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It’s time to talk about bringing Major League Baseball to Las Vegas again


LAS VEGAS — I arrived in Las Vegas for the Winter Meetings late yesterday afternoon and got into a cab. The cabbie asked me what brought me to town and I told him.

“Baseball! So, are we getting a big league team or what?” he said.

“Um, not that I know of,” I said, not having heard any MLB-to-Vegas talk for several years. Still, I was about to go into my usual spiel about why I don’t think Las Vegas is a good fit for Major League Baseball, when he cut me off.

“But the commissioner guy said we’re getting a team.”

Hmm. I had been in a media blackout for most of the day so I suppose anything was possible, but that didn’t sound right. I learned a long time ago, though, not to argue with a cabbie about anything other than my destination or my fare because doing so can make it way less pleasant getting to my destination and could seriously impact my fare. I let it go and vowed to Google it later.

I did. And this is what I got. From the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

Six years ago, while giving a deposition in a New Jersey sports betting case, then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig spoke steadfastly against ever placing a franchise in Las Vegas and railed against gambling as “evil.” Today, a group is working with investors to build a stadium and bring a major-league team to Las Vegas.

Those efforts come as Selig’s successor, Rob Manfred, calls Las Vegas a viable market for the sport and baseball’s decision-makers descend on the city for the league’s Winter Meetings at Mandalay Bay from Dec. 9-13.

The investors include Lou Weisbach, who tried to lure the Montreal Expos to Las Vegas back in the early 2000s and former pitcher and broadcaster Steve Stone. They envision a state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium — built with no public funds — that’ll cost over a billion bucks. They also think it can and should be built before Major League Baseball either awards and expansion team or allows another team to relocate. Weisbach thinks that’s why Washington D.C. got the Expos rather than Las Vegas: RFK Stadium was already there, ready to accept the team.

Historically baseball has not taken Las Vegas particularly seriously as a potential team location, so, what are we to make of all of this? Why do these guys think Sin City is ripe for baseball now when it never really has been considered so before? What has changed?

One thing that has certainly changed is MLB’s attitude about gambling. As the Review-Journal story notes, Bud Selig and the powers that be were scared to death of gambling even a few short years ago. Now, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, MLB is now in business with one of the largest gaming companies on the planet, MGM, naming it its “Official Gaming Partner.” And, of course, the Winter Meetings are back here in Las Vegas for the first time in a decade. Bud might’ve thought it wicked, but gambling doesn’t scare the current set of suits on Park Avenue at all.

Another thing that has changed, of course, is that right next to 1-15, just west of The Strip, the superstructure of the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders stadium is becoming visible, being constructed at a breakneck pace in order to be done for them by the fall of 2020. Major League Baseball might not care about the Raiders, but it no doubt loved to see a city give a football team nearly a billion dollars in incentives to relocate here. While Weisbach and Stone might want to build a ballpark without public money, I’m guessing Major League Baseball understands quite clearly (a) how negotiable that sort of thing tends to be; and (b) how, even with a mostly privately-funded park, there are all kinds of goodies that come with a new building.

A third thing that has changed is the instant success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who made the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year of existence. Again, Rob Manfred likely doesn’t care how the team did on the ice, but one of the biggest challenges baseball in Las Vegas would face would be attendance. Sure, you can sell out a football stadium eight times a year, especially given that the games are on weekends. But will people show up for 81 baseball games, many which take place on Tuesday and Wednesdays? The hockey season has half as many games as the baseball season, but the Golden Knights sold out basically every game 41 times, and that’s a positive sign.

So, that’s what has changed. Is it enough? Does it matter? Would Las Vegas be a viable city for a big league team?

My past skepticism on baseball in Las Vegas mostly surrounded the gambling thing and attendance. I was less focused on baseball’s hatred of gambling, though, than I was on casinos’ displeasure with an entertainment option that would take potential gamblers off the casino floor for three or four hours a night, 81 nights a year. With a major casino company partnering with baseball, however, that displeasure would be decreased. And, of course, it’s not 1955 anymore. There are all kinds of entertainment options here with which the casinos have figured out how to play nice and, more often, partner-up. The rodeo is in town right now and Mandalay Bay looks like Fort Worth or something. Cowboys as far as the eye can see, buying expensive boots at trade shows, drinking ridiculous drinks and spending all kinds of money when they’re not watching the horses and cows over at the Thomas and Mack Center. Casinos know how to make a buck off of ancillary crap here. Probably better than anyone.

I do worry a bit more about support of the team, though. Sure, maybe they can get some nice attendance at this park they’re going to allegedly build, but as we all know, attendance is not the only driver — and probably not even the most important driver — of a baseball’s team’s financial health these days. That would be TV money, and that’s based mostly on the sheer number of cable subscribers who will be paying for the Las Vegas [To Be Determineds] games in their rec rooms.

Vegas may be a place with a lot of money and a lot of hotel guests in town at any given time, but it’s not a place with a lot of permanent residents (i.e. people who subscribe to cable packages) by big league sports standards. It’s the 28th-largest MSA, just behind Sacramento. MLB markets smaller than Las Vegas: Cincinnati, Kansas City, Cleveland and Milwaukee. The Brewers are the team for an entire state, though, so city size is a bit misleading there. Those other three teams have history and tradition going for them which helps, and they’re obviously not going anywhere, but even so, they’re not exactly considered the paragons of modern healthy baseball markets. Due to both modest TV deals and attendance fluctuations they have the sorts of financial challenges that, if MLB were to start from scratch, might cause them to be passed over. Could a Las Vegas team — one that does not have the history and built-in, generational fan base of the Indians, Reds and Royals — get a fat TV deal that’d keep them from being a poor sister right out of the gate? I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s obvious that it could.

So no, it’s not a gimme that baseball would work here. Still, as everyone who is anyone in the business of baseball makes there way to Las Vegas for this week’s festivities, asking “will Major League Baseball come to Las Vegas?” is a very different question than it was even a few years ago. One that, I suspect, will be asked more and more.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.