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JUPITER, Fla. – Two of Giancarlo Stanton's friends ran into each other this offseason and couldn't contain their laughter. They'd done the same thing, and they suspected they weren't the only ones, either. The first time they talked with Stanton after the Miami Marlins' fire sale, they skipped the usual platitudes and went straight to the apology.
How bad is it to be a Marlin? A rich, handsome, supremely talented 23-year-old with the most powerful swing in baseball actually invokes pity across the sport.
The friends relay this story because they know Stanton won't. He expressed his disappointment to MLB.com's Peter Gammons following the Marlins dumping more than $160 million worth of salaries on the Toronto Blue Jays, and then he went back to his business, which is playing for a franchise far more interested in its P&L statement than its W-L columns.
"What are you gonna do?" Stanton said Thursday morning. "Honestly, what? There's nothing you can do. You express your feelings, and that's about it."
Stanton wasn't gritting his teeth or playing passive-aggressive. He's right, and his maturity stands in great contrast to the efforts of team owner Jeffrey Loria and president David Samson to further sully a franchise.
The Schadenfreude of 2012 – the Marlins' new stadium that was coaxed out of politicians and tax dollars through lies, misdirection and obfuscation, sat empty by the end of the season – gave way to the sadness of a major-league franchise self-immolating. The Marlins lost tens of millions of dollars last year, a reasonable comeuppance for all the revenue-sharing money they'd pocketed and distributed to themselves. But no. The ledgers never can be even in Miami. Finances always trump dignity with Loria and Samson.
So off went Jose Reyes, whom Loria two days earlier had told to buy a house in Miami because he wasn't going anywhere, and Mark Buehrle, whom Loria assured was part of the Marlins' future, and Josh Johnson, arguably the best pitcher in team history. And left, along with Ricky Nolasco, Logan Morrison and a brigade of kids, was Stanton, a diamond dropped into a port-a-potty.
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By the end of last season, he had hit 93 career home runs. The only other players with that many at the end of their age-22 season were Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Conigliaro and Frank Robinson. Stanton could've been anything – a devastating wide receiver/tight end hybrid at USC, a punishing combo guard at UNLV – but chose baseball and home runs that break scoreboards, which he did at Marlins Park. It's a wonder Loria didn't sneak the repair costs out of his paycheck.
There are two types of Marlins: the ones doing their time and the ones who have been paroled by trades or free agency. The latter console the former. They trade stories of Loria bungling the team as a laughable proto-Steinbrenner and chortle at how the small fan base that did remain cannot possibly remain loyal to an owner whose history of overpromising and underdelivering apexed this offseason. Loria promised a new stadium would lead to a commensurate payroll. It did. For about half a season. The Marlins' estimated payroll this year is about $46 million. More than a quarter of that will go to Toronto and Arizona, on which they dumped Heath Bell.
The Marlins replaced top talent with veterans in the twilight of their careers. Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre and Jon Rauch have a combined 34 years of service time. The rest of the 40-man roster totals 50 years, 1 day. In a clubhouse of pups, old dogs aren't the worst thing, particularly as new manager Mike Redmond preaches patience. In his first meeting, his message was succinct: The Marlins are going to lose, and when they do, they'll drink a Bud Light afterward. They're going to win, too, and when they do, they'll drink that same Bud Light. If half the kids understand that message, it's a good start.
The idea is to build something that lasts, though it doesn't take a civil engineer to see that if the foundation is irreparable, what's built isn't likely to last. Money can scrub away a lot of things, even a bad reputation, and yet what Loria and Samson have fostered is something much worse than a bad reputation. They are branded liars and schemers and connivers, and no player in his prime, surely not Stanton, will commit to such people.
So the Marlins paddle not against a current but a tsunami of incompetence. Kids will emerge. Outfielder Christian Yelich should soon prove a nice complement to Stanton. Jacob Turner and Justin Nicolino and especially Jose Fernandez are the sort who, health permitting, should anchor a rotation. It might even look promising if Loria weren't perpetually wielding a scythe like a baseball reaper.
Fernandez's introduction to this baseball world came Wednesday, when the first pitch of a live batting-practice session slipped – and knocked the helmet off Stanton's head. It nicked his occipital protuberance, the tiny bone pointing out from the back of the cranium, and left a crack in the back of his helmet.
"Man," Stanton said, "I seem to always get plunked during spring."
Two years ago, Tom Koehler, a right-hander, rode a fastball inside and left a vicious bruise on Stanton's left shoulder.
"I hit people," Koehler said. "I'm used to it. But it was horrifying when he picked up the ball and threw it at me. That part got me."
"Good thing we're friends," Stanton said.
"Yeah," Koehler said. "If I didn't know him, I might not want to do that. I just wanted to throw it right by him and be like, 'In your face.' Didn't really work that way. He made me feel bad."
"That's exactly why I get plunked," Stanton said. "They try too hard."
Striking out Stanton, even in something as inconsequential as live BP, is a point of pride. If he can stay healthy and focused, he will do special things. A 50-home run season isn't far-fetched. A Gold Glove in right field seems a fait accompli. If Stanton cuts down on his strikeouts, his .290/.361/.608 line last season could be just the start.
"I've got a lot to get better at," Stanton said. "I can't peak out now, three years in. There's room. I don't do the I'm-gonna-hit-this-or-that. I just know I can be better."
If he's lucky, the Marlins will recognize that no player who went through the chaos of 2012 ever would consider locking in long-term in Miami and trade Stanton by year's end to receive peak value. He isn't a free agent until 2017, which would give a team three years of relatively controlled salaries. Stanton hits arbitration next year, and the $8 million or so he'll command may be too much for the Marlins, especially if the stadium sits near-empty on a nightly basis.
The first step to prevent that comes soon. On Monday night, Loria will meet with a handful of writers from the Miami-area newspapers that regularly cover the Marlins. He hasn't spoken publicly in months and forbade Samson from doing the same. A new P.R. firm set up this meet-and-greet, as if the most hated man in South Florida could possibly rebrand himself or his message at this point.
Following that first round is another salvo: Loria actually will show his face here Tuesday. There won't exactly be a deluge of anger, because anger presupposes caring, and so few people care anymore. They're resigned to the same thing as Giancarlo Stanton, same as the dozens of others who populate the clubhouse: So long as Jeffrey Loria and David Samson are running the Marlins, they'll be imprisoned by mismanagement, boxed in by misguided priorities and worthy of the pity that only grows by the day.
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