Thursday, November 15, 2012
Marlins fallout: Tragedy or smart baseball?
By David Schoenfield
Giancarlo Stanton isn't the only one upset after the Marlins' most recent payroll purge.
There was actually a time when it appeared baseball in Miami would be a successful enterprise. Despite playing in a football stadium located 16 miles from downtown Miami, the expansion Marlins drew more than 3 million fans in 1993. They ranked sixth in the National League attendance in 1994, suffered attendance declines in the following years (like many franchises in the post-strike seasons) but then signed free agents Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Alex Fernandez before the 1997 season (after signing Kevin Brown and Al Leiter the previous offseason) and won the World Series.
The Marlins drew more than 2.3 million fans that year, a per-game average of more than 29,190 that ranked fifth in the NL and 11th in the majors -- higher than the Red Sox, Cubs, Angels, Giants or Phillies. For a fifth-year expansion franchise, it was a rapid rise to the top.
Then owner Wayne Huizenga tore it apart, claiming the team had lost $34 million in 1997 on the heels of a $49 million payroll. Huizenga wanted a $350 million retractable roof stadium, and unable to cajole local politicians into building it for him, he took his ball and went home, putting the team up for sale and stripping the payroll of every high-priced veteran.
"If the team must remain here at Pro Player Stadium," Huizenga said, "then I don't believe the Marlins will ever be in the World Series again."
"This hurts. It hurts everybody," then-Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski said. "There isn't anyone in this organization who isn't sad today. We stopped celebrating the World Series the day we knew this was going to happen."
Outfielder Alou was the first to go, traded to the Astros for two minor league pitchers. A week later, Robb Nen went to the Giants and Devon White to the Diamondbacks. Two days later, Jeff Conine went to the Royals for somebody named Blaine Mull. In December, Brown was dealt to the Padres; at least the Marlins got Derrek Lee in that deal. In February, Leiter went to the Mets. The purge was completed in May when Gary Sheffield, Bonilla and Charles Johnson were traded to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Both of them were soon shipped elsewhere.
Huizenga, of course, was wrong about not being able to win at Pro Player Stadium. Remarkably, the Marlins built themselves back up, and won the wild card and another World Series title in 2003 -- they've won two titles despite never actually finishing in first place. Jeffrey Loria owned the team by then, after a series of sordid transactions that included baseball's failed attempt to contract the Expos and Twins.
But Huizenga had killed the public trust in the Marlins. From 1999 through 2011, the Marlins finished 15th or 16th in the NL in attendance each season except the post-championship boost in 2004, when they climbed all the way to 14th. The Marlins didn't tear apart that World Series team immediately -- they won 83 games each of the next two seasons -- but after 2005, Loria conducted another fire sale of sorts, cutting the Marlins' payroll from $60 million to $14.6 million. After the 2007 season, they traded Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers. Shockingly, this didn't manage to boost attendance. The Marlins ranked last in the majors in attendance in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and 29th in 2010.
Loria finally got the park Huizenga dreamed of and the Marlins bought a bunch of free agents and increased their payroll to more than $100 million. It didn't work. The Marlins went 69-93, their worst record since 1999. Then came the blockbuster deal with the Blue Jays. While perhaps defensible in a baseball sense -- it's hard to label it a "fire sale" when you're breaking up a 93-loss team -- the little trust the Marlins had won back in 2012 is now destroyed.
Maybe South Florida just isn't a good baseball town; but how do we really know? At one time, it appeared like it was growing into one. But Loria just guaranteed years of low attendance and disinterest in his ballclub. Maybe the Marlins will rise again from the ashes like in 2003. More likely, the Marlins will just fade away, back into obscurity and irrelevance, a blight of a franchise with an art-deco sculpture in center field, a constant reminder of the art dealer owner we'd rather forget about.
But two high-ranking club executives had a different take on what the Marlins' massive sell-off could really mean, in the big picture. "A couple of years from now," said one official, "we might look back on this as a warning sign."
He was talking about the split between the Haves and the Have-Nots, which is increasingly becoming a concern for some of the smaller-market teams. Officials from some of the Have-Nots were furious about the terms of the labor agreement that went into effect this year, believing that it really hurt the efforts of the small-market teams to compete. Not only did the agreement fail to provide additional draft picks or spending stipends for the international market for the Have-Nots, with the draft and signing caps, it essentially put clubs like the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays under the same rules as the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox.
Some executives from the Have-Nots feel that not only do they not have access to the best players in the free-agent market, but as the cost of arbitration-eligible players continues to rise, they are forced to consider trading their own drafted and developed players much earlier than they want. (An example is David Price, who could be shopped this winter.)
The frustrating part about the trade is that if you evaluate it with no regard to the history of the franchise, it makes baseball sense. The Marlins didn't get the Jays' best prospect, but they did pick up a package that has a substantial amount of upside and includes players who could conceivably form the core, around Giancarlo Stanton, of a contender in 2014 and beyond.
The damage to the Marlins' "brand" is impossible to calculate. The franchise boldly ripped it up and started fresh after world championships in 1997 and 2003, but things are different this time around. Fans can tolerate slashing and burning if it's done with a dose of conviction or a long-range plan -- or better yet, on the heels of a parade. When a team lards up its roster and trumpets a "new era" in conjunction with a new ballpark, then completely changes course in the span of a few months, it's a recipe for anger, cynicism and empty seats. Lots and lots of empty seats.
The last remaining argument against Loria is that he broke his covenant with fans, that he's no longer even pretending to value winning over profit. There are many Marlins fans who feel betrayed by the team's tear-down, just as there were Expos fans who were crushed by that team's demise. Those are legitimate concerns. They're also not Loria's concerns. The money will still roll in, and Major League Baseball won't do anything to threaten his seat at the table. If and when he does decide to sell the team, another colossal payout will be his reward.
Are you struck by how very similar you and Frank McCourt are? How similar you and Scrooge McDuck are? Are you directly related to Charles Ponzi? Have you deliberately spent the last decade-plus of your life paying homage to self-sabotage-for-profit team owner Rachel Phelps in “Major League” and cinematic vulture capitalist Gordon Gekko? Or is that just a happy coincidence of life imitating art, given that you are, technically speaking, an art dealer?
Why is it that one of the few things about your franchise that can be enjoyed without loathing or regret -- the delightful play of Giancarlo Stanton -- is now potentially ruined, given that Stanton reacted to your roster fire sale by tweeting, “Alright, I’m pissed off!!! Plain & Simple” and changed his Twitter photo from one of him in a Marlins uniform to one of him in a black shirt? Has anyone ever told you that black is the color of mourning?
This is not some Roswell, black-helicopter, second-shooter conspiracy. This is very real. This is three rich, powerful men getting together and using their influence and business acumen to affect dealings that hurt the sport and help their bank balances. This is an insult to those who care about baseball. And we know this all because this isn't the first time it's happened.
It is like the Miami Marlins don’t know they are in the emotion business, which makes them either incredibly cold or totally incompetent. Either way, it feels today like our poor city helped build a bejeweled cathedral for false prophets in search of false profits.
One of the main tenets of the statistical approach to baseball is honesty. Numbers can help see past any mystical optimism into the stark reality of a team’s competitiveness. How much the Marlins actually depended on statistical forecasts in their decision-making is debatable, but one thing is clear: they knew when they had a shot at winning, and they knew when they didn’t.
There are plenty of ways to spin their approach more negatively. Pump and dump. Boom and bust. Fun, then fire sale.