- Chris Jones
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BEFORE JEFFREY LORIA went on his free agent signing spree this off-season, I'd happily forgotten that the weasel owner of the Miami Marlins even existed. Now, during this Winter of Our Great Deception, I've been haunted again by memories of his tiny feet scuttling over the artificial turf of Montreal's cursed Olympic Stadium. (I had the misfortune of covering his murder of the Expos; I'll never forget the sound Youppi! made, begging for his giant orange life.)
When Loria first bought a stake in the team in 1999, he tried to play the glad-handing savior, acquiring a trio of semi-stars (Hideki Irabu!) and boasting of
baseball's bright future in Montreal. Within months, he'd strong-armed majority ownership from a Canadian consortium, yanked the team off English-language TV and radio and threatened to move if the city didn't build him a new ballpark. By the time the sorry tale had reached its inevitable conclusion, the Expos were headed to DC and Loria to Miami to buy the Marlins, helped along by a $38.5 million no-interest loan from Major League Baseball. The only bigger creep involved was Loria's smarmy, entitled stepson, David Samson, who has twice been installed as a top team executive, because nothing says qualified like "son of the second woman to marry the guy who made his money dealing art."
Baseball has a higher tolerance for lousy owners than most professional associations -- there are strip clubs with more stringent application standards -- but even with guys like Frank McCourt, Peter Angelos and Fred Wilpon kicking around, the firm of Jeffrey Loria & Stepson might be the worst of them, because the awfulness is squared. Oh Miami, how did you not do the math?
Sure, Loria and Samson have spent this winter trying to paint themselves once again as saviors, having rescued another sad franchise from its baffling history of miracle victories and fire sales. They're city builders too, these dream-driven local heroes behind the $634 million stadium rising out of Little Havana. If you believe the spin, that crime-plagued neighborhood will now be home to popcorn and megabucks free agents like Heath Bell, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle for years to come. Little Havana will be home to a permanent joy.
Trust me on this one: No it won't. Miami will remain a murder capital. Stadiums have never saved cities.
In fact, you're about to witness the Montreal scenario play itself out again, only on a far grander, even more heartbreaking scale. In early December, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into how
the new ballpark was funded: Nearly 80 percent of the money came from Miami and Miami-Dade County, after Loria and Samson pleaded poverty -- just as they had in Montreal -- and claimed they needed substantial public financing to build a new stadium if the Marlins were to remain in town. The kicker? When the Marlins' financial documents later showed up on Deadspin, they revealed that Loria and Samson had been raking it in, mostly by pocketing money from "richer" clubs through revenue sharing. In 2008 and 2009, the team actually made a profit of nearly $49 million. Whoops.
At least when Montreal was saddled with enormous debt for a stadium, the city got the Olympics out of it. Miami has buried itself under what will prove a $1.2 billion burden ... to keep the Marlins. They've finished dead last in National League attendance seven straight seasons; even when the Marlins won the World Series in 2003, their average attendance was just over 16,000. Will a new ballpark really make any fundamental difference to this duped city's appetite for baseball? Maybe for a brief burst, the way it did in Toronto, in Pittsburgh.
But novelty is short-lived. And Loria and Samson have just done some seriously long-term spending, highlighted by the heavily back-loaded six-year deal for Reyes. Enjoy the party while it lasts, Marlins fans, because that debt, like the city's debt, like the county's debt, will eventually come due. And you watch: However they manage it, Loria and Samson will find someone else to pay the bill. For them, the sound of someone else's wallet opening has always been like the pitter-patter of little feet.
Jeffrey Loria may have built Miami a new ballpark and gone on a free-agent spending binge, but Chris Jones says not to believe the new owner when he promises the Marlins the moon.