CHICAGO – Miguel Cabrera, the subject of enough trade innuendo to deserve his own section in NAFTA, wagged a bat as he walked past home plate at Wrigley Field. Arms crossed, looking very much like someone of importance in a power-red sweater, Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria stood by the batting cage and nodded toward Cabrera.
"Why would I move that guy? Never," Loria said. "I'm building this team like I do art collections: One great work at each position."
Never mind that the Marlins, as currently constituted, are closer to a group of finger paintings. They are young and talented, managed by the sharp Joe Girardi and assembled by shrewd GM Larry Beinfest. They have two stars in Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, two raw diamonds in shortstop Hanley Ramirez and outfielder Jeremy Hermida, a potential rotation with Jason Vargas, Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson – all under 25 – and a loaded minor-league system.
Yet a pall hangs over the Marlins franchise, one that fuels the trade rumors and injects unease into a clubhouse full of fancy-free kids, one that, if handled improperly, could blow up the rebuilding project before it even starts.
Loria, bleeding money on the Marlins, wants a new stadium and said he will relocate the team if he doesn't get one. The Marlins, according to Forbes, lost $11.9 million last season despite receiving an estimated $40 million-plus in revenue sharing. The only other teams to lose more money than Florida were the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets – the top three revenue-earning teams in baseball. Consequently, Loria and team president David Samson, the son of his ex-wife, ordered Beinfest to trade Carlos Delgado, Josh Beckett, Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell and Paul Lo Duca, whacking the payroll from $65 million last season to less than $15 million this year.
"I haven't put one penny in my pocket," Loria said. "Not one. I've lost money ever since I've been there. Lots of money. And no businessman is going to continue losing money and do it all by himself."
Such is the conundrum in South Florida, where skeptics wonder if this is simply a repeat of the fiasco that lost Montreal its team.
In Montreal, Loria leveraged himself into 94 percent ownership of the Expos and asked the city to help him build a new stadium. Montreal balked, so Loria sold the team to Major League Baseball in a 2002 deal that got him the Marlins for $120 million plus a tax-free $38.5 million loan. (The Marlins, according to Forbes, are now worth $226 million.)
When Loria bought the Marlins, they saw him as a savior, a departure from Wayne Huizenga, the team's original owner who dismantled the 1997 World Series champs. Early on, Loria was. He won a World Series in 2003 and kept on spending in 2004 and '05.
By then, he figured, lawmakers in Miami would have agreed to a new stadium deal. They still haven't, sticking the Marlins in cavernous Dolphin Stadium, joined nightly by almost 60,000 familiar faces – empty orange seats.
Then again, big-and-empty stadiums sound better than small-and-empty ones, which most of the Marlins played in last year.
"It's better here than in the minor leagues," outfielder Reggie Abercrombie said. "The air is better, the food tastes better, the water is better. Everything about it."
Except the results. The Marlins, at 5-12, are the third-worst team in baseball behind Kansas City and Pittsburgh. They lose games such as Monday's against the Chicago Cubs, when Vargas threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings only to see his bullpen cough up the game in a six-run eighth.
"It's hard being a young player," Girardi said. "I remember being a young player coming up here in 1989, how nervous I was, like you're always looking over your shoulder. Is someone going to replace me if I go 0 for 4?
"You never assume the players know what you want from them, or that they know how to do something the way you might teach it. I'm under the mindset that you teach everything because you're new."
Girardi came to the Marlins from the Yankees, who have five players making more than the entire Marlins payroll this season. In all of baseball, 12 players will earn more than $15 million, which is an indictment on the largesse in baseball and the frugality being practiced in Florida.
Though in low-revenue markets, that's a way of life. Cleveland, Oakland and Minnesota are proof it can succeed if given time and TLC. How Girardi handles his young players should be studied by bosses. He coddles when appropriate, scolds when necessary, nurtures more than anything.
In the middle of a conversation with hitting coach Jim Presley, Girardi caught Abercrombie shanking a bunt during batting practice.
"Reggie," he said, "get that down."
On the next two, Abercrombie did. Minutiae builds kids into veterans, and with Girardi possibly starting up to eight rookies once Hermida comes off the disabled list this week, he's well versed in the little things.
Loria stood in the background, admiring his team. First baseman Mike Jacobs stopped over to say hello, and Loria shook his hand and told him to keep swinging. He seemed proud.
"Everybody," Loria said, "understands what we did."
What they do, on the other hand, could leave South Florida without a team. The Marlins' dalliance with San Antonio is ongoing, and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has given the team until May 15 to commit to a move. Though Loria pledged $200 million for a new stadium in Florida, local politicians haven't bitten.
"Let's remember one thing: We won a World Series in 2003, and I kept this team together two seasons after that hoping a stadium would be forthcoming," Loria said. "We're making an enormous contribution, too, so no one is handing us anything."
With that, Loria waved his hand. The gleam from his championship ring shone, the sun reflecting off the teal diamond in the Marlins' logo. It was a testament to the glimmering days of the Marlins' past, the ones that seem so long ago.