NO PUBLIC DOLLARS FOR A NEW STADIUM. PERIOD.

And if the fans must be milked, the fans should get a piece of the action

The first answer to the St. Louis Cardinals' pleas for public assistance with a new stadium -- discussed in this space last week -- should be simple and direct:

No thanks.

Busch Stadium is a wonderful place to watch baseball, thanks in no small part, ironically enough, to the renovations provided by the tin-cup-rattling ownership group headed by Bill DeWitt. The team's customers -- the fans -- ought to count for something in this equation, and no one (not even the Cardinals) would suggest they want to see Busch torn down.

The stadium is only 33 years old, with fine sightlines and amenities, and even if it will soon be among the oldest baseball stadiums in the country, so what? It isn't crumbling, it's filled with terrific memories, and, as of three years ago, its economics were sufficient to field a team that was one game from the World Series.

The second answer is: Do what you've got to do, but do it yourself. If the only way to survive in Major League Baseball is to keep up with the Joneses in constructing the next Jacobs Field or Camden Yards, then fine, pretend that the free-enterprise system is flourishing in America and invest your capital in capitalism.

Unfortunately, these two obvious answers won't do for the well-heeled Cardinal owners.

First, they've publicly acknowledged Busch Stadium's popularity, repeatedly. They also realize the unpopularity of milking the public to aid millionaire owners and athletes, especially in St. Louis, where, economically speaking, the Rams did the slaughtering.

Still, the Cardinals have moved steadily ahead in their new-stadium quest, which should tell you something.

As to the second answer, it's clear that St. Louis' captains of industry aren't interested in the principles of Adam Smith capitalism -- except as they can be used to justify its unbridled rewards -- for the simple reason that no city's captains of industry are expected to practice what they preach. Last week, I cited national expert Mark Rosentraub's description of the "perverse and unfair sports welfare system" gripping every major city in North America.

That corporate-welfare system -- the fact that "everyone's doing it" and "look what the Rams got" -- will no doubt be invoked to rationalize public handouts, direct or indirect, to the Cardinals' ownership. More important, the sports monopoly system will give the team ultimate leverage if push should come to shove with St. Louis city and county.

I think, somehow, push will come to shove. The Cardinals have poured much time and energy into engineering a state-sanctioned process to "examine" their options; they've enlisted the Post-Dispatch (and, undoubtedly, the rest of the sports press) to make their case; and if, as one suspects, the public says no to getting bilked by still another sports franchise, it's hard to imagine the team will take no for an answer.

It appears the Cardinals don't have a prayer of a chance to get the public to pony up dollars for a new stadium -- not even with a bond issue -- because it's such an obvious injustice. One-third of city residents live below the poverty line, and more than 60,000 lack medical insurance. The public-school system is in a state of crisis. The population continues to dwindle and age.

If the public has a couple hundred million dollars to spare, in any form, it ought to be allocated for a cause slightly more wholesome than upgrading the revenue streams and (especially) the asset value of a group of millionaire sports monopolists, the majority of whom hail from the environs of Cincinnati.

But what's right and what's real are two different matters in the national stadium game. The one constant seems to be that sports owners who want a new stadium ultimately end up getting their wish, one way or another, in their beloved home community or by moving.

Rosentraub told me that it's highly unlikely the Cardinals could or would move to another community. He says there's only one open market genuinely superior to St. Louis -- in northern Virginia -- and that if Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles didn't make it impossible for the team to move there, the other owners probably would.

"Historically, St. Louis fans are No. 1 in America in supporting their team, especially when you factor in market size," Rosentraub says. "It's hard to imagine that they'd want to leave your market, or that the other owners would permit it."

Still, the Cardinals have plenty of leverage locally, either to move across the river (which should entice the state of Illinois) or to St. Louis County or St. Charles County. Even giving team president Mark Lamping the benefit of the doubt when he says downtown St. Louis is by far the team's first choice, the Cardinals certainly would explore these other options if the city can't or won't meet its stadium "needs."

So what, then? I'd say a very simple principle must apply:

If, at the end of the day, the St. Louis Cardinals must have a new stadium and someone other than the team must pay for all or most of it, then that someone must be the fans, not the public. And regardless of the legendarily obscene deal the Rams got, this time it must be an investment, not a ransom payment.

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