Fish Flop Print
Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
December 2012

The Miami Marlins trade away a truckload of players and everyone is shocked. Really?

WPix_CultFollowing_12-12ho knew there would be a Miami Marlins column in December? After a season in which the hometown team lost a disappointing 93 games, finishing last in its division, the general consensus was, the less said about the Fish, the better. Best to look to the future. Well, the future has arrived early, and it isn’t what most fans expected.

In mid-November, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria signed off on a deal to trade five of his highest-paid players to the Toronto Blue Jays: pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, catcher John Buck, and shortstop José Reyes. This deal followed two mid-season trades -- in which the Fish sent pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante to the Detroit Tigers and shortstop-turned-third baseman Hanley Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers -- and an October trade that delivered reliever Heath Bell to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In return for all this, the Marlins got an assortment of young prospects. But they mostly got to dump salary. A lot of it. The team’s payroll in 2012 was around $118 million; as of this writing, they’re committed to spending only $16 million in 2013, pending additional player signings. (Observers expect the final figure to be in the $40-$50 million range.) As a result, Marlins fans are probably looking at several more losing seasons.

The hand-wringing and moans were instantaneous. At the center of it all, of course, was the roughly $485 million local taxpayers contributed to the Marlins Park project. “Loria has a moral obligation to the county, city, and taxpayers who substantially built the stadium for him [to field a competitive team],” cried Greg Cote in the Herald. Not to be outdone, his colleague Dan Le Batard went homophonic: “It feels today like our poor city helped build a bejeweled cathedral for false prophets in search of false profits.”

It’s enough to give one a case of the vapors. It’s also a crock, this idea that we’ve somehow been betrayed by Loria and the Marlins. Loria is a businessman. His goal, as a team owner, is to make money. There are essentially two ways to do that: 1) Spend a lot on high-priced talent, quickly mold a contender, and reap the profits that come with increased attendance, TV revenue, and merchandising, or 2) Spend modestly on unproven players, commit/resign yourself to a long -- potentially endless -- rebuilding process, and bank all the money you can from stadium income and Major League Baseball’s revenue-sharing plan.

Loria claimed that, once he had his new ballpark, he would pursue the first strategy and, for one season, he did; he’s now opting to do the latter. Is that immoral? No more than capitalism is. Businesses change their approach all the time, based on what they perceive to be in their long-term interests.

No, the problem isn’t with Loria. It’s with the staggeringly bad deal we, collectively, made. We built Loria a ballpark, increasing the value of his private business to approximately $450 million (according to Forbes). We did so on the premise -- shown by sports economists to be largely unsupported -- that a baseball stadium produces tangible benefits for its host neighborhood.

In exchange, we had Loria double-dog swear he would field a competitive team. Not that we could do anything about it if he didn’t, except stay away from games and deny him a few bucks in ticket sales -- a pittance compared to what we’d already bestowed upon him.

None of that makes Loria a “false prophet.” If you think about it, he and Marlins president David Samson have been startlingly honest. Remember last spring, when Samson reportedly told a gathering of business types that Miami residents were “not that smart”? He later said he had been misquoted, but I prefer to think that was just damage control. Because he was right: We’re not that smart. People who are don’t write blank checks to millionaires expecting much in return.

As for this recent rash of deals, Loria says he’s basically just blowing up a team that wasn’t very good. And you know what? Despite the initial optimism that surrounded this squad, he’s not lying about that, either.

Coming into 2012, Ramirez already had a reputation for playing hard only when it suited him; after the Reyes signing moved him from shortstop to third base, he seemed to quit trying altogether.

Buck was one of the worst hitters in baseball -- but not as inept as Bell was at saving games. And the pitching staff, for all the buzz surrounding it, didn’t have a single starter who could be considered a legitimate ace. (Johnson? Perhaps -- if baseball games lasted five innings instead of nine.) And then there was manager Ozzie Guillen…

Loria inaugurated his new ballpark with an ill-assembled, overhyped team, and he’s admitted it. He’s being straight with us. Going forward, the least we can do is be straight with ourselves. About everything.

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