hat's the mayor up to?
That's the question anyone interested in a new Fenway Park is asking these days.
Just weeks ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino cast himself as Protector of the Public Purse Strings by ruling out a city-owned ballpark and demanding that the Red Sox find more private funds for their $600 million ballpark plan.
Now, the mayor's top aides are developing tentative plans that call for the city to build and own the new ballpark - perhaps with the Red Sox, or perhaps with other private partners.
The $600 million question: Why?
Why is the mayor revisiting an idea he had publicly rejected - especially after Red Sox chief John Harrington has also submitted options for a new ballpark built with $350 million in private funds?
Why would Menino favor a city-owned ballpark that could call for the city to issue up to $400 million in revenue bonds, when the alternative would cost the city less than half that amount - $150 million - and involve only land acquisition and site preparation?
Menino's advisers argue that he's simply trying to craft a deal where the city can recoup its investment in a new ballpark.
The mayor's supporters contend that if the city owned the new ballpark - or even a share of it - the city might be able to earn its investment back over 30 years by controlling concession revenues, advertising, and other ballpark revenues the team currently collects.
But there's a lot of skepticism about the city-owned ballpark idea, and Menino still has not publicly explained just how it would work.
Indeed, some wonder whether the controversy over city financing also serves another agenda: trying to force Harrington to sell the team.
''The story behind the story here isn't about a new ballpark, it's about possible new owners,'' said a source who is closely tracking the ballpark deal. ''Most of us know there are guys out there hoping John Harrington will get frustrated and decide to pack it in and sell the team. So of course some people wonder: Is the mayor's delay a quiet way of killing the Red Sox plan?
Menino admantly denies there's any such game plan.
''I'm not trying to get John Harrington to sell the team,'' the mayor said recently when asked about the speculation. ''I have a lot of respect for him, and I still want a new ballpark. We just need to be creative about how to finance it ... because the city needs to be sure we'll get our money back.''
Buffeted by a tide of criticism, Menino in recent days has declined to comment on any ballpark plans. But there are a number of theories about what the mayor is doing.
The first is the most obvious: He truly believes a city-owned ballpark is the best deal for Boston. But if that's the case, it's unclear why he publicly ruled out a similar plan just last month, saying he ''didn't want to be in the ballpark business.''
Perhaps the mayor simply changed his mind. After all, Menino used to favor a plan to renovate Fenway Park.
The second explanation is also easily understood: He's negotiating hard to lower the city's investment in the project. By signaling his willingness to consider a publicly owned ballpark - a plan that adds extra levels of political complication - the mayor may be hoping to get the Red Sox to put more money on the table.
The third theory: The mayor is unsure of what he wants.
Surrounded by a new cast of advisers, including a newly minted Boston Redevelopment Authority director and a chief of staff who's been on the job less than a year, the mayor may be struggling to decide. And since a new ballpark is such a hot topic in local business, sports, and political circles, he is hearing lots of conflicting advice. Reluctant to disappoint some of his strongest supporters, the mayor may be wary of publicly embracing one plan or the other.
But it's the fourth theory that's most intriguing. And most complicated.
According to critics, the mayor wants to kill the new ballpark plan, but wary of a backlash, he doesn't want his fingers on the knife.
Some analysts suggest the mayor may be undermining the Red Sox plan as part of a scheme to bolster a bid by some local businessmen who want to buy the team.
Harrington hasn't put the ''for sale'' sign up yet, but he's signaled that the team's owner, the Yawkey Trust, would sell after a new ballpark is built. Already, he's been contacted by a long list of people interested in buying the storied franchise. Depending on how much debt the team assumes to build it, a new ballpark could significantly increase the team's asking price.
Perhaps prompted by fears they could be outbid, or by their own desire to design the team's new home, a few would-be Red Sox owners have been quietly working to undercut Harrington's current ballpark bid - though no one will talk on the record.
''There's great jealousy among some people in Boston because they don't have any respect for Red Sox management,'' said a source close to the mayor. ''But they understand that John Harrington will decide who gets the team - and other team owners have to approve the sale.''
''So [potential buyers] have to be very careful, because if the league ever discovered any bidders had a role in trying to undermine an owner or the league's plan for a new Fenway Park, it wouldn't matter how much money they had. Their bid would be dead on arrival.''
Corporate titans frequently mentioned as possible bidders include Charles Dolan, chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., which owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks and Rangers; Viacom chief Sumner Redstone; Richard Egan of EMC Corp.; Staples chairman Thomas Stemberg; FleetBoston Financial Corp.'s chairman, Terry Murray; Boston Concessions owner Joseph O'Donnell; real estate developer Steve Karp; and former media executive David Mugar.
Several of the men are not only extremely wealthy but also politically well connected. Skeptical business and political sources note that O'Donnell hired Menino's former chief of staff and point man on the Red Sox project, David Passafaro, over a year ago. Passafaro remains a trusted Menino adviser.
Although he now works for a man who someday hopes to own the Red Sox, Passafaro has been allowed to sit in on meetings between city officials and Red Sox development adviser Robert Walsh, also a Menino confidant, at which the new ballpark has been discussed.
And so the end game begins. On the one hand, although the Red Sox insist they need a new Fenway Park to remain competitive, the team knows it can't force Menino or other public officials to invest in one. On the other hand, neither political leaders nor would-be owners can force Harrington to sell the team now - or ever.
Meanwhile, talks with city and state officials continue, and so does Boston's newest parlor game: speculating on the fate of a new Fenway Park.
One thing, however, is certain: Until a ballpark plan is passed or declared dead, the Red Sox, touted by Sports Illustrated to win the World Series this year, will continue playing in the House That Ruth Left in 1919.