Seven Card Stud

The stadium hand Slay should have played, and gets to play again

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It's a strange and rare poker moment when a player blows the biggest hand he's ever needed to win and still gets to bet his chips on those same strong cards in the very next game.

But weird and very left-handed luck may be riding with Mayor Francis Slay as he recovers from the stunning setback that was dealt to his political reputation when the legislative gamblers of Jefferson City rejected the Cardinals' new stadium subsidy.

Frankie the Saint must have been in agony as he watched the sharpies rake in that fat lobbying and fundraising pot he and the Cardinals put on the table, leaving the Rojo Birds without the slug of state cash they wanted for a new stadium and the mayor with a big hole in his dismal track record.

Talk about rude schooling in a fast game. Must have been an acid-gut experience to see those boys and girls smile, cash in and give up absolutely nothing in return.

Amazingly, though, the mayor still holds the same winners he played so badly in the game just ended. Question is, does he have the card smarts to learn from his mistakes and the political stones to boldly play this second-chance hand?

The last hand suggests a very loud "no," insiders note. Instead of putting together his own package and showing command presence, Frankie bowed, scraped and saluted the Cardinals' plan and played his hand like a rank poker novice.

"If you got cards like this, why kiss the team's ass?" says a former city official.

But take a peek over the mayor's shoulder and look at the beauties he's still holding:

· Downtown is still the Cardinals' best location [Bruce Rushton, "Location, Location, Location," May 8]. It sits between two of the largest segments of the team's fan base and has the hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions that make taking in a ball game a convenient family outing for out-of-towners and a full-plate event for locals.

· The city is the only player in the game -- for now. Budget meltdowns and stormy political waters in Missouri and Illinois have sidelined these players for an unpredictable amount of time. Don't be fooled by the Pulitzers' pulpwood mouthpiece and its shameless front-page braying about Cardinals President Mark Lamping's sit-down with Illinois Governor George Ryan, the lamest duck this side of Daffy and Donald. The boys from Chicago who dominate the Illinois Legislature have shown zero interest in ponying up money for a stadium in East St. Louis.

On the west side of the river, nobody has shown a willingness to put a competitive offer on the table -- from St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall on down. While lightning can always strike twice and pigs might one day sprout wings, all of these outlander counties are less than attractive options. (Just where in the hell is Jersey County, anyway?)

Only the city of St. Louis, backed by Buzz, the North Side homeboy, has the financial muscle and the desperate hunger to put together an attractive package of cash, tax breaks and tax credits for the Cards, even if it is millions less than the team hoped for. Instead of backing a Brinks truck to the state and city piggy bank, Bill DeWitt and his carpetbagging partners will just have to get used to the idea of getting no more than what would be done for an auto plant moving to town, says a civic insider.

· The Cardinals will never break up their winning hand. Baseball economics turn on two essentials: the number of butts planted in stadium seats per game and broadcasting rights to games. With attendance figures that consistently hit the three million mark, the Cardinals are flying just below mega-city franchises such as the Yankees and the Dodgers.

Unlike those two legends, the Cards don't share the city with any other baseball franchise -- the Browns skipped town back when Ike was president. And they have a mortal lock on a powerful combination of radio and television outlets that has extended the team's reach deep into the Upper South for almost a century. Add stadium naming rights, concessions, parking, luxury boxes and other goodies into that mix and you've got a monopoly worthy of a Milton Bradley board game.

· East St. Louis can be your friend. Although the city would lose hefty tax dollars from ticket sales and there are all manners of crime, traffic and pollution problems on that side of the river, having a glittering stadium in the loop of the sunset shadow of the Gateway Arch would clean up an eyesore that would suddenly make the west bank of the river highly attractive for redevelopment, says one downtown veteran of big-ticket projects.

The city would still see major play from fans visiting downtown restaurants and using downtown hotels. Beats the hell out of seeing the team move to St. Charles County. Maybe Laclede's Landing would become less of a ghost town.

· Bully One-Term Bob. If Governor Bob Holden so much as smiles at the notion of spending state money to support any other Missouri site other than downtown, remind him that he's a Democrat who needs a huge city turnout if he wants to brighten his bleak hopes of re-election. Go Guiliani on him and threaten to back his Republican opponent. Bring in Joyce Aboussie and threaten to permanently bust his wheels [D.J. Wilson, "Joyce Abusive" May 29].

· Call Steve Stogel early and often. Love him or hate him, the wizard of complicated deals that mix public and private money is the poster boy for creative financing. He's already on Frankie's team, working on the mayor's other endangered pet project, the old Post Office renovation.

· Play the wild card: the petition drive to put any city subsidy of a new stadium on the November ballot. Instead of bending over to the teams' fear and loathing of a citywide referendum and striking the pose of a petty banana republic despot, Frankie should use this as a club in his negotiations with Los Cardinales. He should shamelessly pirate a line the Speedloader now paraphrases from an old Fram oil filter commercial: you can deal with me now or deal with the people later.

These cards are only worth a damn if the mayor is willing to break out the killer instinct he once displayed as the penalty-shot ace for the St. Mary's High School soccer team and show some by-any-means-necessary ruthlessness.

To win this hand, the mayor must also do a far better job of selling to voters who don't see the importance of keeping the Cardinals downtown. In fact, they hate the idea of giving a barge full of their money to rich white guys from Cincinnati and other towns that aren't St. Louis.

Make it a story about breathing new life into a dying city and a mayor standing tall for his town, the insiders say. Be the cards, to paraphrase a line from Caddyshack. Become South Side Slim.

Stop being Frankie the Vassal. The carpetbaggers ain't worth it.

"They're rich and white and everybody in this city is either white and poor or black and poor and the mayor doesn't lose a single vote telling the Cardinals 'no,'" says the former city official. "But Francis never had 'no' in his mouth and the Cardinals knew it. If the Cardinals said to me what they've said to Slay and Holden, I'd have said what a grown man says to a woman: 'Baby, I'm gonna miss you. Don't mean I don't love you. Just means I can't afford you anymore.'"

The stakes are very high, with Frankie's reputation sitting right there in the middle of the poker table.

"He'd be the first to tell you he doesn't want to see the Cardinals leave town on his watch and he's put an awful lot of eggs in that proverbial basket," said Democratic Representative Tom Villa of Missouri.

But this doesn't have to go down as a permanent black mark, says Dick Fleming, chief of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association. At a similar post in Denver, Fleming watched then-Mayor Frederico Peña get badly dusted in his push for a new convention center. The setback took place early in his mayoral career and earned him a hefty number of bruises.

"He got back on his feet, dusted off his coat and got it done," says Fleming. "It was a credit to his administration."

Maybe Slay should give Peña a call.

"You've got to give Francis credit for being focused and tenacious on this," says Fleming. "He really is committed to this and there's plenty of time to get it resolved and stand for re-election on this and other issues."

But only if Frankie the Saint learns to play the hand he's been dealt -- twice.

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