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Ex-Senator goes to bat for a new Fenway

By Meg Vaillancourt, Globe Staff, 03/10/00

Former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell yesterday urged local business leaders to support a new Fenway Park.

A lifelong Red Sox fan who was once recruited as a candidate for Major League Baseball commissioner, Mitchell said the team needs its proposed new $600 million ballpark project to remain competitive.

"There is a definite correlation between revenues and performance on the field and if the Red Sox are to remain competitive they will have to be in a position where they have greater potential for revenue," he said at a luncheon sponsored by the Boston College Executives Club.

Stadium critics, however, quickly countered that taxpayers should not be forced to invest in the project.

"Our message is that, first of all, George Mitchell is leading a raiding party on the state treasury," said Peter Catalano of the Fenway Action Coalition, which opposes the new ballpark. "The taxpayers will never receive a return on their investment."

Mitchell, a former US senator from Maine, is part of a blue-ribbon commission studying ways to improve the economics of Major League Baseball given the disparity between teams in big markets with significant local broadcast revenue, like the New York Yankees, and struggling clubs in smaller markets such as Montreal and Pittsburgh.

The commission's goal is to ensure that all 30 teams can remain competitive without forcing ticket prices so high that baseball becomes too expensive for family entertainment. The commission's report is not due until May, and yesterday Mitchell declined to preview its conclusions.

Since Major League Baseball has no salary cap and only a limited revenue-sharing program, the Red Sox argue the only way they can increase revenues needed to sign better players is to build a new, bigger ballpark that can accommodate a million more fans a year.

"It's clear we are maxed out on seating capacity and ticket prices," said Red Sox chief executive John Harrington, who introduced Mitchell at the luncheon. "In the long run, it's just not feasible to compete in Fenway."

But skeptics like Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and Smith College professor, argue that what baseball needs is serious structural reform, including more revenue sharing among the teams, not an arms race for new ballparks.

Bolstered by Zimbalist's analysis, the Massachusetts Public Interest Group recently issued a report sharply criticizing a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce study touting public investment in a new Fenway Park as a economic boon to the city and state.

"Taxpayers should not be subsidizing propfessional sports," said Rob Sargent of MassPIRG. "Improving education, cleaning up the environment, or creating affordable housing is a better public investment and would yield greater economic benefit."

Mitchell conceded that it was "legitimate and appropriate" for people to debate whether there should be public investment in a park.

But he argued that in Massachusetts, "that question has already been answered. Such investment has already been made for other sports facilities," he said, alluding to state infrastructure aid for a new Foxboro Stadium for the New England Patriots and for the FleetCenter, which houses the Boston Celtics and Bruins.

Using a tactic successfully employed by Foxboro Stadium boosters, Mitchell also encouraged business leaders throughout the state to support a new ballpark in a closed-door meeting with chamber of commerce yesterday.

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