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Get Some Balls

Some fogeys are too afraid to even talk about a downtown ballpark.

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In our continuing effort to provide depth and nuance to matters of great civic importance, we'll now summarize the debate about whether the people of Kansas City should even think about whether to build a downtown baseball stadium:

Omigod! Shut up! Shut up, or you'll wreck EVERYTHING!

In case you didn't recognize it, that's the hysterical wailing of the city's old guard. This contingent is most efficiently represented by sports columnists and editorial writers at The Kansas City Star (some of whom aren't actually old enough to be old farts, but we're talking about a mindset rather than a Viagra prescription). Rather than serving as the city's watchdog, the paper has turned into a geriatric poodle yapping dementedly over the fact that anyone has dared to suggest an alternative to Kauffman Stadium.

There are plenty of other folks in this crowd of mental geriatrics. And really, the effort to kill the downtown ballpark discussion — which, thankfully, refuses to die — isn't nearly as much about sports as it is about the old guard desperately trying to hang on to its power to shape The Way Things Are Done in This Town. The feverishness of their efforts to shut down debate is merely a symptom of the fact that the city is changing all around them and they can't control it.

Technically, the choice is this: Invest a few hundred million in a gamble to make our city cooler and maybe more prosperous, or piss away a few hundred million on a stadium-sized Ace bandage.

Here's what the old farts say:

Omigod! David Glass doesn't want to play downtown, so just shut up, will you? The K is a beautiful place to watch a game, so just shut up, OK? Omigod. If we pretend nothing's really wrong, then everything will be OK! Besides, if we don't give David Glass exactly what he wants, he'll leave!

The reality is that the old guard is the victim of a psychologically and emotionally abusive relationship that dates back to 1990, when the Sports Authority agreed to new leases that effectively made Jackson County pay the teams for the privilege of being their landlord. (Pitch writer David Martin made this point in his October 13 story "The Big Sell.") Every argument for spending $245 million at Kauffman is based on intimidation, coercion, manipulation and humiliation. Not to mention seriously low self-esteem.

Here's what a new generation of Kansas City leaders has to say:

If you're going to be suckers — which you most certainly are — then don't be idiots, too. Since the Royals are going to shake you down for a few hundred million, let's at least talk about building a new stadium where it has a chance to spread the cash around a little.

This new generation is represented by Jon Copaken, chair of the Downtown Council, a neighborhood association with no real political power that's nonetheless seen its membership and influence grow since younger people took over from previous leaders, who sat still for decades of downtown decline.

Now the neighborhood is in the midst of a $3 billion boom. Obviously, it's too soon to know whether that will turn out to be anything more than a magnificent roll of the dice.

The rising, oval-shaped new H&R Block headquarters at 13th Street and Main will have to inspire more activity in its new neighborhood than the silent monolith that's at 44th and Main right now. Actual human beings must emerge from the mausoleumlike new IRS center that's ruining the landscape south of Union Station — and they must take noon-hour strolls to restaurants where they can afford lunch on a government salary. Mayor Kay Barnes has to secure a tenant for the monument to her legacy, lest the Sprint Arena become Kemper East. The new "entertainment district"? That thing could be seriously lame. But no one's telling all of these developers to quit dreaming and shut up.

David Martin, who has written stories critical of Copaken's real estate company ("Head Trip," May 5), went to the Downtown Council's recent ballpark-idea unveiling prepared to eviscerate the plan that Copaken was putting forth as a volunteer civic leader.

But he came away impressed. The financing plan is smart, Martin reports. It starts with a 3/8-cent county sales tax (which is one of the ideas already on the table for Kauffman improvements). The new ballpark and Arrowhead would each get $202 million from that sales tax and an additional $41 million from the state. The rest of the cost of the new ballpark would be paid through the city's existing contribution to the Sports Authority, along with tax-increment financing and $41 million from the Royals. No one can argue that the plan isn't credible.

Cities put ballparks downtown because they know that baseball games generate cash for surrounding businesses when you force people to walk around before and after games. The Truman Sports Complex hasn't generated any surrounding development in 30 years because no one walks there; it was great while it lasted, but its time has passed.

Here are a few random bits of history for you:

· "I wish they'd been built downtown. That would have been a great gift to have given downtown." — Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, referring to the current stadiums, at a meeting of young Chamber of Commerce members nearly five years ago ("Chamber Maids," January 18, 2001).

· "Putting it downtown makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways." — Royals President Dan Glass to Star gossip columnist Hearne Christopher Jr., October 10.

· "People often ask, 'Are you for a downtown baseball stadium?' My answer: A resounding yes. I love downtown baseball." — Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski, October 14, before going on to write 800 more words telling downtown ballpark supporters to JUST SHUT UP!

Repeatedly getting kicked in the sac for merely suggesting that the city consider something that everyone knows is a good idea is not exactly comical, Copaken says, but it is ludicrous.

"It's tough when you have people who are so close-minded that they're not even willing to have a discussion," he notes. "You're mystified."

Maybe it's generational, concedes Copaken, who sounds a little embarrassed to admit that he's only 38.

"There really is a mentality on one side that is, 'Gosh, we're Kansas City. We're kind of a smaller city. We're not Chicago — we're just so lucky to have the things that we have, so let's not rock the boat too much or take any risks.'"

But here's a news flash for the old guard: A great city's mantra has never been Quit dreaming!

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