Stepping up to the political plate

Season’s greetings. As a lifelong (Met) fan and reforming sportswriter, the start of the baseball season is always a reason for optimism and excitement. Every baseball game brings some unexpected pleasure, whether it’s an improbable hero, an unlikely play, or, at the very least, verdant candy for the mind and eyes. Every season unfolds in unexpected ways, such as last year’s turnaround of the Baltimore Orioles, after years of losing and alienating a wonderful baseball town, and the championship trophy for their fellow wearers of the black and orange, the San Francisco Giants, for the second time in three years.

The Giants and Orioles are also among the heavy hitters when it comes to political contributions by their owners and employees. It’s not surprising that baseball teams make political pitches. Nearly all of them play in publicly funded stadiums (the Giants are a welcome exception) and derive a host of other benefits from government – who do you think pays for those exit ramps into the parking lot?

Five teams’ associates contributed more than a $1 million during the 2011-12 political cycle, according the Sunlight Foundation, with baseball’s total political giving topping $24 million. Only one team eschewed political contributions altogether, the Toronto Blue Jays, which play in a different political league. Donations skew more than three to one toward Republicans, not surprising since rich people own teams (as well as play for them).

The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in more than a century, but they took the championship for 2012 political donations. With billionaire chairman Joe Ricketts leading the way, the Cubs were tied to $13.9 million in contributions, more than the rest of the teams and Major League Baseball’s headquarters combined.

An investment banker whose father founded discount broker Ameritrade, Ricketts created the Ending Spending Action fund and reportedly authored The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good. Ricketts later abandoned the plan, but kept on giving to Republicans.

To his credit, Ricketts is sticking to his political principles in efforts to renovate Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home ballpark that turns 100 next year. His $300 million plan doesn’t ask for a dime of public money. In fact, continuing a long tradition of what could look to outsiders like shakedowns, local politicians and community groups expect the Cubs to fork over close to $1 million to compensate Wrigley’s neighbors for the annoyances and inconveniences a baseball team can cause.

Ricketts’ plan also envisions goring a few holy cows (none of Harry Caray’s, of course), including limiting the once quaint, now thoroughly commercialized practice of watching the Cubs from the roof of houses across the street by adding a state of the art video screen behind the bleacher seats. He also wants permission for more night games – until 1988 the Cubs played all day games at home, having scrapped plans to install lights and donating the steel to the US war effort after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

According to media reports, the Cubs and Chicago are close to a $500 million renovation plan that will also include a parking garage, without a cent of public money. When the deal is finalized, Ricketts will likely share the stage for the announcement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to the US president Ricketts tried so hard to oust. Perhaps Ricketts will eventually yield on one principle and gives some money to a Democratic politician. Baseball makes strange bedfellows.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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