Last spring, it felt great to be a Miami Marlins fan.
New name, spiffy new uniforms, glitzy new ballpark, high-priced star power — all the ingredients were in place to finally make the Marlins a contender again.
Gone were the days, baseball fans assumed, of a downtrodden stadium with no big names and next to no attendance.
Turns out, we were wrong. After the Marlins and their owner, Jeffrey Loria, completed the final round of the team's season-long fire sale — shipping off $150 million in salaries this week — the Marlins are right back where they started: out of contention and hated by the team's once-loyal fans.
Almost as soon as the Marlins came flying out of the gate, they crashed right into it. Aside from the team's on-field struggles (they went 69-93 in 2012), new manager Ozzie Guillen — never one to be soft-spoken — publicly praised Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which, if you know Miami's demographic, is like the President of the United States going on TV and saying he supports cancer, genocide, and famine.
The backlash was unstoppable. Cuban baseball fans in Miami (and there are many) deserted the team outright. What made it worse was that ownership, led by Jeffrey Loria, built the new $645 million stadium right in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, with the intention of wrangling in Cuban baseball diehards.
The colossal, 80 percent publicly-funded stadium didn't go up without detractors. City Commissioner Carlos Gimenez was one of them. What if this whole experiment went awry, he and many other Miami residents thought? Loria always has had a slippery track record--making promises he never ended up keeping, dismantling teams, and abandoning any semblance of principle to save a buck.
Why now, opponents said, should they trust Loria to build a stadium with their money?
If they were apprehensive before the stadium went up, they should feel vindicated by Loria's ongoing fire sale. After one season in which he spent big money to get stars Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle, Loria has thrown it all out the window, dumping those players and expensive assets like Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Hanley Ramirez in the last six months.
Players don't particularly enjoy coming to play in Miami, and it has nothing to do with the gorgeous weather and beauty of South Florida. The antipathy is due to Loria's well-deserved reputation as a guy who backloads contracts, refuses to give players no-trade clauses, and dumps his guys at the snap of a finger if it means more to his financial bottom line.
By shipping off his stars this week, Loria saved himself $150 million, which doesn't seem like the worst decision for a last place owner to make. When you consider Loria's pledge to the City of Miami though--that he would house a contender in the new stadium its residents paid for—the owner's actions are intolerably despicable.
“Many times, on the record, they made a commitment that once they had a stadium, they would have a competitive team,” Carlos Gimenez told the New York Times.
While Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, feels the Marlins got some good prospects in return for their stars, he nevertheless admits that Loria's trades are financially-motivated moves.
“It’s not a bad haul,” he says. “But it wasn’t a talent-for-talent trade, by any means. They were trying to get rid of salary.”
“If you’re trying to win, you don’t make that trade,” he adds.
Today, all that's left of last year's opening day lineup is Logan Morrison and Giancarlo Stanton, both of whom publicly vented their frustration with the Marlins' dismantling.
''I'm not saying fans can't be upset,'' Morrison tweeted to his 123,000 followers. ''I'm saying I'm not going to get upset. I can't control it.”
In the past, Loria's stripped-down payrolls have drawn questions from the MLB over whether he purposely depletes his payroll to collect more in revenue sharing, which would be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. He made a promise with the league in the past to increase spending, but he seems to be reneging on that agreement. With the Marlins payroll sitting at $34 million (last year the A's had the league's lowest payroll, but that figure was almost $60 million), players' union officials will surely have questions for Loria about whether he's purposely unloading to collect more revenue from the MLB's 29 other franchises.
Marlins Fans, of course, are the ones who are left to suffer — forced to foot the bill for a stadium they now have no good reason to go to. Not so surprisingly, the sentiment around Miami is one of abandonment.
''The next move obviously is to have Fidel Castro throw out the first pitch next year,'' radio talk show host Jeff DeForrest said. ''That's the only way they could alienate the fans more than they have.''