The St. Louis Cardinals have played their Illinois stadium card, which means the bidding just became more interesting for St. Louis and the state of Missouri.
The official party line -- for the terminally naive -- is that Southern Illinois politicians stunned the Cardinals last week by dragging them into a legislative argument over whether to issue $357 million in bonds to renovate Soldier Field for the Chicago Bears. This presumably spontaneous event is filed under "lucky leverage" in the team's quest to be given a new stadium downtown.
As the storyline goes, Cardinals management reluctantly agreed to meet with Springfield lawmakers, but only after insisting that their loyalties rested with downtown St. Louis, which they fully intend to save by accepting their own gift of $350 million or so in corporate welfare for a publicly funded stadium.
The Post-Dispatch -- ever proud to be part of the home team -- duly noted that Cardinals president Mark Lamping met with Illinois Gov. George Ryan's officials "at their invitation."
According to the Post, "Lamping reiterated to those officials -- and to reporters -- that he wants the team to stay downtown and that he viewed any relocation as a last resort if an agreement can't be reached in St. Louis for a replacement for Busch Stadium."
It's enough to make St. Louisans mist up at the loyalty of their beloved baseball team. Why, our Cardinals don't even want to hear about being given hundreds of millions of Illinois dollars for a new stadium as long as negotiations are taking place for them to be given hundreds of millions of Missouri dollars for one.
And it's not as if the team is being heavy-handed with St. Louis and Missouri: It would only listen seriously to Illinois interests as a "last resort." That must be pretty far down the line, wouldn't you think?
Uh, well, not really. The Post didn't elaborate on the Cardinals' timetable, so we must travel across the river to the Belleville News-Democrat for a hint of things to come:
""The Cardinals management told us that they have set a deadline of May, 2001, where they will start to look elsewhere than St. Louis and Missouri (for a stadium),' Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, said. "As the speaker of the House, I was very aggressive in telling them I was very interested in trying to convince them to come to Illinois.'"
May 2001? That would be just five months away. And here's an interesting coincidence: That's also the month that marks the end of the very next session of the Missouri Legislature.
Turns out Madigan isn't the only "aggressive" party here. The reluctant Cardinals are reluctantly giving the city and state just one more chance to get over their reluctance.
Welcome to the extortion phase -- the perfectly legal extortion phase, mind you -- of the Cardinals' stadium game. The city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri have until May to come to their senses and fork over a few hundred million so that nobody gets hurt.
And let's be clear: This opportunity is only being made available because the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team cares so much about the future of downtown St. Louis. You know, out of loyalty.
But don't think it can't work. Here's what Post columnist Jerry Berger, who breaks most of the paper's real news, reported Sunday:
"Decidedly unamused by the idea that any Illinois municipality might try to pirate the $7 million or so in taxes that Cards fans pump directly into city coffers, Comptroller Darlene Green has informed Cardinal staffers that her office will have an official position on a new downtown ballpark by Friday. Aldermanic prez Francis Slay has already communicated his firm support for a new downtown ballpark to the baseball club's owners."
Green has to date been decidedly unenthusiastic about the Cardinals' proposal, as has Mayor Clarence Harmon (who admittedly has begun sending his customary mixed signals about the project), in no small part because tax revenues now flowing to the city (and its school system, by the way) would be diverted into "investing" in a new stadium.
But with Illinois interests salivating at the prospect of revitalizing some barren area with a new stadium, all the city officials -- and even the tougher skeptics in Jefferson City -- may find themselves "coming around" to the Cardinals' way of thinking. And it's not as if the Cardinals' well-heeled owners don't own their fair share of city and state politicians in the first place.
Thanks to these political dynamics, one question continues to be left out of the equation. It's the one that should be asked first by any individual or body purporting to represent the public interest:
"Why don't you fellows build the stadium yourselves?"
Not once have the Cardinals been asked to demonstrate why their dramatically wealthy Cincinnati-based ownership group can't afford to do this on their own. Indeed, the team hasn't even disclosed who owns what proportion of the team, presumably because the reality of how little is owned locally might put a damper on that hometown-loyalty angle.
But with Illinois now in the fray, the last thing on anyone's agenda would seem to be accountability from the team's multi-multimillionaire ownership group. The rich guys are holding some formidable cards.
And the game's getting serious.