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Another rivalry for the Red Sox

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Staff, 02/18/00

I've been dreaming a lot about work lately. The other night I had a dream about John Harrington and the Boston Red Sox.

In the dream, I felt like calling out: "Look out, John! Someone's out to get you!" I'm not sure who it is, but I have my suspicions, and so, no doubt, does Harrington.

Big Dig budget overruns and the need to help Harvard Pilgrim Health Care find a way out of bankruptcy will make it harder for the Sox to plead their case for public money for a new ballpark. Beyond those fiscal realities lies yet another obstacle in the Red Sox path: the dreaded stadium authority.

The concept surfaced in the Globe in a January op-ed column by Phil Primack, a freelance writer. According to the column, House Speaker Thomas Finneran and "others" were floating the idea of a stadium authority to build and own the ballpark, which the Red Sox would then lease.

This month Mayor Menino said he expects some public benefit in exchange for a still-undetermined public contribution. That is a good thing and could perhaps take the form of a dedicated ballpark revenue source for housing or schools.

But the mayor was also said to be looking closely at the idea of creating a public authority to build a new Fenway Park, supposedly as a way to help jump-start the ballpark effort. That does not seem like a good idea at all.

It is hard to imagine how any talk of creating a new public authority could jump-start anything. Recent headlines about the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority paint an unflattering view of these quasi-public bodies. Not too long ago the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority generated its own share of critical headlines.

Given this history, why would anyone want to create another public authority in Massachusetts? The ones that exist are inefficient patronage boondoggles. Setting up a new one is bound to be controversial and time-consuming at a time when the window for the Red Sox effort to get public financing is already shutting down.

This is where my dream and Harrington's nightmare comes in.

What if the talk about creating a stadium authority has another purpose - to delay and ultimately derail the current Sox ownership from pursuing plans for a new ballpark?

It may sound far-fetched, but as a conspiracy theory it makes some sense and has some currency around town - especially on Yawkey Way.

Many different businessmen and one specific group very much want to own the Boston Red Sox. The specific group includes Joe O'Donnell, developer Steve Karp, and Fleet banker Terry Murray. O'Donnell in particular has close ties to Menino; the mayor's former chief of staff, David Passafaro, left City Hall to work for him at Boston Concessions Group.

Harrington, meanwhile, does not want an equity partner in any ballpark development plan.

Faced with that scenario, the group of men who would own the ballclub have been playing a behind-the-scenes game for a while now to undercut efforts by the current owners to advance plans for a new ballpark. Some of it has been done through media leaks of information that is unflattering to the Sox. Some of it is done through talk that questions Harrington's commitment to building a new ballpark.

It was easy enough to stir up doubts about the ball club when Sox management was bumbling around on its own. Today, though, the Sox have a high-priced team of consultants that is allegedly more adept at getting action on Beacon Hill. Of course, the jury is still out on how adept the team really is. The Sox have yet to put any numbers on the table, which is hardly a testament to their consultants' speed or proficiency.

Meanwhile, the trial balloon about a stadium authority stands to delay things even more, no doubt to the delight of those who hope the Sox ultimately fail.

If Harrington and the Sox don't get action out of the Legislature this year, who knows when they ever will? If Harrington strikes out now, he might get discouraged enough to sell the team, right?

I don't like public financing of sports facilities. But in Massachusetts, precedent for it has been set with the New England Patriots. It seems inevitable that the Boston Red Sox will get a share as well. Our political leaders should move us toward a solution that gives true public benefit in return for a reasonable public contribution.

In the meantime, public officials would never act to delay things simply to hurt current owners and help would-be owners - would they? If they did, that would be more than a bad dream. That would be a very bad call.

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