Illinois Bluff

Why the Cardinals aren't moving across the river

There's a lot of talk in Jefferson City about the dreaded prospect of the St. Louis Cardinals' moving to Illinois should the State of Missouri refuse to fork over $210 million in ransom payments next week.

Someone should ask a fellow named Steven J. Rauschenberger about all that.

Rauschenberger is a big Chicago White Sox fan who doesn't give a hoot about the Cardinals. He says there's less than a one-in-ten chance that the State of Illinois would have the slightest interest in bribing the team to move there.

And, oh yes: There's one other thing.

Rauschenberger, a Republican, is chairman of the Illinois Senate Appropriations Committee. He is one of the most powerful gatekeepers of the state budget. He says it is doubtful that his colleagues would even entertain the notion of trying to steal the Cardinals from St. Louis.

Rauschenberger's candor should beam a little light across the river -- all the way to Jefferson City.

"I doubt that the [Illinois] Legislature would be willing in the current political and economic environment to discuss a stadium with anybody," Rauschenberger tells me.

"There would be a real problem here with the press impression of us playing footsies with a baseball team in the middle of a budget crisis. We have our hands full dealing with the core mission of state government: education, health care, service for the disabled."

Rauschenberger isn't just any old key budget player in Illinois state government. He is from a place called Chicago. And he makes no bones about the significance of Illinois' legendary regional divide.

"Look, 70 percent of our population lives within 65 miles of the [Chicago] Loop," Rauschenberger says. "People in northeastern Illinois don't see an East St. Louis stadium as a high priority. I don't think most northeastern legislators would entertain it."

He doesn't hide a hometown-baseball bias.

"Hey, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago White Sox fan. We're talking real American League baseball here," Rauschenberger says with a laugh. "Now, if you're talking about the Cardinals' moving to Chicago and giving us a third major-league team, well, maybe."

Don't underestimate the Chicago-fan factor.

For one thing, it is the very real flip side of the Cardinal loyalty that drives so many of the team's lapdog politicians in Missouri. Helping the Cardinals stay competitive is hardly a noble mission of government in the eyes of Chicago.

Even more significant, any Cardinal giveaway would have a staggering multiplier effect in Illinois. There are five pro sports franchises in Chicago -- the Cubs and White Sox in baseball, the Bears in football, the Blackhawks in hockey and the Bulls in basketball -- and all would have their hands out.

Cleveland State University's Mark Rosentraub, one of the nation's leading sports economists, says there's no doubt about this reflex.

"If they were to provide an enticement to the Cardinals, we know that the Cubs and White Sox, to begin with, would insist on matching offers," he says. "And there would be responsibilities to other professional sports teams as well."

This isn't just academic talk. Look what has happened in Missouri, with just three rival teams. The proposed $210 million corporate-welfare handout to the Cardinals has more than tripled -- mushrooming by almost half-a-billion dollars -- as the Kansas Chiefs and Royals, the Blues and the cities of Springfield and Branson (among others) have blared out the customary chant of "Us, too!"

This is not to suggest that Illinois politicians wouldn't covet a Missouri asset. Just not this one.

"If we were fighting Missouri for an auto-assembly plant with 14,000 jobs averaging $45,000 per job, it would be very different," says Rauschenberger. "What East St. Louis needs is major industrial investment, not a baseball team, something that would change the economic climate and help turn it around.

"They've got a tremendous employment problem there. And it's not going to be solved by helping 22 millionaires and some hotdog vendors."

Ouch.

But wait a minute, you say. What if Rauschenberger turns out to be in the minority? What if, somehow, others from Chicago and around the state see the glorious benefit of luring the Cardinals across the river?

How can the City of St. Louis take the chance of losing the Cardinals? Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, raised this point repeatedly in a public forum in which I participated recently.

The answer has already come from the likes of Rauschenberger -- it's the deafening silence we're already hearing.

Think about it. If you were an Illinois politician and you craved the Cardinals, wouldn't you be fighting for them right now?

Rosentraub thinks it's pretty simple.

"We know they can't move to Illinois," he says. "From an economic standpoint, it would be a very, very high risk. And the political reality is very low."

There are several compelling reasons it would be nearly impossible to keep the St. Louis market intact from the East Side. It would be a traffic nightmare. There's the unfortunate -- but undeniable -- East St. Louis image problem if the team were to go there.

And there's the psychological barrier of crossing the Mississippi.

In short, the Cardinals aren't moving to Illinois, no matter what Missouri politicians do. Team president Mark Lamping has openly threatened to explore the Illinois "option" if Missouri says no to corporate-welfare demands.

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