Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 15, 2012

What Did Marlins Fans Do To Deserve Jeffrey Loria?

Given the media outcry over the Miami Marlins’ blockbuster trade that will send five starters to Toronto in exchange for the Blue Jays’ shortstop and a passel of prospects, adding another voice to the cacophony feels a bit like piling on. But if there is any owner in any sport who deserves to be piled on by pundits and fans alike, it’s Jeffrey Loria of the Marlins.

Unlucky fans in Miami have had to endure this twice before. After the Marlins became unlikely World Series champions in just their fifth year of existence, former owner Wayne Huizenga promptly dismantled the team, to the point that it went from being a 92-win Wild Card entrant into the postseason in 1997 to a major league worst 108-loss last place franchise in 1998. Loria bought the team prior to the 2002 season, and a year later the Marlins beat the Yankees in six games for their second championship. A young Josh Beckett led the pitching staff and an even younger Miguel Cabrera smashed a long home run off of Roger Clemens in Game Four of the Series. This time the salary dump took a little longer; but as one young Marlins star after another approached arbitration eligibility or free agency, Loria traded them away or let them leave rather than agree to pay them their market value. When the stars of the 2003 championship team next appeared in the postseason, Beckett and Mike Lowell did so wearing Red Sox uniforms, while Cabrera and Pudge Rodriguez played in October for the Tigers. Even third base coach Ozzie Guillen departed to become manager of the White Sox.

For fans in south Florida, the so-called “fire sale” after the team’s first championship and the “market correction” after the second remain painful memories. But in both of those earlier cases first Huizenga and then Loria at least had a fig leaf of an excuse for moving to slash the team’s payroll. From their first season through 2011 the Marlins played their home games at what is now known as Sun Life Stadium. Home to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, the open-air stadium built for football was a poor excuse for a ballpark. When a diamond was laid out and foul poles erected, many seats had poor sight lines. The oppressive humidity and common afternoon or evening thunderstorms of a typical Florida summer made for a less than enjoyable experience as well as frequent delays. After drawing more than three million fans in their inaugural season, total attendance managed to top two million just one other time, during the franchise’s first run to a championship in 1997. In each of their last six years at Sun Life Stadium the Marlins ranked dead last in the National League in attendance.

But three years ago Loria finally convinced officials of the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County to bear the bulk of the cost of a shiny new stadium. Those officials agreed that the taxpayers they represented would pay over 80% of the more than $630 million it took to build Marlins Park and surrounding parking facilities and improvements. With its abstract design, an exterior mix of gleaming white stucco and glass that gives way to Art Deco pastels and bright colors in the stands and around the field, the new stadium is visually arresting. If the design and colors don’t remind one of South Beach then surely the aquarium built into the backstop behind home plate will. On top of that the retractable roof and compact 37,000 seat capacity make it a fine venue for the Great Game.

In return for their investment of public funds, the city and county officials believed that Loria had committed to spending the money to field a competitive team. Last winter, he gave every appearance of doing so. The Marlins brought the outspoken Guillen back from Chicago to manage and signed All-Star closer Heath Bell out of free agency. They followed those moves by luring shortstop Jose Reyes away from the Mets with the biggest contract in the team’s history. By the time Loria wrapped up his off-season spending spree by adding pitcher Mark Buehrle, Miami’s payroll had risen from less than $57 million in 2011 to more than $107 million for the 2012 season. At the winter meetings in December 2011 Loria declared a new era had arrived, saying “I just want to give everybody a chance to win and have a new experience.”

Loria’s spirit of civic-mindedness, his determination to award Marlins fans with a new experience, barely made it past the All-Star break. First Guillen alienated fans of a team whose home field towers above the neighborhood of Little Havana by declaring his “love” for Fidel Castro in a Time magazine interview. Then on the field Loria’s open checkbook did not produce the instant success that he presumably expected. The Marlins lost their home opener on national television, and ended April at 8-14. They rallied through the month of May, winning a club record 21 games to climb well above .500. But then in June the team collapsed, at one point losing 17 out of 20 contests. A fan base that had been outraged by Guillen’s remarks was being given no reason to come out to the ballpark, and it soon became apparent that predictions of attendance topping 3 million had been wildly optimistic.

One might think that after having taken so much of the taxpayers’ money Loria might have felt some obligation to stay the course at least for a full season. But that would presume that the Marlins owner spends any time at all thinking about anything other than his own well-being. In July the Marlins traded Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers, then sent pitcher Anibel Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante to Detroit. As soon as the season ended Miami fired Guillen and shipped Bell to Arizona. Now Loria is ready to complete the purge by shipping Reyes, Buehrle, pitcher Josh Johnson and catcher John Buck, with 11 All-Star nods between them, as well as infielder Emilio Bonifacio to the Blue Jays for a group of players whose names need not be written here because no one outside of their immediate families would recognize them. As fast as the Marlins payroll expanded for the season just ended, it has come crashing back down for 2013.

Of course everyone knows that the size of a team’s payroll doesn’t guarantee success, and Loria is busy justifying his emptying out of the Marlins clubhouse by pointing to the team’s 69-93 record. But a losing season is justification for change, not capitulation. Despite Guillen’s stupid comments, and despite the 93 losses, attendance climbed by more than 45% this season, and was the third highest in team history. But Jeffrey Loria could care less about the fans who did come out to his shiny new ballpark, bought and paid for by the taxpayers of south Florida. Because the Marlins faithful didn’t come out in numbers that were unrealistic to begin with, he has decided that they failed to hold up their end of what he perceived to be the bargain. Now he is now more than happy to go back on his end of the deal. So Marlins fans may well get a new and decidedly unwelcome experience. It’s called AAA ball masquerading as major league.

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Responses

  1. The way some of these owners treat the teams and their fans as playthings is just criminal. The city should hire a lawyer to try to find a way for sticking the expense of building the ballpark on Loria for reneging on his end of the bargain, which he clearly has done. This is why I’m dead-set against public funding of stadiums and ballparks. If a rich man wants a nice, shiny new park, let him pay for it. Also, if he doesn’t spend every penny of the money he gains through revenue sharing, he should be made to give it back.
    Nice post, Bill

  2. Bill, I am in total agreement. The Miami taxpayers will wind up paying more than $2 billion by the times the bonds are paid off; and Loria is just about making sure that his own bank account grows larger. Thanks for your comment, and thanks as always for reading!

    Mike

  3. Mike,
    I couldn’t agree more. Loria deserves every bit of the piling on that he’s getting. In fact, I just posted something blasting Loria as well. I think the thing that irritates me more than anything else about this guy is that he burned the Expos franchise to the ground and never should have been allowed to purchase the Marlins to begin with (which required a $38.5 million loan provided by MLB, by the way). And I blame Bud Selig for letting Loria off the hook in Montreal. Great post, Mike. You made a lot of terrific points.
    Rob N

    • Excellent points Rob. We can also add Reyes and Buehrle to the list of people fooled by Loria. They now know the exact value of his verbal promise of a no-trade clause; which would be zero. Thanks for the comments, and thanks for reading!
      Mike


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