The Fish that killed Miami
Somewhere along the way, Jeffrey Loria lost the script. It was fairly simple, really. An owner of a “poor” franchise kept his house in order and received revenue sharing checks until he built a new ballpark. Then when the new ballpark money started rolling in, the franchise would be healthier, the team could significantly reduce if not completely eliminate its revenue sharing take, and the owner could spend as much as he wanted. That’s how it worked in Minnesota and Washington, that’s how it would work for the other teams that hadn’t gotten new parks yet.
The unwritten rule of all of this is that Loria could also spend as little as he wanted, even with a new ballpark. Last December, Loria kicked off a free-spending phase that last all of seven months. He had Larry Beinfest trade for Jose Reyes and sign Mark Buehrle, Ozzie Guillen, and Heath Bell. The Marlins were in the running for Albert Pujols and lost out when they refused to include a no-trade clause. As the Marlins sputtered towards the All Star Break, Loria gave up on his high-roller mode and set Beinfest out to go into fire sale mode. Hanley Ramirez was first to go, then Gaby Sanchez and Edward Mujica. Loria and stepson David Samson saved the best for last with this week’s blockbuster trade of – well, all of their veterans – to the Blue Jays for clubhouse cancer Yunel Escobar and prospects. While Giancarlo Stanton is expected to stay put because he’s good and cost-controlled, Ricky Nolasco and Logan Morrison may also be on the outs. If they were traded, the Marlins’ 2013 payroll could be under $20 million, unless Commissioner Bud Selig steps in and forces the Marlins to add a bunch of veteran one-year contracts. As for the big trade that made so many in baseball angry, Selig is reviewing it and while he’s angry, so far he sees no reason to rescind the deal.
It’s not so much the trade itself that’s revolting, it’s the circumstances surrounding the trade. Already, many in Miami and within baseball had reason to be suspicious of Loria, who ran the Expos into the ground and ran the Marlins on the cheap when he acquired his current team. Dealings with municipalities became so rancorous that Samson had to become the frontman in stadium discussions and Selig had to send in Bob DuPuy to negotiate the deal. Somehow the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County were swindled as so many municipalities had in the last 30 years
Other sports that have salary caps also have salary floors, making it difficult to pull off fire sales of this magnitude. Thanks to the lack of a salary floor, there will probably be two teams in 2013 – the Marlins and Astros – whose payroll will be lower than any payroll in the other three major sports. Yet MLB will also have 5-7 team payrolls that are higher than anything in the other three major sports. The economic system in MLB not only allows this inequity, it promotes it among its ranks. Selig can talk all he wants about greater competition including low-revenue teams, but in the end the four LCS teams all had payrolls above $110 million. On the other end, the Marlins have no incentive to wean themselves off the revenue sharing teat because they, as a small market team, are entitled to revenue sharing under the current CBA. In revising the agreement, MLB went to pains to define big markets and small markets, ensuring that teams in the top 15 markets all transition off revenue sharing.
Should the trade be approved, Selig could get punitive and take away some amount of revenue sharing money due to the Marlins next month. Since there’s no proper mechanism for redistributing or reallocating the funds, what will probably happen is that Selig will push Loria to end the fire sale at this point and then spend $20-30 million on veteran free agents who could round out a roster. It won’t do anything to heal the relationship with fans or lure premier players whose agents are rightfully suspicious of Loria. It will, however, give off a sheen of “trying” when it’s clear that Loria definitely isn’t. He must have learned to cut bait early when he tried to parlay the 2003 World Series win into multiple playoff appearances. The NL East proved tough sledding with a rebuilt Phillies squad and evergreen Braves team in competition. The Marlins finished 2004 and 2005 with above-.500 records, yet finished well back in the East. One recent suggestion has been to strip the Marlins of the 2015 All Star Game, which would be fair. The Game is a team’s reward for successfully building a stadium. Reassigning the game or postponing it for a few years is a reasonable punishment, though it pales in comparison to more punitive and less feasible actions such as engineering a franchise sale.
So yes, Loria will get a wristslap at worst. He’ll lose revenue at the ballpark for certain, especially if attendance dips below 20,000 per game as it was prior to Marlins Ballpark. Lost revenue could total $30 million. No one’s going to cry for him. Assuming he gets $40 million in annual revenue sharing, he’ll pull $85 million from MLB without selling a single ticket. In 2014 that will go up to $100+ million because of new national TV deals. Rent is incredibly cheap at $2.4 million. Loria can bide his time and let a rebuilding team move its way into contention, at which point he and Samson can try to convince the public and players that things will be different this time around. Once bitten, twice shy.
Reaction from the Marlins trade should have long resonating impact on efforts to build ballparks in the two Bay Areas, but I wouldn’t count on it. The differences between the Tampa and Oakland situations and what happened in Miami are vast. The Rays have fielded competitive teams for a long time but are locked into a lease at Tropicana Field, as well as the City of St. Petersburg because the mayor won’t allow the team to expand its search to Tampa. The A’s were competitive this year and have a bright future, but ownership also wants to look outside Oakland and is being prevented from doing so by the cross-bay Giants. Lew Wolff wants to self-finance the ballpark to avoid dicey public funding measures. By ratifying the new revenue sharing market definitions, Selig and the other owners are pushing for the A’s to get off the dole. Given the size of Tampa Bay market, it would seem that the local economy couldn’t capably support a privately-funded stadium. This memory will remain fresh if the respective owners or the commissioner play ransom when the CBA ends in 2016. Still, you can’t discount the collective ability of pols to buy into a bad deal. It happened in Miami, it happened in Oakland not too long ago, it’s happening in El Paso now.
It’s too bad this stadium business is so expensive. Teams that build their own stadia have the most incentive to remain competitive, to spend on payroll, to win. They don’t have gigantic subsidies to fall back on. If more teams went that route, we might have fewer instances like this Miami mess. And competition would be real, not a farce.