So now the hustlers that run the Miami Marlins think they're different. They've got a new name, new uniforms and a new ballpark. They're promising the world to big-name free agents. And they want everyone to buy it like something actually has changed, like the moral bankruptcy with which they have run their franchise for nine years disappeared with rebranding.
On the same day Albert Pujols(notes) met with the Marlins and reportedly received a contract offer, and days after the franchise courted Jose Reyes(notes) and Mark Buehrle(notes) and Yoenis Cespedes, too, the ploy worked. People talked about the Marlins like they were a legitimate franchise and not a business for owner Jeffrey Loria to plunder, as he has for some time.
Loria stood up in front of an eager crowd at what he called "the coolest ballpark ever," the Marlins' new stadium that he bullied a group of feckless politicians into funding against all proper judgment, and soaked in adulation like he was LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He apes their style. If only there was an ounce of substance to go with it.
By now, you'd think people would have a fundamental understanding about money that comes out of nowhere: It tends to disappear in a hurry. Our economy collapsed because dreamers were preyed upon. And now the Marlins, who pushed an underfunded county to take out more than $400 million in loans because Loria and team president David Samson said they couldn't afford to stay in Miami without a new ballpark, want to act as if they are terminally ill with one last trip to the Spearmint Rhino on the docket.
So which is it, guys? Are you the Little Sisters of the Poor or the sharks who dine at Prime One Twelve?
A stadium does not turn a team from one into the other, not by itself. There can be streams of revenue when moving from old football haunt Sun Life Stadium to a baseball-only jewel (or, in the case of the Marlins' stadium, jewels, of which this abomination of an "art" installation to be unleashed upon every home run features far too many). Rarely is it franchise-changing money, at least in the long term, if recent history is any indication.
[ Related: Ultimate MLB free-agent tracker ]
Since 2001, 11 MLB teams have moved into new stadiums. In the first year, eight increased payroll over the previous season, and the three that didn't dropped less than 5 percent. By Year 3, five of 10 teams lowered payroll from the year before. In Year 4, it was four out of seven, and the three that increased payroll did so by less than 4 percent.
The Pittsburgh Pirates' payroll rose 82 percent when PNC Park opened. They've had one season over that figure, $52.7 million, in the 10 since – and none in the last eight.
Last season, the San Diego Padres' eighth since christening Petco Park, their opening day payroll was $45.9 million – $2 million less than in 2004.
The Kansas City Royals used tax money to renovate Kauffman Stadium for the 2009 season. In the first two years, payroll was over $70 million. Last year, it was half that.
The point: Unless the Marlins build a perpetually competitive team (a la the Philadelphia Phillies) or start packing the stadium (like the Milwaukee Brewers) – plus have ownership willing to take the sort of risks Loria and Samson have never taken – the Marlins are going to be just like any other team with a new stadium: at the mercy of a fickle fan base that responds only to winning.
And whether Miami even cares about that is suspect. The Marlins, remember, averaged 16,089 fans per game in 2003, when they won the World Series. Attendance has held steady at an official 18,000 or so the last three years, a number so inflated Goodyear ought to sponsor its announcement every night. The idea that the Marlins will suddenly pack the stadium with 30,000 fans a night beyond the honeymoon period of 2012 is laughable. Chances are they won't even reach 30,000 a night this season, and the coolest ballpark ever will turn into little more than Nationals Park 2.0: a boondoggle of the highest order.
Were the Marlins' television rights up for auction, perhaps this impending spending spree would make more sense. Fox Sports Florida holds them through 2020.
So where is this money coming from? Are the Marlins, the franchise that pocketed so much shared revenue that complaints from the players' union and larger-market owners prompted Major League Baseball to tell the franchise to spend some damn money, going to suddenly change because they've come into more revenue? Cheapskates that make more money are still cheapskates. They're just richer cheapskates.
The Marlins have already conned politicians. Now they're trying to do the same to build a fan base. Look at this shiny Pujols. Behold this beautiful Reyes. Covet this glimmering Cespedes. We're trying. We really are.
What they don't say: Come back in three years and see what we look like.
Because by then, unless people from Broward and Palm Beach counties really want to travel to Little Havana through brutal traffic – and all indications are they don't – the Marlins are going to be exactly where they were: sunk by an indifferent fan base and ownership that carries itself like it knows what it's doing.
"Who takes them seriously?" said one source familiar with the Marlins' operations. "They're not going to draw. That's going to be a disaster. Loria is like an awful version of [George] Steinbrenner. They're afraid to question the guy because of ramifications.
Morrison, a talented outfielder, was too candid for Loria's taste on Twitter and found himself at Triple-A. He wasn't the first person to end up in Loria's doghouse, and he won't be the last. Anyone who can thieve tax dollars to build a playground of profit and pat himself on the back for it suffers from the sort of megalomania not even a lobotomy could cure.
The Marlins can appear aggressive with the cost of a plane ticket and a hotel room for players they court. They can throw a term sheet in front of an agent. Hell, they might even sign Reyes, though good luck on doing so without sending longtime shortstop Hanley Ramirez(notes), he of Loria's perpetual enabling, into a hissy fit.
Pujols says he is going to listen to God when it comes to where he plays next. And if indeed it is a kind and benevolent God, it will take one look at the Marlins' new uniforms and spare Pujols the indignity.
Dysfunction breeds itself in south Florida, no matter the franchise's name, its look, its stadium. Loria, wanting to let go of the past Friday night, chucked a Florida Marlins hat into the crowd, as if to say: In with the new.
Give it a little time. Soon enough, it will look just like the old.
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