Since 1980, the twenty or so counties that constitute Southern Illinois have grown older and smaller. Clipped hard by the Clean Air Act, their economic engine now consists largely of public prison payrolls and the fumes of coal mining nostalgia.
Today, the land called "Little Egypt" is home to most of the highest unemployment rates in our state.
Job growth or a movement in support of it, the region has not. But it has baseball-- minor league baseball-- thanks to the (involuntary) generosity of state taxpayers and Madison County's judiciary.
Call them the indirect baseball benefactors. Grabbing all the public credit and media plaudits in Marion, home of the new "Southern Illinois Miners" of the independent Frontier League, are Governor Rod Blagojevich and Edwardsville asbestos attorney John Simmons.
Lefty Danny Alamonte, best-known for leading the Bronx into the under-12 Little League World Series when he was age 14, is the team's star attraction and the biggest celebrity in Marion since John Gotti. Local sports fans are flat-out ecstatic. Three cheers for their bread and circuses!
Blagojevich chipped in $3 million of state tax dollars from his Springfield budget to fund the the Big Top, the Miners' sparkling new, 3,800-capacity stadium. Simmons put up most of the bread, bequeathing a sliver of the giant fortune he amassed turning the Third Circuit Court into America's leading asbestos lawsuit settlement factory earlier this decade.
Simmons owns the team and calls the shots. If life were just, he'd name the ballpark for Judge Nicholas Byron, the man who really made this all possible.
What's impossible is any sense of a justification. We all love baseball, but spending millions of state tax dollars to subsidize a politically-connected tycoon's piddling minor league team is plain unconscionable, especially at the same moment Springfield leaders push giant, unprecedented tax increases on actual job-creating Illinois small businesses.
Marion, Centralia, Herrin and Mt. Vernon were once proud commercial centers. Rather than leaving them for dead, dousing Southern Illinois with the political equivalent of morphine, Blagojevich would be better to work on making this group of down-on-their-luck-for-the-moment communities more attractive to free enterprise and outside investment. Tax cuts would help, paired with measures that would make the local legal climate more attractive to new business.
Nothing against America's pastime, but it's just that. Economies require more than peanuts and cracker jack to regain their innovative swagger.