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It's too soon to bury Plan B

Thursday, December 03, 1998

By Brian O'Neill

Mayor Murphy screwed up. He spiked the ball on the 5-yard line.

The line isn't mine. It's going around some of this city's finer watering holes.

Even political novices can see that Murphy's premature celebration of victory helped doom whatever chance the stealth legislation had of securing state money to build stadiums in Pittsburgh.

Yes, though we're fast running out of letters to label the stadium plan, we seem to be gaining handicappers.

Even Murphy became a pundit this week. The man whose optimism once knew no bounds was passing out nails for the coffin that would contain Pittsburgh professional sports.

He predicted Philadelphians would continue to dawdle in raising local funding for stadiums, and approve state funding only after Pittsburgh has lost a team or three.

Anyone with a healthy fear of Harrisburg dealmaking can see that danger.

But a few hours after Murphy offered his doomsday scenario, a couple of Democratic state legislators, a rookie and a veteran, said it's way too early for stadium supporters to wear black instead of black and gold.

The rookie is Rep. Dan Frankel, who eased into the East End seat Ivan Itkin left in his ill-fated bid for governor.

Representing that rare district -- one that supported the stadium referendum -- Frankel is a solid "yes" vote.

Itkin, a Murphy foe, was not.

Frankel can't fathom why Murphy and his allies called a press conference to take credit for the stealth legislation, but the county Democratic Caucus now must go from this "in your face, Harrisburg" ploy to "a lot of bridge building."

Philadelphia can bring more guys to this rumble, but Gov. Ridge's "word is on the line," Frankel says.

Failure to deliver his promise of one-third state funding could hurt Ridge's chances for national office, Frankel believes.

He recalls, too, that Three Rivers Stadium opened at mid-season 1970. A couple of months delay needn't kill anything.

The 10-year veteran is Rep. Bill Robinson, 56, of the Hill District.

His river-crossing legislative district includes the sites of the proposed new stadiums. Robinson has never said yes to Plan B, but he'd approve a deal that respects concerns of the Legislative Black Caucus.

He and his Philadelphia colleagues want to ensure minorities and women have "maximum opportunity" for stadium construction work.

He'd also like the Pittsburgh teams to give back stadium naming rights to the public, but Robinson is nothing if not flexible.

He offered this analogy.

These stadiums might be good for us, but that's what our grandmothers said about castor oil.

"Who do you know who stepped up to take castor oil?"

Our grandmas knew to mix it in oatmeal or orange juice, "but these guys don't give you any oatmeal or orange juice. So the legislators are saying, 'I'm not taking that stuff."'

Forget Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy's "artificial time frame," Robinson says.

When the right sweetener comes, so will the legislation.

He calls this Plan X "because X represents an unknown quantity."

I can't help but notice, though.

There are still two letters after that.



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