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Worcester deserves what it gets

There are worse stadium deals, but that doesn’t make it smart.

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Toledo Mud Hens v Pawtucket Red Sox
Big Papi is not walking through that door.
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Andrew Zimbalist literally wrote the book on why using public money for sports stadiums was a bad idea, and, without getting too far into the weeds, it’s easy to understand why it is. Politicians have elections to worry about, and the effects of any poor money management usually won’t be felt until much further down the line, by which time they will be out of office or strong enough to withstand the blowback.

So what was Zimbalist doing this year, when he helped the city of Worcester negotiate a deal with the state and the Red Sox to bring the triple-A franchise to the Woo? Well, the game is a lot easier when you’re playing with someone else’s money, so kudos to the people of Worcester and the WooSox organization for using $35 million of the state’s money -- not the city’s -- to get themselves a new downtown attraction. The $101 million Worcester wants to borrow? That one’s hard to figure, and not likely to end well for the city, no matter how Zimbalist spins it, though congrats to him for admitting that:

My support of the ballpark district project is not premised on the assumption that it is the best possible revenue and job creator for the city.

Congrats too, then, to the people of Pawtucket and Rhode Island, who won’t have to pay the Boston Red Sox money to do anything and can spend instead spend the money on themselves.

If it’s a bad deal for anyone outside of Worcester, it could theoretically be for you, if you are a Massachusetts taxpayer, but it’s pretty likely that anyone reading a Red Sox fan blog in the Bay State is cool enough with their money going there, all things considered. It’s easy to forget that the Bay State body politic is not entirely composed of insane Sox fans, but it is mercifully not, and why everyone should foot the bill for this is a still decent political question.

On the one hand, they clearly shouldn’t if they’ve read, uh, Zimbalist, but on the other, it’s kind of why state governments exist. You could say this about local governments, of course, if you choose to completely disregard economies of scale, but it is probably not recommended. The fact is that Massachusetts can afford this (regardless of whether they should) while neither Rhode Island nor Worcester can on its own. That both tried, and one succeeded, is bad business as usual.

Not that giving money to the Red Sox makes any sort of sense when you say it out loud, no matter who is doing it, and to that end, Worcester wanted to give Amazon $500 million in tax breaks, so they’re not exactly playing with a full deck. The state’s another story. MassWorks, state-run operation to lure business from other states, got a team to relocate from Rhode Island, so mission accomplished… even if you did give the Bay State’s most high-profile business $35 million. On the good side, the Red Sox will immediately $30 million into Worcester, will not own the stadium and will be responsible for its upkeep. So this is basically a $5 million finder’s fee to the Sox to plant their money tree in the Woo. It plays.

It’s certainly light years better than the deal Rhode Island would have put together, given that any deal they put together would have been bad for the state. Baseball teams are luxury items, and while Rhode Island may be the Monte Carlo of the states located entirely between Mystic and Fall River, it could use the money on better things, by definition. So could Massachusetts, obviously, but in a bigger, wealthier state, the blow is less severe. If the presence of Zimbalist has any relationship to the finished product from the city’s standpoint, it shows insofar as the MassWorks grant and no further. From the Mass standpoint, it’s a pretty easy sell to say you’re bringing the Red Sox to the state. Same thing for the team. And for Worcester? Congrats, I suppose. You’re now officially a minor league town! I’m just not sure it’s worth $101 million to prove it. We already knew.