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Marlins latest sale not a good sign

Dayn Perry


The first blockbuster trade of the 2007 Winter Meetings is done.


Said blockbuster has third baseman Miguel Cabrera and lefty Dontrelle Willis going from the Florida Marlins to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for lefty Andrew Miller, minor-league center fielder Cameron Maybin, catcher Mike Rabelo and three additional prospects. This trade is notable for a couple of reasons: One, it makes the Tigers once again an immediate power team in the American League (they now have a much-needed innings guy in Willis, and with Cabrera in the fold and Sean Casey mercifully jettisoned, they now have an offense that's capable of scoring 1,000 runs or more); and, two, it represents the latest nadir for the long-running and no-longer-funny joke that is the Marlins organization.

Let's explore that second point in further depth. Fans and observers of the game are accustomed to the Marlins' perpetual rebuilding efforts, but now something more bizarre and unpalatable is happening. For lack of a better way to characterize it, think of what's going on in Miami as rebuilding the rebuilding. When the Marlins, in the winter of 2003, once again tore down a world-championship roster, we figured it was in the service of building another contender a half-decade or so down the line. Now that the Marlins have shipped off Cabrera (age 24) and Willis (age 25), it's clear something else is going on. Call it this: a dereliction of duties on the part of team ownership.


It's no secret that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is a thoroughly deplorable character. This was, after all, the man who willfully and with malice aforethought destroyed the Montreal Expos. During Loria's tenure north of the border, he did things like fail to negotiate a television deal or an English-language radio contract, allow a lease on stadium land to expire, and offer his team up for contraction. It was an orchestrated failure designed to get baseball out of Montreal, and Loria pulled it off.


You'd think such cynical bumbling would get Loria kicked out of the country club, but Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB not only paid Loria $120 million for his beleaguered franchise (a tidy capital gain of more than 900 percent on his original investment in the Expos), but they also allowed Loria to purchase the Marlins and, in violation of league rules, floated him a $38.5 million loan to help him do so. So why is Loria enabled to such a degree? Because he takes his marching orders with nary a peep.


And now he's at it again. Because the taxpayers of South Florida have been loath to buy Loria a place to do business, he's doing his Dr. Kevorkian act once again. Selig loves nothing so much as a publicly-financed stadium, and the reams of research proving that these projects are net losers for the public (claims of the "economic development" that follow new constructions are wildly overstated) have done nothing to dissuade him. Miami is the latest municipality to refuse to knuckle under to Selig, and Loria, as a rejoinder, is putting an increasingly miserable product on the field.


So here's a fiscal reality of baseball: arbitration-eligible players, in the grand scheme, are eminently affordable commodities for any organization, including the Marlins. Parting with two so gifted ? especially Cabrera ? is mismanagement of the highest order. Loria is adept at manipulating this "chicken or egg" dilemma ? i.e., are people not showing up because our team is lousy, or is our team lousy because people aren't showing up? ? to suit his interests. In this case, as it was in Montreal, his interests are in rendering the Marlins not-viable in South Florida. Doing so gives him the political cover to move his team to a market that will pony up with the tax dollars. Or perhaps he'll sell to investors in such a market and, once again, pocket an obnoxious profit.


It's true that Loria and the Marlins have an unfavorable lease at Dolphin Stadium, but that should be incentive for him to ? and here's a novel idea ? pay for his own damn ballpark. The San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, among other teams, have succeeded in parks that, for the most part, are privately financed, and there's only one reason the Marlins can't join them. That reason, of course, is Loria's galling lack of commitment.


If nothing else, critical mass is approaching. The Marlins' lease expires in 2010, and with the University of Miami football program headed for Dolphin Stadium, there simply may not be the room or infrastructure for the Marlins to remain as Wayne Huizenga's tenants. It's possible that the City would be willing to work with the Marlins on a ballpark built on the current site of the Orange Bowl, but Loria and MLB insist they want a downtown locale. It bears repeating: if that's what Loria wants, then he should foot the bill himself.


The shame of it is that a baseball team, operated properly, could thrive in South Florida. The Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area is the seventh-largest media market in the country, and an owner willing to reinvest in the team could easily make the Marlins a top destination for free-agent talent. Certainly, it will take a new ballpark and a winning team for that to happen, but Loria is apparently unwilling to do business in a sensible manner unless he's lavished in corporate welfare.


So when does it end? How long until Loria decides, as he did with Cabrera and Willis, that he can't "afford" Maybin or Miller or Hanley Ramirez or Jeremy Hermida or any other young talent poised to make substantially more than the league minimum? Sadly, it will likely be business as usual in Miami until the taxpayers acquiesce or the team moves. That's a grave disservice to the game and to Marlins fans ? at least those few fans that Loria hasn't already run off.

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