COMMENTARY | Now that the outrage over Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria's roster fire sale has subsided, fans and the media have met the team with a sort of disappointed indifference.
Recently, Dan LeBatard took a few minutes on his radio show to celebrate the team's first run scored, during the second inning of the third game of the season, on a Justin Ruggiano solo shot. LeBatard and his radio partner, Stugotz, chortled while Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Van Horne made the call in an effort to lend credibility to a season that may read more like an early obituary.
Meanwhile, a single fan could be heard clapping for the away team as Ruggiano rounded the bases. The clapping heard over the radio was unconvincing enough that it could have been mistaken for a plastic soda cup tumbling down the aisle steps of Nationals Park in Washington.
The Marlins are a perfect storm for drama. They bluffed a city on the verge of bankruptcy into funding their stadium. They have an owner who treats critics with hostility. Team executives seem unable to talk sense into their boss. Miami may lose 100 games.
During the 2012 free-agent season, the Marlins poured massive resources into back-loaded contracts for a handful of veteran players in an effort to fill roster caverns and create buzz for the team's new look. We all remember the opening-day game at Marlins Park: Loria carting out a wheelchair-bound Muhammad Ali so that people wouldn't boo him; models in sequined swimsuits and head dresses accompanying the home team starters; John Kruk looking bewildered by the crescent fish tank lining the backstop; some of the most expensive concessions in the game; and a home team loss to cap it all as visitors exited the stands.
The Marlins would go on to lose 92 more games over the summer.
Sixty-nine win seasons result in change. Miami looked at the problems it faced and decided to gut the system rather than fill more gaps. The Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves, both coming off playoff runs, improved upon solid lineups. Even the New York Mets seemed to improve by subtraction in their R.A. Dickey trade.
Miami would have needed to gain at least 23 wins in order to secure an offseason spot. They would have needed to keep their roster intact and then go on to sign, at a minimum, the top four free agents from this offseason just to gain 20 wins. That would have meant inking Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, and B.J. Upton. Maybe they could have brought back Anibal Sanchez as well. If that had happened, they'd still have a terrible bullpen, but their total roster expenditures would be in the $400 million range. Consider beyond that, the massive offer the Marlins were said to have made toward Albert Pujols before the 2012 season, and you have a high-dollar patchwork team capable of taking the division.
The roster needed to be unloaded. The group had no chemistry. Guys who were meant to break out regressed. The owner was getting testy with players. Fans weren't buying tickets, and the ones who were there seemed indifferent. At one point, reliever Heath Bell criticized visitors at the Clevelander bar located next to the bullpen who were cheering for the Miami Heat on a television while the team struggled. The season was lost before it even started, to the surprise of owner Loria and a handful of analysts who expected them to compete for a title.
While the fire sale was good as a short-term fix for the franchise as it stretched for relevance, the long-term significance is that every baseball fan in South Florida gets to roll their eyes at an owner who they feel has a toy but lacks the knowledge to operate it. In the South Florida market, a team isn't competing so much for Marlins fans as much as they are working to convert regional transplants who are supporters of other teams. A New Englander living in South Florida who is used to a strong tradition and annual competitiveness isn't going to convert for a team he or she can't trust.
Now, with too many holes to fill, the Marlins have had to promote their star prospect, Jose Fernandez, and electric pitching talent and Cuban exile. As he matures over the next few years, the damage done by the team's constant transitions will keep people from noticing. Meanwhile, other clubs, including less competitive ones like the Kansas City Royals, are locking up young talent and buying out prime free-agent years. The only way the Marlins will get a winner anytime soon will by growing it themselves, which may not be enough when the top two teams in the division have been built to compete for titles into the next decade.
For the Marlins, the economics of baseball give them the leeway to do as they please. Because of revenue sharing between teams, big spenders who pay the luxury tax are covering roster payroll for the Marlins, who are expected to ring in 2013 at under $36 million, according to ESPN. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Loria risks less, a lot less, by stripping payroll and letting others pay his costs. Aside from the obvious conflict with fellow owners, Loria ignores the civic promise he made to a cash-strapped Miami. When the city of Miami balked at funding a new stadium in 2006, The Seattle Times recorded Loria as saying, "San Antonio is a very viable market, and they're very serious."
Now, several years later, the franchise will continue to gain value by association as other teams are bought and sold. For Loria, the situation is win-win. For South Florida fans who support baseball, the state of the franchise is a dead end as the Marlins chase a 100-loss season.
Stuart Bartow covers baseball as a Yahoo! contributor out of Miami.
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