Over the past 18 years, as Jeffrey Loria sprayed the stench of his naked greed across baseball like the skunk he is, as he destroyed the sport in one city and bilked another out of billions of dollars, as he tore asunder a championship team and micromanaged countless others and behaved like the lamest sort of wannabe George Steinbrenner possible, all blowhard, zero substance, the aggrieved could take solace in one thing and one alone: Some day, the game would rid itself of him.
Mercy was not the exclusive domain of the Ninth Circuit on Thursday. Early in the day, simultaneous feelings of joy and fury accompanied the Forbes report that Loria had agreed to sell the Miami Marlins to an unnamed buyer for $1.6 billion. Joy because the owner who played arsonist to his own franchise was relinquishing his Zippo. And fury because one of the worst owners in sports had turned a $158.5 million investment into something worth 10 times as much, an example other owners with similarly feeble consciences may be tempted to copy.
Whatever frustration percolated over a rich man getting even richer paled compared to the ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead giddiness expressed by Marlins players and executives past and present in texts and calls to one another. Presuming the deal goes through – plenty of pitfalls remain, a source familiar with the agreement confirmed to Yahoo Sports, and Loria would like to bask in the glow of the All-Star Game at Marlins Stadium in July, so the timing of any sale remains unclear – it will bring to an end an ownership reign that stained the sport for more than a decade.
To understand the treachery of Loria and David Samson, the team president and son of Loria’s ex-wife, one need only understand a single number: $1.2 billion. That’s how much a $91 million note from J.P. Morgan to help finance the team’s new stadium, which opened in 2012, is going to cost Miami-area taxpayers. That’s 13 times the original loan. In all, $409 million worth of loans will balloon to $2.4 billion.
And here’s the thing: That’s not even the worst part. For years, the Marlins cried poor to local politicians, saying they needed a stadium to make money. Never would they open up their financials, of course, because they would have shown the Marlins had cleared nearly $50 million in profits the two years before Miami-Dade County approved the stadium funding. Ultimately, the government cowed, and the Marlins got perhaps the most sweetheart of sweetheart stadium deals, which is saying something. They covered only a quarter of construction costs. They keep all of the stadium revenues: tickets, parking, concessions. They pay $2.3 million annually in rent – money that goes to pay off a county loan.
Amazingly, one could argue that what Loria did to the Marlins wasn’t nearly as bad as his systematic slaughter of the Montreal Expos. In 1999, he spent $12 million for a quarter of the Expos. Over the next few years, he built up his stake in the team to nearly 100 percent. Then he asked for a new stadium, couldn’t get traction and made a choice: He would sell the Expos to MLB – and sell out Montreal fans who knew the league wanted to move the team – for the rights to purchase the Marlins. All it would cost was $158.5 million – the $120 million MLB paid for the Expos and the $38.5 million interest-free loan the league gave him.
In Miami, Loria lived like a prince while playing pauper. As he and Samson cried poverty, they paid themselves a “management fee” to run the team. They pocketed revenue sharing from other teams and kept entire-team payrolls smaller than some individual players’ salaries. Baseball, in the meantime, grew from a $3 billion-a-year industry in 1999 to $10 billion these days. BAMTech, the streaming service run by Major League Baseball Advanced Media, sold a chunk of the company at a $3.5 billion valuation. The entirety of the league’s web business may well be worth twice that. And every team owns a 1/30th share.
The $1.6 billion price tag bandied about Thursday nonetheless shocked the industry. Forbes had pegged the Marlins’ value at a little less than $700 million. While it’s possible the final purchase price comes in lower than $1.6 billion, Loria, like Frank McCourt before him, is going to parlay a disastrous run as a baseball owner into a spot on the list of billionaires. Miami-Dade County, as part of its stadium agreement with the Marlins, will get a small cut because Loria decided to sell the team. The valuation off which the percentage is based: $250 million.
Loria won, again, as Loria has done so much in his business affairs. His acumen there is redoubtable, even if it comes with a sheen of slime. MLB, and his cohort Bud Selig in particular, allowed Loria to grow into the fiend he did. Whenever he does swipe his signature across the sale documents, Loria will be able to say he played baseball. May Rob Manfred and future commissioners never forget what men like Loria and McCourt are capable of.
For every moment of grace Loria showed – in helping Jose Fernandez’s grandmother come to the United States from Cuba and honoring Fernandez with proper solemnity after his tragic death, Loria proved himself more than a one-dimensional bad guy – his other deeds will be his legacy. He’ll join Ted Stepien and Donald Sterling and Harold Ballard on worst-owner lists. He’ll be a punch line for the managers he fired, the trades he forced, the interference he ran all the way to the end of his tenure, when he tried, over the objections of the Marlins people who actually know baseball, to give $80 million to a closer, Kenley Jansen, whose signing also would cost the Marlins their first-round draft pick.
That is Jeffrey Loria. The fire sale after winning the 2003 World Series is Jeffrey Loria. Conning the average fan is Jeffrey Loria. May the new owner be nothing like him, not in motive, not in deed, not in the odious, execrable scent of greed that cannot vanish soon enough.
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