Q&A with Jake Wagman, Post-Dispatch

by on May 7, 2009 · 2 comments

[Ed. note - As part of our vacation reading, I asked my Twitter buddy Jake Wagman, political reporter for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, to do a Q&A with us.  Happily, Jake obliged.  Extensively.  We couldn't have asked for better responses.  Jake gave us some great insight into the political workings that go along with a new stadium and a certain uncompleted development.  Oh yeah, and catching too. Jake writes regularly on the Political Fix blog at STLToday.com and counts Best (Newspaper) Reporter among his accolades. Thanks Jake!]

PH8: What is your impression of the 2009 Cardinals? They have gotten off to an impressive start, can they keep it up?

Jake Wagman: To begin with, let me say that – as a political reporter at the Post-Dispatch – there are guys on our sports staff (Bernie, Commish, Goold, Strauss) who have cracker jack boxes that have forgotten more than I will ever know about baseball. Also, I’ve come to appreciate MLB.com’s Matthew Leach, who mixes the irreverent with the essential.

That said, I love to talk baseball, so here we go.

What’s not to like about the 2009 Cardinals?

As I write this, the Cards are tied for the best record in baseball. They’ve taken two of three from the Braves, two of three from Cubs, and swept the New York Mets.

I’ll forgo the obvious (El Hombre) and offer some subcutaneous keys to the team’s success: A groundball starting staff that has bought into Dave Duncan’s pitch-to-contact philosophy. A bullpen comfortable with its role. A rejuvenated middle-infield. (I couldn’t imagine this team with Adam Kennedy, who is currently the best paid .232 hitting second baseman in AAA.)

The real difference though is organizational depth. The Cards have found a nice balance between Moneyball, trade prospects at the hint of a bigger payday, and Steinbrenner-ball, continue to sign aging veterans to huge contracts despite the lack of success. (See Pavano, Carl, or Clemens, Rocket.)

The Cards organizational depth has become clear with the third-base situation. The platoon of Thurston/Barden has made everyone forget about the injury to Troy Glaus. Of course, Thurston/Barden were actually free agent signings, so a lot has to do with the Cardinals place – going back to Walt Jocketty – as the premiere bargain-hunters in baseball. (Paging Jeff Weaver, Game 5.)

As far as how they can keep it up: Keep Albert healthy. Repeat as necessary. Hope to get hot in October.

PH8: Yadier Molina is the best defensive catcher in the Major Leagues right now, true or false? Is he better than Mike Matheny’s hey-day with the Cards?

Jake Wagman: If it’s not true, I don’t know who’s better.

I liken Yadi to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. Matheny, as Obi-Wan, was a great catching master, but Yadi has an almost preternatural feel for the game. He handles the basic tasks – blocking balls, managing pitchers – with aplomb, but seems to posses a sixth sense about the more mystical aspects of the position. His insouciance behind the plate and childlike grin suggest a Jedi, Zen-like posture – he doesn’t think about picking off the runner at first, he is the pick-off .

Now, lets only hope he doesn’t go to the Dark Side – Cubs, Yanks, BoSox – because big market teams would certainly covet a plus-offensive catcher with a light saber arm.

If nothing else, Yadi is among that rare crop of players – like an Ozzie, or Jimmy Ballgame – who can change the game with his defense. (To wit, his foot block of the plate earlier this month that prevented Karlos Beltran from scoring.)  [Ed. note - Jake pleaded with me to allow that spelling of Karlos Beltran.  You figure out why.]

Oh, and did I mention that’s he batting above .330?

PH8: Your beat with the St Louis Post-Dispatch is city politics, and your blog Political Fix. What sort of political influence (or lack thereof) do the Cardinals have on the City of St Louis in a down economy and as one of the few really big attractions downtown?

Jake Wagman: The Cardinals have a great deal of influence, but not political “clout” in the traditional sense. Neither DeWitt father or son is what you would call a powerbroker – Mr. DeWitt takes residence in Cincinnati, while DeWitt III has an even, almost professorial, temperament. You won’t find them donating to local or state political campaigns much more than somebody who, say, owns a restaurant or small business in the city.

That said, the Cardinals enjoy great success at City Hall. They have a lobbyist, sure, but many aldermen – in addition to being baseball fans themselves – consider it good for the city when the Cardinals are successful on and off the field.

It’s also a great point of civic pride in a city that has taken some hits lately: Look no further than the Belgian brewery down the street.

Even so, Mayor Francis Slay – who includes Cardinal season tickets on his campaign expenses – has said he has driven a hard bargain on Ballpark Village, refusing to allow taxpayers to back the bonds to pay for the project.

Also worth noting that is that, in Jefferson City, the Cardinals typically encounter much more political resistance.

Why?

Like many things at the Capitol, often efforts to help the Cardinals – whether it’s on the stadium or Ballpark Village – are caught in the traditional urban/rural divide.

Slay even went to the mat against Robin Carnahan – a fellow Democrat now running for U.S. Senate – for a 2004 television ad that ran in outstate Missouri criticizing a thwarted public financing plan for the stadium.

The Cardinals also seem to have a new potential ally in Gov. Jay Nixon. Nixon – who was raised in Jefferson County – has both rural and St. Louis roots. He has been to Busch Stadium for official events at least twice in his first 100 days in office.

While it sometimes can be a political liability for a politician to go to bat for a pro sports team, Nixon seems to feel comfortable supporting the Cardinals.

PH8: Many opinions have been tossed around in St Louis about financing of Busch Stadium III. Many think that the owners took the city for a ride, getting everything they wanted. Others think that the owners ponied up far more than other MLB clubs that got a brand new ballpark. We at PH8 believe the answer is somewhere in between. What’s the truth?

Jake Wagman: Reasonable people can certainly disagree on this issue. The team’s current ownership has done very well since acquiring the team in the mid 1990s.

But while many sports owners have had taxpayers foot most or all of the bill for a new stadium, that certainly was not the case with Busch III.

The state helped out with $36 million in tax credits and paid $12 million to move a highway ramp. St. Louis County offered a friendly loan of $45 million. The city agreed to suspend its 5 percent ticket tax.

The rest of the $365 million was paid by ownership.

At a recent meeting of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, DeWitt III, the team president, offered that taxpayers have already turned a profit with the increased revenue generated by the stadium.

It’s also important to realize why the Cardinals built the new stadium. In addition to the usual search for luxury boxes and other revenue drivers, the team had about $20 million in ventilation/HVAC improvements that had to be done to the old stadium.

That’s a lot of money – enough for, say, a front of the rotation starting pitcher — for improvements that won’t generate a single dime in new revenue.

Now, again, lots of folks will question why millionaire ball club owners need any public money at all. Maybe so, but they’re not the only millionaires getting a hand-out: Many, if not most, of the major projects downtown have received tax subsidies.

PH8: How much did the Cardinals’ 2006 World Championship affect the city’s willingness to push the Ballpark Village initiatives through?

Jake Wagman: It was a nice backdrop, but it probably had no actual impact. Like I said, DeWitt III – who was and still is the team’s point-man on BPV negotiations – is fairly even-keeled.

Likewise, the folks at City Hall weren’t going to push something based on the team’s field success, as glorious as it was. Plus, it happened so fast – according to USA Today, the Tigers were supposed to win the series in a three-game sweep – I’m not sure city or team officials had time to calculate the public sentiment.

PH8: Will Cordish eventually wind up being the developer of record on the site, or do you expect this to continue to drag out over a couple more years?

Jake Wagman: DeWitt III says that Ballpark Village is already 80 percent leased out. 80 percent! That’s a lot, especially in the current economy. Plus, the team coveted the land held by the Bowling Hall of Fame – which they eventually purchased when the ten-pin shrine was moved to Texas late last year. (Had the Bowling Hall not moved, the Cardinals had an option to pursue acquisition by eminent domain.)

Had the team moved so aggressively to acquire the Bowling Hall land if they weren’t serious about Ballpark Village?

It also seems unlikely Cordish will back out of the project. Cordish, like the Cardinals, is a family-owned business. They have money, and pride, at stake in Ballpark Village.

PH8: How much power does the city have over forcing development on the site? The property is owned by the team, correct? Could they legally sit on it for eternity?

Jake Wagman: The Cardinals were cited last year by the city Building Division for allowing standing water – a health hazard – to accumulate on the site. They were ordered to pave the area and fill the hole, which they did.

Other than that, City Hall does not have much power to compel the team to do anything more with the land.

The team owns the ground, which was the site of the previous Busch Stadium. Legally, yes, they could sit on it in perpetuity, however, that would likely generate some serious ill will.

Meanwhile, the vacant land will actually come in handy for them this summer – it will be used to put up hospitality tents for the league and corporate sponsors during the All-Star Game.

PH8: Will residential units at the Ballpark Village site ever become a reality? The original plan, as we understand, was to be retail and residential. Then it developed into a commercial headquarters, retail and residential, because the developer couldn’t secure enough commitments. Is the best case for all parties (City of St Louis included) somewhere in between?

Jake Wagman: This is an area the city and Cordish/Cardinals have gone back and forth on a great deal. Initially, the mayor’s office pushed heavily for the residential component – they wanted a “neighborhood” down there – and got their way.

However, in subsequent negotiations, the Cards have convinced public officials that market conditions aren’t feasible to have the project include condos, at least in the first phase. Most folks have regarded that as a reasonable concession, given the state of the national housing market.

The first phase of Ballpark Village will likely be a mix of retail and office. The team already has one office tenant interested, the prominent brokerage firm of Stifel Nicolaus.

If I had to guess what a Ballpark Village would look like in, say, 2012, I would say some office, some national retailers – like an ESPN Zone – and plenty of Cardinal-related storefronts. The team, for instance, has expressed a desire to move KTRS radio – which they own half of – into Ballpark Village. I think the Cardinals also want a free-standing museum to call their own.

PH8: What impact has the depressed economy, both nation-wide and within the city, truly had on the development of Ballpark Village? The stadium has seemingly been a boon for the city, yet the undeveloped Busch II site remains.

Jake Wagman: The national economy has had a tremendous impact on Ballpark Village. If you go back to 2007, the city had a very exciting announcement – the Clayton-based firm Centene, which administers Medicaid benefits and other entitlements, announced they would move their headquarters to Ballpark Village.

Now, Centene might not be the most glamorous of tenants, but it was a huge coup for the city – lots of jobs and a new corporate headquarters downtown. However, after months of negotiations, the deal fell apart, and Centene decided to stay in Clayton.

Meanwhile, the credit crisis hit Wall Street, putting Ballpark Village back to square-one.

To do a project like the Cardinals want to do in Ballpark Village, you would need to borrow upwards of $300 million. In this economy, any creditor who would give that type of money for a retail project – if there is one – would charge an enormous premium (i.e., high interest rate), making it cost prohibitive.

The Cardinals will likely go back to the bond market sometime in the next 10 months, and hope that the national economy has stabilized enough to open up some lines of credit.

What’s interesting is that, despite the national economic woes, the Cardinals still expect 3 million to pass through the turnstiles at Busch this year. I guess some things – like Cards/Cubs games – are still somewhat recession proof.

PH8: Do the Cardinals and their ownership group have a friend in Mayor Francis Slay? Mayor Slay has been critical, on record, of the delays in the development of Ballpark Village. How strong is Mayor Slay’s opinion in this matter, and can he force anything to happen? Is this reflective of the city’s relationship with the Mayor’s office?

Jake Wagman: Mayor Slay would likely tell you this: He’s supportive of the Cardinals, but he’s supportive first of the city and its taxpayers.

Slay himself has said that he has refused to put up city money to help the project along. Ballpark Village is eligible for tax incentives, but only once the project begins to generate revenue itself. (It’s called TIF – the project won’t have to pay full taxes on improvements made to the property, but won’t get, like, a check from the city itself.)

All of that said, the mayor cannot force anything to happen at Ballpark Village, just as he couldn’t force any other property owner to improve their land.

The All-Star Game should be an interesting time for the city. It will showcase the city, giving the team and the mayor plenty of time together in the spotlight.

Who knows – maybe that will provide some momentum to finally kick-start Ballpark Village. Though, personally, I’d be happy if the National League could finally turn in a victory.

Jake Wagman can be usually be found chasing down a story around St Louis City Hall.  If you don’t want to look for him there, just check out his articles in the St Louis Post-Dispatch, on STLToday.com, or at the Politial Fix blog.  You can also follow Jake on Twitter @JakeWagman.

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Writing about the Cardinals and other loosely associated topics since 2008, I've grown tired of the April run-out only to disappoint Cardinal fans everywhere by mid-May. I do not believe in surrendering free outs.
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