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May 10, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

A Fishy Story

by Keith Law

The whining and threatening have already begun. Florida's legislature made a small gesture to try to restore the state's credibility this week by telling Marlins owner John Henry to stuff his $140 million funding request up his... well, up his John Henry. Now even the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper generally known for sensible business writing, has fallen prey to MLB's rantings about competitive imbalance and how baseball simply can't survive in Miami without a stadium with a retractable roof, valet parking, and a new pair of diamond earrings.

Ahem. Let's rehash a few things about Miami. It's the 12th-largest metropolitan area in the United States, with nearly four million people. It boasts the largest Cuban-American population in the country. Once upon a time, Miami was mad about its baseball team. That was before Wayne Huizenga managed to undo the reputation for business acumen he had built up over the previous 20 years. The dismantling of the Marlins was to Huizenga what Sunbeam was to Al Dunlap, without the criminal allegations.

Now we're told that the Fish can't survive without a new stadium, and that they can't finance it themselves. This last bit is suspicious enough, since Henry's promised contribution has slowly inched up as the legislature has remained steadfast in its refusal to play the stadium-extortion game. He's up to $100 million already; who knows how high he'll go?

The next step, inevitably, is the threat to move the team. Should Florida continue to refuse to play ball, Bud Selig will pay the requisite visit to the state--he does the whole head-of-state thing pretty well, right down to the empty smiles and emptier threats--and we'll hear Washington, Charlotte, and other cities bandied about as probable destinations for the team.

There are, of course, a few small problems with this. First of all, none of the possible destination cities is ready to receive a team within the next two to three years. The closest is arguably Washington, with decrepit RFK Stadium ready to serve as a very temporary home to a new baseball team. I've long been a proponent of bringing baseball back to the largest U.S. city without it, but it's wishful thinking for the short term.

Second, if MLB does decide to allow the Marlins to move to D.C., they'll lose their final extortion option. The remaining handful of teams still trying to con their host cities into funding new stadiums will no longer have the leverage that comes from threatening to move to Washington. Threatening to move to Charlotte or the Triad won't work, as those cities have already rejected ballot propositions regarding publicly funding a baseball stadium. As I wrote a few weeks back, there are other potential candidates on the horizon, but they're at least five years out.

In other words, MLB has a lot more on the line here than just a new stadium for the Marlins. The game that the owners have played for the last few years may finally be ending, and the Sunshine State's legislature could deliver the death blow. The baseball world is watching you, Florida. Don't let us down.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

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