Thursday, April 3, 1997
Isn't it time
for us to play hardball?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It was an innocent question, one we should have asked months ago. Do we really want the Bengals at any cost?

When Mike Brown refused to commit to a lease with Hamilton County for a new stadium until the city drops a proposed admissions tax hike, I wondered if we might have buyer's remorse. In March of last year, 61 percent of the county's voters agreed to build two stadiums. Would we do it all over again?

''We are like a family that agreed to buy a great big camper and a smaller family sedan,'' I suggested. ''The camper has turned out to be more expensive than we thought. And it takes up more space.''

High school practice field

One reader suggested that instead of providing riverfront practice fields for the Bengals, we offer them the facilities at Withrow and Hughes high schools. ''Those spoiled jocks would never put up with what our kids have to use.''

Another passed along a Business Week article with a compelling argument that sports teams ''bring few jobs and negligible economic growth.''

Still another suggested it would be cheaper and more fun to ''buy the University of Cincinnati a good football team'' and let it use Cinergy Field. ''Those who like sitting in rain or snow will be satisfied,'' wrote the Indian Hill man, ''and all that money otherwise spent on trying to satisfy the whims of Mike Brown will have been saved.''

Jack Brennan, public relations director for the Bengals, wrote: ''How would you feel if you worked like the dickens to close a deal on a new camper you could barely afford, only to have a third party step in at the last moment and tell you it has the right to tax your purchase at 8.85 percent?''

Well, I'd say somebody who can't afford a new camper shouldn't have spent $7.1 million as a signing bonus to Ki-Jana Carter. Besides, the camper analogy belongs to me, Mr. Brennan. And if you want to use it, it will cost you. Unless you meet my demands, I will be forced to take my analogy to another city.

The crooked record

Jeff Berding, Bengals director of community affairs, called to ''set the record straight.'' When I asked which record I had crooked, he asked if he could go off the record. Because the record was what we were trying to fix, I declined.

Then he said City Manager John Shirey promised the Bengals there would be no admissions tax. Mr. Shirey denies having promised such a thing. So, it is clear that the negotiations have entered the delicate ''Liar, liar, pants on fire'' stage.

Mike Brown doesn't need any lessons from Donald Trump on the art of the deal. He's a tough negotiator, one who always appears willing to walk away from the table if things aren't ideal for him.

That's perfectly fair, of course. He is looking out for his own interests and the interests of his family. So are we, the taxpayers, sports fans and citizens of the city and county. He's got the team. We have the land and the money. It should be an even match.

So why is he calling all the plays?

It has been his game from the beginning. Now, the latest design for the stadium shows it consuming Elm Street. City Councilman Dwight Tillery says that extension blows the potential for riverfront development between Elm and Race streets. Weren't we promised that we'd all prosper from the stadiums?

Isn't that a deal-breaker?

Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin says this design could cost as much as $40 million more than the $185 million the county originally estimated. Where is that money going to come from?

No doubt the complex array of negotiators - the Bengals, the city, the Reds, the county - will sort it all out in time to spend our $544 million. Of the 79 people who answered after I asked whether we might have buyer's remorse, only five - including Mr. Berding and Mr. Brennan - did not. Nothing scientific. But surely worth some consideration.

David Krings and John Shirey and Roxanne Qualls and Bob Bedinghaus should be asking the same question. Maybe they'd find out that we remorseful buyers will back them up if they want to stop playing football and start playing hardball.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.