ROBERT KRAFT can't believe I can't believe he'd like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to supply tens of millions of dollars to perk up his stadium in Foxborough.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft
"You're not serious?" he asks/tells me. "I'm walking around like the Pied Piper. People are coming up to me on the street and saying, 'Thank you, thank you.' How can you be -- let me ask you something: Are you a football fan?"
Kraft, a Boston jillionaire, became a local hero six weeks ago when he plunked down a lot of money and bought the New England Patriots from James Orthwein, a St. Louis jillionaire. All of Massachusetts cheered and applauded and breathed teary sighs of relief. The Patriots were staying!
No, I'm not a football fan. I know roughly as much about football as I do about the Knights of Malta and barn raisings. But even people who do get all tingly at the sight of well-upholstered men running into each other at high speeds wondered about Kraft's price tag -- $160 million. That's a lot of dough, more than anyone had ever paid for an NFL franchise.
But Kraft didn't get to be a jillionaire, with flourishing business interests around the world, by disrespecting a buck. Or 160 million of them. Nor did Bank of Boston, which fronted a giant chunk of Kraft's purchase, become Bank of Boston by sinking depositors' dollars into lousy deals.
Besides, Kraft made it perfectly clear that joyous day in January that he knew what he was doing.
"I realized that this was a unique opportunity that I had," he said, "and it really required me to stretch beyond what I ever dreamt I would have to do to try to secure this asset.
"Some people think it's pretty silly to spend so much money just for a game, but for those of you who aren't fans, let me tell you that this game holds the attention of this community . . . in a way that's hard to explain if you're not into it."
No explanation necessary, Bob. It's your money. Your business. If you've got $160 million to "fulfill a dream," as you've put it, fantastic. If you've got millions more to spend on hiring new help -- paying guard Bob Kratch and safety Myron Guyton more than $1.5 million apiece, dangling $5 million before Miami Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich -- so much the better.
But is is unseemly to show up now, palm outstretched, pleading to be bailed out from a bad deal.
Kraft says his purchase stretched him so thin he can't afford to give Foxboro Stadium the facelift it desperately needs. That's a change: All through 1993, as the NFL commissioner and Orthwein and the megaplex cheerleaders were insisting the Patriots had to be yanked out of Foxboro, Kraft was swearing he would give the stadium a $50 million overhaul. His chief financial officer, Andy Wasynczuk, groused that the NFL's bigfeet were "discounting what we are proposing to do with Foxboro without having ever seen or reviewed" the plans.
That was then. Now Kraft wants the Legislature to give him "economic incentives." Wasynczuk interprets: "Grants, low-interest loans, no-interest loans, tax incentives -- there are a number of ways we could go." You don't say.
The rich are different from you and me; they have more chutzpah. "If I pay too much for a car," said an exasperated Tom Finneran, the House Ways and Means chairman, "I'm not going to go to the taxpayers and ask them to give me free gas for a year." Kraft will.
Ah, but the Pats' owner insists that "this is a business that creates a tremendous ripple effect in the economy," that it's healthy for taxpayers to be bled a little to sustain it.
"But look, they shouldn't give me something unless it enhances" the economic environment, Kraft tells me. "The state shouldn't put anything into this unless the public benefits are there."
Well, they're not. The most exhaustive study on the subject -- not one of those trumped-up Coopers & Lybrand-type reports, but genuine scholarship -- is economist Robert Baade's forthcoming "Stadiums, Professional Sports, and Economic Development," to be published next month by the Heartland Institute.
"Professional sports teams generally have no significant impact on a region's economy," concludes Baade. Evidence does not support "the notion that there is an economic rationale for public subsidies to sports teams and stadium construction. Professional sports does not appear to create a flow of public funds generated by new economic growth."
Do you have to be a fan to fully grasp the psychological heft of Kraft's team to Massachusetts morale? Maybe. But you don't have to know squat about football to grasp that asking taxpayers to subsidize wealthy sports entrepreneurs is wrong -- even when the request comes from the most popular team owner in town.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)