plan was sold to Arlington voters with Bush’s glad-handing help. At the end of the day, the owners of the Rangers, including Bush, got a stadium worth nearly $200 million without putting down a penny of their own money. But the scam did not end there. As part of the deal, the Rangers’ ownership was granted a chunk of land in addition to the stadium. The land, of course, increased in value as a result of the stadium’s construction. To make this happen, Democratic Governor Ann Richards, signed into law an extraordinary measure that set up the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority (ASFDA), which had the power to seize privately owned land deemed necessary for stadium construction. As Joe Conason has written, "Never before had a municipal authority in Texas been given license to seize the property of a private citizen for the benefit of other private citizens… On November 8, 1993, with the stadium being readied to open the following spring, Bush announced that he would be running for governor. He didn’t blush when he proclaimed that his campaign theme would demand self-reliance and personal responsibility rather than dependence on government."

Bush held onto his stake of the team as governor and by the time he cashed out in 1998, Bush’s return on his original $600,000 investment in the Rangers was 2,400 percent to a cool $15 million.

The next time someone complains about the "greediness" of pro athletes, tell them that if they are that bent out of shape about someone’s undeserved wealth, they should a detour to the upper deck and boo outside the owner’s box.

DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out, What’s My Name, Fool: sports and resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books) comes out in spring 2005. To have his column sent to you every week, just e-mail edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com.

Contact the author at editor@pgpost.com