Here's another reason the Strip is watching the horizon for signs of spring: threats from Major League Baseball to drown the Royals in a bathtub.
You see, under the current labor agreement, baseball owners retain the right to eliminate two teams after the 2006 season. If owners intend to say sayonara to two unfortunate squads, all they have to do is notify the players' union between April 1 and July 1.
That timing is sure interesting for folks here in Kansas City. As it stands, there's an April 4 election to decide whether Jackson County voters will increase their sales tax to provide $425 million for improvements at Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums. That's right the vote is scheduled to take place at the exact same time that MLB could, at any moment, make an announcement that two teams are history.
And if you like feeling extorted, you'll love this: The league doesn't have to say which teams it plans to smother with a pillow. So any city where an owner has been cryin' for a new or improved stadium well, let's just say that city fails to respond appropriately at its own peril.
The Strip figures that between now and April 4, voters are going to hear constant reminders that all of this contraction nonsense will go away if we all just vote yes on the sales-tax question. A "yes" vote locks the teams into new, 25-year leases. A "no" vote puts the Royals and the future of the Chiefs in Kansas City in jeopardy. Because without the money, the county lacks the means to keep the stadiums in "state of the art" condition, as mandated by the leases. If the county defaults, the teams are free to leave after their 2007 seasons.
Mike White, a lawyer for the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, tells the Strip that contraction will not take place while valid leases are in place. The county, he adds, would likely dispute any assertion that it had defaulted on the current agreements. "But assuming for the sake of argument that [a court determined] we were in default ... then, yeah, the team would be free to either contract or move," White says.
Gentlemen, start your Mayflower truck engines!
Remember when the league warned that it might shut down teams a few years ago? Commissioner Bud Selig broached the idea before the owners began to negotiate a new a labor agreement with the players. The threat served two purposes. First, it forced the union to contemplate the loss of 40 jobs with each contracted team. Second, it put added pressure on state and local governments to build new stadiums. In April 2001, Selig wrote a letter to Florida lawmakers noting that without public financing for a new park, the Marlins were a prime candidate for contraction or relocation. (Alas, the Marlins remain in south Florida without a stadium plan.)
The contraction chatter died down when the owners reached a new agreement with the players during the 2002 season. The deal prohibited owners from eliminating teams but only temporarily.
Obviously, the mere fear of contraction is a mighty useful little negotiating tool. Field of Schemes author Neil deMause, who has been critical of all those fat public subsidies given to sports stadiums, tells this piece of rawhide he's almost certain that baseball owners will declare their intention to contract. The April-through-June window to notify the union, deMause says, "gives them the whole rest of the year to shake down cities for stadium money."
The threat doesn't even have to be real to be effective. DeMause says there's nothing to prevent the league from threatening contraction and then reneging. But in the meantime, newspaper columnists and talk-show hosts, frightened by the very suggestion of padlocked press boxes, give politicians and voters their marching orders.
Of course, for contraction to occur, a team owner has to accept a buyout. The Strip gives Royals owner David Glass credit for not pulling that trump card. "The Royals are absolutely not going to be contracted," he said back in 2002, the last time baseball had contraction fever (catch it!).
The Glass family's opinion may change, however, if voters reject this second plan to overhaul the stadiums. In 2004, a bistate proposal that included money for stadium rehabs failed everywhere but on the block where Joe Posnanski votes.
Besides, the Glasses don't even have to embrace the idea of contraction for it to work its dark magic. Stadium-tax pushers could make it seem like it was mean ol' Bud Selig's idea. The man is a walking frown.
But this meat patty doubts that baseball has the rocks to take the drastic step of eliminating teams. For one thing, the departing owners would demand a substantial sum for renouncing their membership in a very exclusive club. Court challenges present another hurdle. When the Minnesota Twins faced the potential of a long dirt nap, the agency that runs the Metrodome filed suit America's other favorite pastime.
In fact, the Strip is willing to play hardball with this one. Really, a team that hires a manager who botches lineup cards and thinks Terrence Long is an everyday player probably deserves extinction. And while we're on the subject of how the past few years have played out, let's consider how the Royals' amateur draft of 2001 might not produce a single major-league player a feat of staggering incompetence.
Yeah, it would suck to have to find a new home for the George Brett statue outside Kauffman Stadium. But the Strip bets that bronzed batting crouch stays put. Brett's career, in fact, provides a lesson for Jackson County residents who're going to have to withstand an onslaught of scare tactics as the stadium-tax campaign gears up: Good citizens, like good hitters, don't back away when the pitcher decides to work inside.