May 15, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
The Angel of Death
If you look at the standings, the Montreal Expos and the Florida Marlins are having pretty good years. The Marlins lead the NL East, and the Expos are tied for second place, just two games behind. Both teams have a raft of young talent on the roster, and should be good for years to come.
Then you look at the attendance figures. The two rank last and next-to-last in average attendance. The Expos are actually averaging a few more people than they did last year (although that may just be the greater impact Opening Night has on a quarter-season of numbers), while attendance at Marlins' games is down over 25%, more than 4,000 people per game.
At what point do we start seriously looking at Jeffrey Loria as baseball's angel of death?
Last winter's embarrassing three-way sales of the Florida Marlins, Montreal Expos, and Boston Red Sox made a mockery of the game's processes. MLB flat-out fixed the Red Sox sale, then when their extermination--that's the English translation of the Seligian word for "contraction"--of two franchises fell through, they rigged up a swap in which they took the Expos off of Loria's hands and handed him the Marlins, lending him the difference in the value of the two franchises so he could cover the swap. They then watched in silence as he stripped the Expos of everything but the light fixtures in one of the all-time bad-faith carpetbagger moves.
I believe that MLB has given up on the idea of contracting the Twins. The public outcry has been too great, the success of the team too clear, the money grab by Carl Pohlad too blatant. There's not going to be any easy way to get rid of them, certainly not with them drawing nearly as many people per game (20,678) to their 20-year-old multi-use domed facility as the commissioner's own Brewers are pulling in at their two-year-old baseball-only retractable-roof mallpark (21,493).
No, what MLB has now done is put their executioner in place in Florida, where he can run another franchise into the ground, one they can eliminate with less fuss than they can the darlings of the upper midwest. If Loria can do for the Marlins what he did for the Expos--make a night at the park seem as unattractive as possible--he can help MLB get contraction back on track. After all, who could argue with eliminating the two teams with the lowest attendance in the game?
Think about it: this is a new owner, the kind that typically comes in with guns blazing, trying to make a good impression on the fans. What did Loria do? Stopped printing game programs and ran out of hot dogs on Opening Night. Is that the act of a man dying to fill a ballpark?
I'll say this up front: if the Marlins trade Cliff Floyd for prospects before falling out of the race, every Marlins' season-ticket holder ought to put a lawyer on retainer. It would be an absolute crime if the art dealer-turned-team wrecker were allowed to take the air out of what could be a playoff season in South Florida, all for the greater good of a cockamamie labor strategy.
The Marlins' history has never been reported correctly, and that frustrates me terribly. The 1997 championship team that was dismantled is held up as an example of how teams in "small markets" can't be successful, even though we know that the reason the team looked unprofitable is that the stadium was assigned all the revenue generated by the Marlins' games there. At the time, Wayne Huizenga owned both entities, so this was just another example of the shell games MLB teams play with their finances.
Years later, those same conditions are in place: the Marlins remain a victim of Huizenga's greed, appearing to bleed red ink while making money for the man who lied his way through 1997, then threw a tantrum when he didn't get his own publicly-funded stadium.
The Marlins' problem isn't Pro Player Stadium; the Marlins' problem is their lease with slumlord Huizenga, which makes it virtually impossible for them to make money there. That's not a ballpark issue, it's a negotiating one. It has nothing to do with markets, or player salaries, or competitive balance, or any other damn thing. It's simply an arrangement that never should have been allowed to occur, and for which the baseball fans of south Florida have suffered.
If MLB cared at all about anything but lowering labor costs and getting taxpayer dollars, they would have addressed this in 1998, when the Marlins were sold. They don't, of course, and the problems the Fish face are exactly the same, four years and one owner later.
The Marlins are being choked to death by their first owner and their last, with MLB complicit in the murder attempt. Gentlemen, know that there are witnesses.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.