For two decades now, Major League Baseball has funded its rise from corporate slacker to gilded cash cow on the backs of taxpayers bullied into building new stadiums. It's a marvel the government took so long to sniff out the rot that emanates from these deals, though not much of a surprise that the Miami Marlins were the target when they did.
The Security and Exchange Commission on Thursday launched guided warheads at the Marlins, requesting the team's financial records, communications with MLB officials including commissioner Bud Selig, minutes of meetings with local government leaders and political campaign-contribution information, according to a report in the Miami Herald.
While the subpoenas issued by the SEC do not explicitly detail the purpose of the investigation, the feds' motives are evident: They want to understand how, exactly, a group of county commissioners agreed to fund 80 percent of the Marlins new stadium, which cost more than $600 million, without ever seeing the team's financial records – and whether bribes had anything to do with it.
This just got real.
Until now, the Marlins were another rich corporation trying to get richer on the backs of its fans. Teams everywhere do it. Cities kowtowing to those that want them to pay for stadiums is as commonplace as it is abhorrent.
The Marlins pushed the limits on exactly how much a team can hold its city hostage. They cried poverty and threatened to move unless they got a new stadium while refusing to disclose their financial records – records that were later leaked and showed a team swimming in tens of millions of dollars in profits and funneled millions more to a corporation run by team owner Jeffrey Loria.
Miami-Dade County commissioners nevertheless voted 9-4 in favor of taking out loans that will cost the county $2.4 billion over 40 years to help build the stadium in Little Havana, about two miles west of the city. Critics across south Florida panned the deal, which gives the Marlins all stadium-related revenue and imbued the team with a new attitude entering this offseason.
Between their rebranding as the Miami Marlins and their pursuit of high-profile free agents, the franchise tried to ditch its reputation as a baseball black hole. Loria and his apparatchik, team president David Samson, have run the team with blitheness, from dismantling a World Series-winning team in 2003 to carrying a $15 million payroll in 2006 to mistreating players, coaches and managers along the way. Even MLB, which excuses the misdeeds of its teams like an enabling parent, reprimanded the Marlins for pocketing too much of the shared revenue that goes into their coffers annually.
Still, the involvement of Selig and baseball's former COO, Bob DuPuy – known widely as the stadium rainmaker – does not portend well for baseball. If indeed the SEC pursues a case, the discovery process could expose the underbelly of the stadium swindle and intertwine MLB with the sort of political ugliness that often accompanies deals of this magnitude.
And such deals are everywhere in baseball. Since 1991, 25 of the game's 30 teams have built a new stadium or undertaken major renovations on an old one. Baseball's rise from a $2 billion industry 20 years ago to one verging on $8 billion a year is correlated directly to its stadium boom, which turned baseball from a staid game played in cavernous buildings to one in more intimate venues suited for families.
The price almost always came at taxpayer expense. When the San Francisco Giants built AT&T Park in 2000, it was the first privately funded ballpark since Dodger Stadium in 1962. There hasn't been another since.
Whether the SEC looking into the Marlins is a warning shot to teams looking for public financing or simply another plunge into the financial malfeasance that has long polluted Miami, the repercussions are evident: this changes the Marlins. Even if the investigation stretches out over years – SEC inquiries are long and expensive – it affects the team today as well. The way they're perceived. The fear over their future. The possibility of damages, reparations and fines.
Now Albert Pujols(notes) and C.J. Wilson(notes) and Mark Buehrle(notes) and Jose Reyes(notes) – his attraction to owners under federal investigation is uncanny – must ask themselves whether they really want to consider going to a team with ownership the feds are targeting. That's heavy.
Even heavier is the truth that laces itself around the Marlins for the foreseeable future: a regulatory group from the government that preys on corruption is looking into the possibility of a baseball team not only fleecing taxpayers but doing so through bribery. People go to prison for that.
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The burden is on the government to ferret out legal misdeeds. The investigation may do that. It may not. No matter what the SEC finds, the moral and ethical offenses remain evident, and criminal absolution would do nothing to lessen them. The Marlins screwed the people whom they now ask to pay for admission to their new retractable-roof palace. And karma has come to roost.
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