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September 25, 2003

Prospectus Today

Hope in South Florida

by Joe Sheehan

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See? THIS is why I don't go to more games:

Have you seen anything more fun (on a baseball field) than Billy Wagner vs. Barry Bonds today?

--Jim Cole

Well, Jim, I wouldn't know, because I didn't see that epic matchup. While the Astros were clinging for dear life to their division hopes in yesterday's 2-1 win over the Giants, I was in Anaheim, watching the Dodgers...excuse me, the Mariners...go down like Peter McNeely against John Lackey and the Angels. I'm not complaining--I got to talk baseball for two hours with SABR's Stephen Roney and saw some very good pitching--but Jim's e-mail illustrates the opportunity cost of going to games in the satellite era.

I promised an analysis of the Mariners' fade for today; that's not coming until Friday. (Life Lesson No. 12: Never believe promises made after 2 a.m. Those of you 22 and over probably know this one already.) Today, it's all about the Marlins.

With last night's 6-5 win over the Phillies, they have all but locked up a playoff spot, with a magic number of 2 for the wild card. Down 4-0 in the seventh inning of Tuesday night's game, they scored the next 11 runs in the series to not only win the first game, but to take a 6-0 lead in the second that they barely held. In those nine innings, Jeff Conine hit two huge home runs that were good for five runs while the Fish got great pitching from their bullpen and to make the runs stand up. The bullpens were really the story: the Phillies' bullpen stumbled, as it has often in the second half, while the Marlins' revamped bullpen did a great job.

Jack McKeon will get a lot of credit for the team's success, and rightfully so. The Marlins are 72-48 since McKeon took over on May 11. He's had help, though. As Jayson Stark has mentioned, Larry Beinfest has quietly had a good year as the team's GM. Beinfest acquired Mark Redman over the winter, reinforced the bullpen during the season with two power right-handers in Ugueth Urbina and Chad Fox, and added Jeff Conine when Mike Lowell went down with a broken hand. Perhaps he paid too much for Urbina (three prospects, including highly-rated Adrian Gonzalez) and shouldn't have extended Conine's contract, but I'm a "flags fly forever" guy, and I don't think the cheering mob at Pro Player Stadium last night had a problem with the moves, either.

The amazing thing about the two games for me was looking at those crowds. I'll concede that I'm a broken record on this topic, but it's a crucial point in examining the business of baseball: winning trumps everything. In places where baseball was presumably doomed, places like Montreal and Minneapolis and Miami, winning teams have produced not just higher attendance, but even the kind of building-shaking crowds that make even the lousiest ballparks feel like Yankee Stadium. The Marlins drew 28,520 last night, which doesn't sound impressive until you realize just how low a base from which they're working. The Marlins actually sold maybe 20,000 of those tickets in just the past month, and unlike some of the "attendance" figures we're seeing around the country this week, that figure is a pretty accurate measure of how many people were in the park. The Marlins will sell about 1.3 million tickets this year, nearly 50% more than they did in 2002. That's a huge gain, and it's entirely attributable to the one thing every team has control over: on-field performance.

How many more of these crowds will they have? Assuming they hold on for the wild card, the Marlins will draw the Giants in the first round of the playoffs, a difficult matchup for any team and a particularly difficult one for the Fish. The Giants have three power right-handers to use against the Marlins' heavily right-handed lineup, and they shut down the Fish in going 5-1 against them this year. Marlins' batters hit .240/.298/.370 in the six games. I'd be surprised if they took the Giants to more than four games before succumbing. Even if that comes to pass, it will have been a great season for the Marlins, the kind that can be leveraged into more success in the future.

The Marlins face a problem in the wake of that success, however: they get little financial benefit from it. Their lease with Pro Player Stadium funnels so much of the revenue generated by the team to former owner Wayne Huizenga that the Marlins have already begun talking about how they may not be able to sustain their payroll in 2004. Normally, I would dismiss this kind of talk, but in the Marlins' case, I believe it; they have the worst lease in sports, and maybe one of the worst in American business.

This story--the way Huizenga continues to pillage a team he sold five years ago--doesn't get enough coverage. Moreover, it doesn't get addressed properly by the game's upper management. If Bud Selig wants to be more than just an owners' representative, he'll find a way to intervene in the Marlins' relationship with the leech and stop him from sucking the franchise dry. Rather than treat the Marlins as some kind of triumph of revenue sharing or hold up their concerns about the future as an example of the need to make more structural changes, he should treat them as his favorite word--an aberration--and work towards solving the real problems the franchise faces.

This is a chance for Selig to show leadership and have a positive impact on the game, and I'd love to see him take that chance and run with it.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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