Miami Marlins team ownership history

By Stephen R. Keeney

This article is part of the Team Ownership Histories project. Click here to read more articles.

Edgar Renteria of the Florida Marlins celebrates his walk-off single to win Game Seven of the 1997 World Series. In just their fifth season of existence, the Marlins became the then-fastest franchise to win a championship in baseball history. (COURTESY OF THE MIAMI MARLINS)

 

The National League expansion of 1993 was a long time coming. The 1991 decision to add the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins to the major leagues was the end of what the New York Times’s Murray Chass called “the road that began six years, three commissioners, and three league presidents ago.”1

This road began in January of 1984, when major-league baseball announced an eight-member committee to study the possibility of another expansion. In the fall of 1985, 12 different groups presented expansion proposals to a 14-owner committee. At that year’s winter meetings, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth mentioned expansion in his “state of the game” speech, but over the next few years the owners tabled expansion talks, focusing instead on clubs claiming to be in financial trouble and on fighting the players union’s claims of collusion.

By 1987, the US Senate had formed a Task Force on Expansion. This bipartisan group was led by Sen. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado and included senators from several states with cities, such as Denver, that had expressed interest in a baseball franchise. As other congressional groups had done in the past, the task force pushed major-league baseball to expand or risk losing its antitrust exemption, which protects it from being sued or broken up as an illegal monopoly. The owners agreed to expand, at one point planning to increase each league to 16 teams. But the owners continued to stall. They conducted studies and held rounds of presentations by competing cities and ownership groups. Some owners wanted to stall until a new collective-bargaining agreement was negotiated with the players union and use the carrot of expansion to win other concessions. The threat of losing their monopoly was heightened when a group calling itself the Professional Baseball Federation announced plans to start a new league with eight or ten teams by luring current major-league stars away.

Having faced threats to its monopoly profits from upstart leagues and Congress several times before, the owners relented. In June of 1990, the National League announced that it would add two teams by 1993. In December 1990 the six finalists for expansion were announced: Buffalo, Denver, Orlando, St. Petersburg/Tampa, Washington, D.C., and Miami. On June 10, 1991, the ownership groups from Denver and Miami were announced as the winners of the two new franchises. The decision became official on July 5, 1991, when the owners from both leagues unanimously approved the two new franchises.

Wayne Huizenga

As the search for expansion cities became serious, Miami had been all but counted out. The rain, the heat, and the lack of fans turned off many baseball observers. But Miami became a frontrunner after the South Florida Big League Baseball bidding group was chosen to represent the city’s bid. What changed? The deep, deep pockets of the group’s owner, H. Wayne Huizenga were suddenly in the picture.

Huizenga agreed to pay the entire $95 million franchise fee himself. After that, everyone found reasons to support Miami’s bid. The prospect of professional baseball seemed to excite the city, at least a little. The minor league Miracle’s attendance increased to 700 per game (still low, but better than 1989’s 40 per game) and 114,000 fans went out to Joe Robbie Stadium over two nights in March 1991 to watch the Yankees and the Orioles play. Suddenly, the fact that Miami was one of the nation’s 20 largest television markets was a major factor. And of course, if Huizenga built it, the city’s “Latin and Caribbean population” would come, and “provide a wellspring of fans.”2 But there is little doubt much of the allure of Miami’s bid to the other owners was Huizenga’s wealth — his net worth in the summer of 1991 was estimated to be between $500 million and $800 million.3

In all, it was estimated that it would cost Huizenga between $131 million and $142 million before the Marlins could begin play, not including his partial purchase of Joe Robbie Stadium. This included the $95 million franchise fee, about $30 million or $40 million more in start-up costs (including salaries and equipment), and about $6 million or $7 million for renovations to Joe Robbie Stadium to make it baseball-friendly.4 Huizenga ended up spending $10 million to get Joe Robbie baseball-ready. Compared with these numbers, the $500,000 Huizenga spent promoting his bid to the other owners seemed paltry.5

 

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, left, and Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga shake hands before the Marlins' first game on April 5, 1993. (COURTESY OF THE MIAMI MARLINS)

 

Huizenga was born in 1937 in Chicago, where his Dutch-born grandfather had founded a garbage-hauling company in 1894. His father was a cabinetmaker and housebuilder. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Huizenga was 15. After dropping out of college in Michigan, Huizenga ended up managing a family friend’s three-truck garbage-hauling company. Huizenga eventually started his own trash-hauling service with just one truck, which he drove. In a few years, his Southern Sanitation Service was a 20-truck operation with routes in several major South Florida cities.6

After starting and growing his own small business, Huizenga made his real money by buying out small businesses and aggregating them into progressively bigger conglomerates. He bought dozens of small garbage haulers and added them to his own company to create his first billion-dollar company, Waste Management. Under Huizenga’s leadership, Waste Management was accused of everything from price fixing to violating environmental laws to making improper political contributions. Huizenga stepped down as vice chairman in 1984, and had planned to retire. Instead, he grew his fortune by buying up “mom-and-pop” companies and consolidating them into larger entities.

At the time of the Marlins’ expansion, Huizenga was best known for owning Blockbuster Video. Huizenga and other Waste Management executives had bought shares in the nascent enterprise in 1987. Once the original founder left the company, Huizenga’s experience in consolidating small, local businesses, like those that comprised most of the video-rental industry of the time, really paid off.

During his ownership of the Marlins, Huizenga sold Blockbuster to Viacom for $8.4 billion and — again using his buy-small-and-consolidate model — created AutoNation, a Fortune 500 network of car dealerships. In 2017 Huizenga was ranked the 288th wealthiest American, with a net worth of $2.8 billion. He died on March 22, 2018, at the age of 80 in his Fort Lauderdale home.

Becoming the Marlins

The Miami franchise chose the name the Florida Marlins. The name Marlins was an homage to a line of minor-league baseball teams which had previously called Miami home. Major-league officials hoped the ownership group would choose the alliterative Miami Marlins, which was better for marketing and kept the door open for the next round of expansion to include another Florida city. But the ownership group wanted to appeal to as many customers as possible, and thus the Florida Marlins were born.7

This homage came with its own complications. The original Miami Marlins were a minor-league team that began play in 1956 in the International League. Its first game saw an almost 50-year-old Satchel Paige flown in by a helicopter that landed on the field, only to go straight to the bullpen and not pitch at all that day. The team moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the 1960 season.8

Another team called the Miami Marlins began play in the 1960s. This team — with a family tree going back to the 1920s — was not affiliated with the original Marlins, but adopted the nickname. As its major-league affiliations changed, this team went from the Miami Marlins to the Miami Orioles and back again, before becoming the Miami Miracle, which was the name it played under when the Florida Marlins became a team. It was this team — the Miracle — that sued the Florida Marlins in October 1992.

The Miracle argued that the Florida Marlins had refused to negotiate about not only the rights to the team name, but also to the exclusive territorial rights for the Miami area. The Miracle held exclusive rights to everything within 35 miles of their home plate — an expanse which included the new home of the Marlins, Joe Robbie Stadium — and under the master agreement between the major and minor leagues, the new Florida Marlins were supposed to compensate the Miracle for the loss of those rights. At the time, the compensation for these rights was estimated to be between $1 million and $14 million.9 The Miracle eventually lost the lawsuit and went to arbitration, where an unknown decision was reached.

Building a Franchise From Scratch

Huizenga started building his front-office staff before the other owners had cast the final approval vote. The first person he brought on board was Carl Barger as president. A former president of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a longtime friend of Huizenga’s, Barger was also a member of the board of directors of Huizenga’s Blockbuster Video.10 Technically, Barger resigned from the Pirates on July 8, 1991. But while the major leagues’ rules barred one person from working for two clubs at once, Barger was allowed to begin staffing the front office of the Marlins while also running the Pirates until the owners selected a new president.

Barger would never see his new team play a single game. On December 9, 1992, during the annual Winter Meetings in Louisville, he collapsed from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance but died before surgery. Barger’s position remained vacant through the Marlins’ first season. Today, Carl F. Barger Boulevard sits just outside what is now Hard Rock stadium — formerly Joe Robbie Stadium — the first home of the Marlins.

The next move for the Marlins was to appoint a general manager In September of 1991, the Marlins hired Dave Dombrowski from the Montreal Expos. Dombrowski in turn “lured virtually all the Expos’ front-office executives to the expansion Marlins.”11 As Chass put it:

Dombrowski was not bashful about raiding his former employer’s cupboard. At last count, 12 other former Expo employees had migrated, including the scouting director, the assistant scouting director, the player development director, the senior consultant on player personnel, the special consultant to the vice president for player personnel, three scouts, three minor league coaches and a secretary.12

One position not filled by a former Expo was manager. The job of managing an expansion team has never been easy. Out of 34 seasons coached by the 10 previous managers of major-league expansion teams, only three seasons, all from the same manager (Bill Rigney of the Angels) were winning seasons. For this daunting task, the Marlins chose Rene Lachemann. In 1992, when Lachemann was hired, he had not managed a baseball team for eight years. His last stop had been with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1984. And if expansion dilutes the talent level of baseball’s player pool by promoting previously unqualified players, the same could be said of the managerial pool. Despite being liked by his players, particularly in Seattle, Lachemann had only three winning records in 13 minor- and major-league seasons.13 Lachemann never had a winning season with the Marlins, and his only managing job after that was one game as interim manager of the Chicago Cubs.

Joe Robbie Stadium on Opening Day, April 5, 1993. (COURTESY OF THE MIAMI MARLINS)

 

Joe Robbie Stadium

Now the Marlins needed a place to play. That place was Joe Robbie Stadium. Robbie was — and as of 2018 still is — the home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. It was named after the Dolphins’ then-owner, Joe Robbie. After several failed attempts at getting a publicly financed stadium, Robbie built the $115 million stadium himself. It had opened in 1987. After Robbie died in 1990, Huizenga bought 50 percent of the stadium for a reported $40 million from the Robbie family. Huizenga also bought 15 percent of the Dolphins from them.

In 1994 Huizenga purchased the other half of the stadium’s ownership rights and the remainder of the Dolphins. He continued to own both, collecting rent, concessions money, and luxury and club-seat revenues, until long after he sold the Marlins in 1998.

From First Season to First Championship

Major-league Opening Day finally came to Miami on April 5, 1993. Opening Day souvenirs were sold out an hour before game time. The team honored late president Carl Barger in a pregame ceremony. The first pitch was thrown out by 78-year-old Joe DiMaggio, who lent his name to the Children’s Hospital in neighboring Hollywood, Florida. Despite fielding a team ESPN later described as “your usual array of expansion team washouts and hopefuls,”14 the Marlins won their first game, 6-3 over the Dodgers. The opening three-game series drew 126,575 spectators. Everything was off to a good start for the fans and the owner.

The rest of that first season ended the way most expansion seasons do. The Marlins finished next to last in the National League East (above the Mets), but avoided the 100-loss fate suffered by half of previous expansion teams, ending the season at 64-98 (.395). Center fielder Chuck Carr led the National League with 58 stolen bases. Attendance remained strong that first season. A total 3,064,847 fans attended home games that season, an average of 37,838, making the Marlins one of seven teams to draw over 3 million fans that season.

In the first years after expansion, the Marlins seemed to have a plan to draft and develop young players. Of the 10 expansion teams between 1961 and 1991, the average team started out with a winning percentage of .365, building up to .491 by year eight. The Marlins were ahead of the curve, winning .395 of games the first year and .494 by year four. The process seemed to be working.

But the process was not working quickly enough for Huizenga. By 1997, he was full owner of the Marlins, the Dolphins, and the NHL expansion Florida Panthers. The Panthers had lost the 1996 Stanley Cup finals to the Colorado Avalanche. After being so close, Huizenga wanted a championship. As the Marlins’ steady improvement showed, they already had a promising young core, which included players like Edgar Renteria, Charles Johnson, Al Leiter, and Gary Sheffield.

However, in the offseason after the Panthers’ runner-up finish, Huizenga and Dombrowski shocked the baseball world by spending a record-breaking $89 million on free agents. The Marlins added pitcher Alex Fernandez, and boosted the offense with third baseman Bobby Bonilla and outfielder Moises Alou, who alone cost $25 million. Payroll jumped from $31 million in 1996 to $52 million in 1997.

The spending spree paid off. The Marlins had finished 1996 just under .500 at 80-82. They finished 1997 at 92-70 — their first winning season. After coming in second in the NL East, the Marlins went on to beat the Braves in the NLCS and the Indians in the World Series.

Fire Sale I

The World Series championship was the peak before the valley for the Marlins under Huizenga. Championship in hand, he began the first Marlins fire sale, a process one writer dubbed “a textbook case in how to alienate a fan base.”15 The Marlins sold off big-money free agents from a year earlier — Bonilla, and Alou16 — as well as some of its promising core, including Sheffield and Robb Nen, who had both been with the Marlins since their first season. Fans and sportswriters across the country skewered Huizenga, some saying he was just throwing a “hissy fit” over his failure to get a new taxpayer-funded, baseball-only stadium.17

Huizenga complained he was losing money. He said the Marlins had lost $34 million during the 1997 World Series season. While the Marlins may well have lost $34 million on paper, paper losses in professional sports — as with many large companies — are largely due to accounting practices. Former Toronto Blue Jays President Paul Beeston once said, “[U]nder current generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss, and I can get every national accounting firm to agree with me.”18 Using a tax benefit known in the sports context as the roster depreciation allowance — whose benefits Huizenga had already exhausted — and other paper-only accounting maneuvers, teams often claim large financial losses while also raking in huge profits.

Such claims of massive losses were nothing new in baseball. As former players union executive director Donald Fehr once told Sports Illustrated, “You go through The Sporting News for the last 100 years, and you will find two things are always true. You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money.”19

Another thing that made Huizenga’s claim more dubious was the way he structured the various entities he owned that were connected to the Marlins. Huizenga owned Joe Robbie Stadium — by now called Pro Player Stadium — and the team’s cable broadcaster, Sportschannel Florida. The Marlins stadium rent and broadcast fees were structured to favor the other entities. Huizenga made about $40.1 million in revenue off the Marlins that was counted on the books of those other entities rather than the Marlins.

Championship in hand and tax shelter exhausted, Huizenga tried to sell the Marlins. Part of the impetus for the free-agent splash may have been the thought that a successful team would fetch a higher sale price. Whether the goal of Huizenga’s spending spree was the personal goal of winning a championship or the financial goal of making a higher profit by selling the team, what is certain is that, despite claiming that the team’s finances were suffering, Huizenga almost sold the team to longtime business associate and then team President Don Smiley. Surely, if the finances were so bad, Smiley would have known, and would not have tried to buy the team for $169 million. Smiley’s bid fell apart when his group of investors came up $50 million short of the sale price.

Sale to John Henry

Huizenga eventually sold the team in November 1998 to another South Florida multimillionaire, John Henry. Henry agreed to buy the team for $150 million and to pay $8 million for renovations at Pro Player Stadium. But Huizenga still owned the stadium and the cable channel. He was able to negotiate a 10-year contract for his cable channel to broadcast the Marlins’ games before selling the team and, by owning the stadium, he kept all luxury box- and club-seat revenue, as well as a majority (62.5 percent) of the parking revenue and a portion (30 percent) of the concession profit from Marlins games. So even after selling the team, Huizenga continued to profit off the Marlins.

This deal — a great one for Huizenga — almost didn’t come through. The negotiations were long, contentious, and played out in public. Henry had declared the deal dead just 48 hours before it was reached.20 In the end, Henry wanted to be a professional sports owner. He had previously owned minor-league and independent-league teams, and he had tried to buy stakes in several major-league teams, even owning 1 percent of the New York Yankees before buying the Marlins.21

Henry’s time as owner — beginning with the 1999 season and ending after the 2001 season — was remarkably unremarkable. The Marlins finished with winning percentages of .395, .491, and .469, which led them to finishing fifth, third, and fourth in the NL East, respectively. Henry soon wanted to move on from Florida — he explored buying several other clubs, including the Angels and the A’s, before becoming part of a group bidding on the Red Sox, with the help of a special deal orchestrated by Commissioner Bud Selig and the other major-league owners.

Sale to Jeffrey Loria

The catalyst for this deal, and the man who would eventually take ownership of the Marlins from Henry, was Jeffrey Loria. Loria was a wealthy art dealer who had begun flipping baseball teams in the 1990s. In 1989, Loria bought the Triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers for $3.8 million. After the team won a championship in 1992, Loria sold it for $8 million in 1993.

Loria then tried to buy a major-league franchise multiple times, including the Expos and the Orioles in the 1990s. While John Henry wanted to own a specific franchise — the Red Sox — and bought the Marlins as a placeholder, Jeffrey Loria wanted to own any team he could get his hands on. In 1999 the partnership that owned the Montreal Expos was left without a managing partner, and in search of investors to infuse cash into the team. Loria was ready. He managed to get a 24 percent share for $12 million, and also became managing partner — meaning he ran the day-to-day operations but was still accountable to the other partners.

With his foot in the door, Loria made a power move. As managing partner, he had the authority to increase payroll. By signing free agents and paying current players more, he roughly doubled the team’s payroll. Loria later argued that he was trying to make the team competitive after the partnership had long been accused of not doing enough to win. Despite the 2000 and 2001 teams having double the payroll of the 1999 team, neither team did any better. In fact, despite the increased payroll, the Expos only moved from 28th highest salary in the league in 1999 to 24th in 2000, and back down to 28th in 2001.

But the payroll move was, perhaps, motivated not by a desire to win but as a desire for power. By increasing payroll, Loria increased the amount of cash needed to operate the team. To cover this, he made a capital call on the other partners, telling them they should put more money into the team. When they refused, he put $18 million of his own money into the team.22 This triggered a clause in the partnership agreement that allowed Loria to dilute the shares of the other owners from a combined 76 percent down to 6 percent, giving Loria 94 percent ownership of the team.23

Now in control of the Expos, Loria pulled the familiar “build me a stadium or I’ll move” routine. The City of Montreal agreed to help build a new stadium. But after the arrangement was made, Loria demanded that the city pay an even higher share of the costs, at which point the city canceled the project.24 As a result of several years of poor results and Loria’s hostile takeover of the team, the Expos — along with the Milwaukee Brewers — were slated to be removed from the league.25 This gave Loria all the leverage he needed to pull off a major swap, with the help of MLB itself.

In 2001 the Red Sox were put up for sale. Marlins owner John Henry headed a group that put in a bid for the club, but league rules prohibited one entity from owning two teams. A plan was hatched whereby MLB itself would purchase the Expos, giving the other 29 owners the right to decide what to do with it — they eventually decided to move the franchise to Washington and rename it the Nationals. Loria would buy the Marlins from Henry, and Henry would finally be able to buy the Red Sox.

Once Henry’s bid for the Red Sox was approved, the plan unfolded. Henry bid $730 million for the Red Sox and 80 percent of their broadcast network, with $30 million of the purchase price going to fund a new charity, the Red Sox Foundation.26 But he demanded only $158 million for the Marlins — equal to his purchase price of $150 million plus $8 million he paid for renovations to Pro Player Stadium. Loria agreed to pay the $158 million for the Marlins, but he didn’t have to spend a penny of his own money. After paying a mere $30 million for almost complete control of the Expos, the owners of the other 29 major-league teams agreed to pay Loria $120 million for the franchise. The remaining $38 million of the purchase price came from an interest-free loan MLB made to Loria in order to close the deal. Later, $15 million of that loan was forgiven when Loria didn’t get a new publicly financed stadium deal within five years.27

This was clearly a great deal for Loria and MLB. For Loria’s partners in the Expos, however, they lost out on a great deal of money and could do nothing to stop it. The remaining Expos partners sued Loria, MLB, and Commissioner Bud Selig, alleging that the group lied to and defrauded the limited Expos partners, and that they committed mail fraud and wire fraud, and violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in the process. A judge eventually required the parties to go to arbitration, at which the arbitrator ruled in favor of Loria. After losing the contract arbitration claims, the Expos partners dropped their federal lawsuit.28

2003 World Series Championship

After a start like this, it’s no surprise that Loria’s tenure as owner of the Marlins was eventful. In just his second year as owner, the Marlins went from wild card to World Series champion for the second time in their young history. After going 79-83 and finishing fourth in the NL East in 2002, the Marlins went 91-71 and finished second in 2003. Riding All-Star seasons from second baseman Luis Castillo, third baseman Mike Lowell, and pitcher Dontrelle Willis, and their only season with Hall of Famer Iván “Pudge” Rodriguez, the Marlins beat NL West Champions San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series. Then they beat the Chicago Cubs in the Championship Series in seven games, with a little help from the infamous Steve Bartman. In the World Series, they beat the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees in six games.

Fire Sale II

Through the Marlins’ first decade, the notion of getting a new stadium, and getting the public to pay for it, was always lingering, but never brought to the front burner. Huizenga was making too much money from owning the stadium and both professional teams who called it home to ever put up too much of a fuss. Henry’s heart was always pursuing the Red Sox, so a long-term financing fight would not have been worth the trouble, although he did give it a try. But Loria — fresh off a stadium-or-move threat in Montreal was ready to bring the issue forward.

Surely, Loria thought that winning the 2003 World Series would give him the leverage he needed to get a new publicly financed stadium. It didn’t. There were plans for a new stadium, projected to cost $435 million, to which the Florida legislature refused to contribute multiple times. There was even a plan and design completed for a stadium next to the Orange Bowl, but the City of Miami pulled out of the deal. Loria then sought and received permission from Commissioner Bud Selig to look for other potential cities. Portland, Oregon, which had been in the running to get the Expos franchise before it went to Washington, expressed interest, as did Las Vegas.29

After the 2005 season, the second straight 83-79 finish, Loria decided to blow it all up. The way he and his staff presented it, without a stadium they couldn’t make money, and since they couldn’t make money, they had to cut payroll. Fire Sale II was underway.

For the 2005 season, the Marlins’ total team salary was about $60.4 million. After trading players for prospects and letting free agents walk, the core of the 2003 championship team was gone. The Marlins’ 2006 total team salary was about $15 million, a drop of more than 75 percent. This, unsurprisingly, gave the Marlins the cheapest roster in baseball, costing less than half that of the next lowest spender, Tampa Bay.

The new 25-man roster featured 17 players making the league minimum. The resulting roster, despite having some young, talented players, was unimpressive. The New York Times described the team as “the best team that the lowest payroll in baseball can buy,” “an assemblage of talented kids called up too soon, veteran castoffs, and career minor leaguers getting their miracle shot,” and “a bunch of September call-ups.”30 When approached with the legacy of the first Marlins fire sale, Loria said this was not the same because he had kept the core together for a couple of years after the championship.31

Marlins Park, seen here during the SABR 46 convention in 2016, opened in 2012 after a protracted legal battle. (COURTESY OF JACOB POMRENKE)

 

Marlins Park

In 2009, after two World Series championships and two fire sales, Loria got his stadium from the politicians of Miami-Dade County. To try to win over the public and the politicians, the Marlins employed the usual new-stadium tactics of promises that study after study has proven false.32  

The Miami-Dade County Commission voted to approve the stadium deal in March 2009, and the vote was controversial from the beginning. The Marlins claimed they were losing money and too poor to pay for their own stadium. But when elected officials asked to see the Marlins’ finances to see if it was true, the team refused to open its books. In 2008, Forbes had claimed that the Marlins had made $35.6 million in profit. When Bryant Gumbel of Real Sports asked why the Marlins refused to open their books if they were telling the truth, team President David Samson said, “[B]ecause in Major League Baseball history, books are just kept private — that’s just how it is.”33

The final agreement called for a $650 million stadium, with $500 million paid by Miami-Dade County, $15 million paid by the City of Miami, and the rest paid by Loria. Miami-Dade County covered a portion of its payment with a bond issue. Because of the timing of the deal, made during the Great Recession, the county had to find the money immediately in order for construction to finish in time for the 2012 season. The county will end up paying $2.4 billion on that bond issue for its share of the stadium costs.34

Opposition to the stadium deal was inflamed again in August 2010 when Deadspin released financial documents from 2008 and 2009 showing that the Marlins had a net income — even after all the accounting tactics — of over $33 million in those two seasons alone.35 According to the Miami New Times, even these numbers included payments totaling about $38.6 million from 2008 through 2010 by the Marlins to Loria under the line item “Administration” and to Double Play Company, a company owned by Loria with Samson as its president, to run the Marlins’ day-to-day operations.36 In response to allegations that the team had intentionally lied to the public about its finances, Samson called the leak “disappointing” and a “crime,” and argued that the documents prove that the Marlins were being fiscally responsible and saving up profits (which he had previously denied making) to pay for the new stadium.37

In 2011 the backlash against the stadium deal intensified even further. The US Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into whether the Marlins and the politicians who approved the stadium deal intentionally misled the investors who purchased the bonds issued by Miami-Dade County. The investigation was closed in 2016 with no enforcement action taken.

In March 2011 Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez faced a recall election. Alvarez was a major proponent of the stadium deal, and when he was up for recall the political action committee he formed to fight off the recall vote received $50,000 from Loria and Samson, $5,000 from Hunt/Moss, a group hired to oversee construction of the stadium, and $73,000 from various other people and companies who were given contracts to work on the stadium.38 Even with the massive influx of money from stadium-related donors, Alvarez was recalled with a whopping 88 percent of ballots voting to recall him.

Other politicians also received campaign cash from donors with a financial interest in the stadium deal. In 2008, the year before the stadium vote, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro received almost $40,000 in campaign contributions –about 1 in every 6 dollars he raised — from firms that planned to bid on construction contracts. Commissioner Joe Martinez originally voted against the stadium deal. He then received a series of $500 contributions from “a litany of Moss & Associates’ top execs.”39 Then he cast a deciding vote in favor of giving the oversight contract to Hunt/Moss without the usual bidding process.

While the Marlins had finally gotten their stadium, they used up all of their goodwill with the local community to get it — even after winning two World Series championships within six seasons. The new stadium, Marlins Park, finally opened in time for the 2012 season. Along with the new ballpark, the team got a new name (changing from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins), a new logo, and a new color scheme, going from teal and black to orange, blue, black, and yellow. The stadium, which Loria referred to as “the coolest ballpark ever,”40 features air-conditioning, a retractable roof, extra-wide seats that are angled toward home plate, a home-run sculpture in the outfield, an aquarium for a backstop, and a bar with a pool overlooking the field. With a brand-new stadium paid for mostly by taxpayers, Loria had finally gotten what he said he needed to put together a quality team on the field.

Fire Sale III

After just one year in the brand-new stadium, Loria dumped salary again. For the 2012 season, the Marlins had tried to spend money on good players, and the results were not there. Prior to 2012, the Marlins had never ranked better than 19th in the major leagues in player payroll, usually coming in around 24th-25th or 29th-30th, including three seasons with baseball’s lowest payroll. In two of those three seasons, the Marlins spent less than half of the amount on players as the team with the second-lowest payroll. Loria’s business model was to maximize profits by pulling in shared revenue and paying bare minimum salaries. This model was successful financially, but not on the field. MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association pressured Loria to spend more on salaries and try to make the team more competitive.

So, for the first season in Marlins Park, the fans had some reason for hope. The Marlins skyrocketed from their usual place in the bottom third of salary all the way up to the sixth highest payroll. That year, they spent $118.1 million on player salaries — the first time the Marlins had spent over $100 million in a season, a feat they have matched only once since. Surprisingly, that year the Marlins had their worst-ever season under Loria, finishing last in the NL East with a record of 69-93 (.426).

After just one year of spending major-league money, Loria decided to blow it up again. This would be the second “fire sale” under Loria, and the third in the Marlins’ two-decade history. The Marlins traded away most of their best players for prospects to cut salary. The players leaving Miami during or after the 2012 season included Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle, Emilio Bonifacio, Heath Bell, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, Carlos Lee, and preseason acquisitions Austin Kearns and Carlos Zambrano. For the 2012 season, the Marlins began the season with $118.1 million in salary, good for sixth in the major leagues. By Opening Day 2013, that had been slashed to $35.9 million, good for 29th. Since 2012, the Marlins (as of 2018) have never been higher than 20th (and that only once) in Opening Day payroll, and have never reached the playoffs.

Loria’s reputation in Miami never recovered. After finally getting the stadium Loria said he needed to field a competitive team, Loria gave up being competitive after one season. Marlins fans — and the City of Miami — felt betrayed. In a poll of 400 Marlins fans conducted in November of 2012, only 6 percent of Marlins fans had a favorable view of Loria, and of those, one-third knew him personally. For comparison, the Miami Herald pointed out that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had a favorability rating of 1 percent, and was “the only public figure who might lose a popularity contest to Loria in South Florida right now.”41 Other findings from the same poll showed:

  • 87 percent of Marlins fans feel “furious and betrayed’’ by the team ownership.
  • 83 percent of Marlins fans have an “unfavorable’’ opinion of Loria.
  • 61 percent of respondents identifying themselves as season-ticket holders would support a boycott next season if that would force Loria to sell the team.
  • 89 percent feel Loria has a moral obligation to field a good team because the new $515 million stadium was built largely with public funds.42

Obviously, being compared with Fidel Castro is bad for anyone in South Florida, especially someone who owns a baseball team that plays in “Little Havana.” In 2014 Rolling Stone magazine named Loria the second-worst owner in sports.43 For many Marlins fans, that’s one place too high.

All this distaste for Loria has not necessarily resulted in fans staying home. If you take away the peaks during and after the World Series championships and the first year of Marlins Stadium, attendance at Marlins games generally fell from expansion until the 2003 World Series, and has steadily risen since, with dropoffs the last two seasons. However, fans supporting their team does not mean fans supporting the owner. Ownership has had to resort to desperate lengths to get fans into seats. In 2013 the Marlins offered free tickets for various activities at local establishments, including test-driving a car, buying a pizza, and visiting a museum, and even offered free tickets to anyone 55 and older.44 Samson admitted that the Marlins were “trying to bring people to the ballpark to enjoy baseball in spite of their feelings for me or Jeffrey [Loria].”45 In May 2016 the Miami New Times reported that the Marlins had been suing season-ticket holders and stadium vendors who had gone bankrupt, after both groups had walked away from contracts at Marlins Stadium citing unfulfilled promises by the team, both on the field and in the concourses.46

Sale to Sherman/Jeter Group

In February 2017 reports emerged that Loria had an unsigned agreement to sell the Marlins to a group headed by Joshua Kushner, the brother of Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to President Donald Trump, and Joseph Meyer, the Kushner brothers’ brother-in-law. As the deal was reported, the president’s then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was allegedly pushing Trump to nominate Loria to be ambassador to France as a reward for his history of donating to the GOP and associated groups. Between the apparent conflict of interests and the trouble the Kushner-Meyer group had coming up with the $1.6 billion price tag, the deal fell through.47

In September 2017 major-league owners unanimously approved the sale to an ownership group led by investment broker Bruce Sherman and Yankees talisman Derek Jeter. The purchase price was $1.2 billion.48 Sherman put up the bulk of that and became the managing general partner, and Jeter became the face of the group and ran baseball operations. The 14 other minority partners include Michael Jordan.49

Bruce Sherman was born in Queens, New York, in 1948. He graduated from the University of Rhode Island and later received an MBA from Baruch College. He co-founded Private Capital Management in Naples, Florida, in 1985. PCM was essentially a wealth-management firm for the Collier family — longtime landowners across Florida and one of America’s wealthiest families at the time. By 2005, the firm had expanded its client base to include government agencies and colleges. It held $31 billion in assets. Sherman earned the nickname “The Paper Shredder” as an activist shareholder who forced the company’s subsidiaries to sell off newspaper investments. Sherman retired in 2009, by which time PCM’s assets had fallen to $2.4 billion, a decline caused in part by the collapse of Bear Stearns and the Great Recession.50

Fire Sale IV

The first thing the Sherman/Jeter group did when it took over the team was to continue the Marlins’ tradition of fire sales. The face of this fire sale was unquestionably the hometown hero Giancarlo Stanton. Born in California, Stanton was drafted by the Marlins in the second round of the 2007 draft. He came up through the Marlins’ farm system and became a star while in Miami. Stanton won the 2016 Home Run Derby, a feat he could not repeat in front of the hometown crowd in 2017. He followed that up with an incredible 2017, which saw him earn his fourth All-Star selection, his second Silver Slugger Award, and his first NL MVP.

Stanton, along with fellow outfielders Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon, formed what was often considered baseball’s best outfield. The four together had a WAR of 20.3 on the 77-win Marlins. They finished first in the league in all combined outfield WAR statistics in 2017. And all four were traded away after the 2017 season. The Marlins’ 2018 outfield was projected to be baseball’s worst, using WAR metrics.

This fire sale again infuriated the baseball fans of South Florida. Perhaps nothing captures this anger more than an incredibly intense interview of Commissioner Rob Manfred by ESPN Radio host Dan Le Batard, whose show is produced and based in Miami, and features a daily “Miami-Only” hour of content. MLB officials were so upset with Le Batard’s treatment of Manfred that they complained to ESPN executives, who told Le Batard to “back off.”51

Miami-Dade County Lawsuit

Even though Loria no longer owned the Marlins, the team could not escape him. In February 2018, Miami-Dade called on Loria to make good on a promise in the 2009 stadium agreement that he would give Miami and Miami-Dade 5 percent of any profit from his sale of the team.52 Loria refused, claiming that he lost $140 million on the sale of the team, despite the fact that he bought the team for $158 million — $15 million of which was a forgiven loan — and sold it for $1.2 billion. Miami-Dade alleged that Loria agreed to put $50 million of the sale price aside to cover any claim against the Sherman/Jeter group, and the county sued both ownership groups to prevent anyone from moving money out of that account.53

Initially, the Sherman/Jeter group claimed that Miami-Dade had no claim against them because they were not part of the deal that Loria allegedly broke. In April 2018 the group argued that the Marlins were not an American company. Instead, because one of the corporations that is a limited partner was based in the British Virgin Islands, the Sherman/Jeter group argued that the whole company was a “citizen” of the British Virgin Islands, and thus could only be sued in accordance with international treaty law. This would mean that the case could not be heard in Miami-Dade’s county court, but that it would have to be held in US District Court. This would give the defendants a better chance at court-ordered arbitration rather than having to go to trial.54

Initially, the Marlins successfully removed the case from Miami-Dade county court to Federal Court. But in August 2018 Judge Darrin Gayles of the US District Court in Miami ordered the case back to state court because not enough evidence had been provided to allow the state court to decide jurisdiction. While he did not rule on the citizenship issue itself, the judge told the Jeter group that they “face an uphill battle” proving foreign citizenship.55

Last revised: December 10, 2018

 

Fans at Marlins Park have seen not one but two "fire sales" of the team's best players by management since the ballpark opened in 2012. (COURTESY OF THE MIAMI MARLINS)

 

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Notes

1 Murray Chass, “The Marlins? The Rockies? Get Used to It. It’s Official,” New York Times, July 6, 1991.

2 Tim Golden, “Miami Still Has Heat and Rain, But Now It Has a Team,” New York Times, June 11, 1991.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard Sandomir, “Wayne Huizenga’s Growth Complex,” New York Times, July 9, 1991.

6 Ibid.

7 “Florida Team’s Name Sounds Fishy,” imbedded in Dave Hyde, “M’s Would Be Great Consolation Prize,” Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, republished in Spokesman-Review and Spokane Chronicle, July 6, 1991: B2.

8 The team then moved several times, changing names, cities, and league affiliations.

9 Golden, “Miami Still Has Heat and Rain…”

10 There was talk of a potential conflict of interest regarding Barger, largely because Pittsburgh’s chairman, Douglas Danforth, was chairman of the National League Expansion Committee, which had made the decision to award the new franchises to Denver and Miami. See Murray Chass, “New Teams Expect Approval Today,” New York Times, July 4, 1991.

11 Murray Chass, “Youthful Executive Rebuilding the Expos in Old-Fashioned Way,” New York Times, March 4, 1992.

12 Ibid.

13 This count includes 12 seasons with one team only, and 1 season (1981) that was split between two teams, the Seattle Mariners and their Triple-A affiliate.

14 David Schoenfield, “Marlins, Rockies Still Seeking Answers,” ESPN.com, April 5, 2013. espn.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/34431/marlins-rockies-still-seeking-answers.

15 Frank Jackson, “It Was Twenty Years Ago Today,” Hardball Times, Fangraphs.com, April 9, 2013. fangraphs.com/tht/it-was-20-years-ago-today/.

16 Alex Fernandez survived the fire sale, as he was injured in the 1997 NLCS, and was essentially untradeable. He missed the entire 1998 season. However, the Marlins did avoid paying most of Fernandez’s 1998 salary, as about 75 percent of it was covered by an insurance policy. See Buster Olney, “Marlins Lose Fernandez to Bad Shoulder Injury,” New York Times, October 10, 1997, and Mike Berardino, “Lloyd’s Balks at Marlins’ Claim on Fernandez’s Injury,” Sun-Sentinel.com, April 26, 2001, available at articles.sun-sentinel.com/2001-04-26/sports/0104260199_1_marlins-alex-fernandez-fernandez-s-case.

17 Tom Verducci, “The Faux Classic,” Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1997: 42.

18 Dan Alexander, “Can Houston Astros Really Be Losing Money Despite Rock-Bottom Payroll?” Forbes.com, August 29, 2013. forbes.com/sites/danalexander/2013/08/29/can-houston-astros-really-be-losing-money-despite-rock-bottom-payroll/.

19 Richard Hoffer, “The Bucks Stop Here,” Sports Illustrated, July 29, 1991. si.com/vault/1991/07/29/124615/the-bucks-stop-here-spiraling-salaries-and-a-potential-loss-of-tv-loot-imperil-baseballs-prosperity.

20 “Sold! John Henry Buys Marlins,” CBS News.com, November 6, 1998. cbsnews.com/news/sold-john-henry-buys-marlins/.

21 Steve Wulf, “The (Dis)passion of John Henry,” ESPN.com, September 26, 2011. espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/7005442/mlb-how-john-henry-built-sports-empire-espn-magazine.

22 Nathan Vardi, “Hardball,” Forbes.com, April 26, 2004. forbes.com/forbes/2004/0426/066.html#1c13ba1512db.

23 Ibid.

24 Farid Rushdi, “How Jeffrey Loria Destroyed the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals,” BleacherReport.com, February 2, 2009. bleacherreport.com/articles/118868-how-jeffrey-loria-destroyed-the-montreal-exposnationals, and Nathan Vardi, “Hardball,” Forbes.com, April 26, 2004. forbes.com/forbes/2004/0426/066.html#1c13ba1512db.

25 Ibid.

26 Mark Armour and Dan Levitt, “Boston Red Sox Team Ownership History,” Team Ownership Histories Project, SABR.org, sabr.org/research/boston-red-sox-team-ownership-history.

27 Nathan Vardi, “Jeff Loria Would Score Huge Baseball Windfall with $1.6 Billion Marlins Sale,” Forbes.com, February 9, 2017. forbes.com/sites/nathanvardi/2017/02/09/jeff-loria-would-score-huge-baseball-windfall-with-1-6-billion-marlins-sale/#61e3e2493b69.

28 Sarah Talalay, “Loria Prevails in Expos Case,” Sun-Sentinel, November 16, 2004. articles.sun-sentinel.com/2004-11-16/sports/0411160145_1_loria-and-baseball-jeffrey-loria-expos-move.

29 Murray Chass, “It’s No Ploy: The Marlins Are Looking to Move,” New York Times, November 23, 2005. nytimes.com/2005/11/23/sports/baseball/its-no-ploy-the-marlins-are-looking-to-move-on.html.

30 Michael Sokolove, “Happy Just to Be Here,” New York Times, June 4, 2006. nytimes.com/2006/06/04/sports/playmagazine/04marlins.html.

31 Ibid.

32 See, e.g., Scott A. Wolla, “The Economics of Subsidizing Sports Stadiums,” StLouisFed.org, May 2017, research.stlouisfed.org/publications/page1-econ/2017-05-01/the-economics-of-subsidizing-sports-stadiums/ (“In a 2017 poll, 83 percent of the economists surveyed agreed that ‘providing state and local subsidies to build stadiums for professional sports teams is likely to cost the relevant taxpayers more than any local economic benefits that are generated.’”), Andrew Zimbalist and Roger G. Noll, “Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: Are New Stadiums Worth the Cost?,” Brookings.edu, June 1, 1997, brookings.edu/articles/sports-jobs-taxes-are-new-stadiums-worth-the-cost/, Richard Florida, “The Never-Ending Stadium Boondoggle,” CityLab.com, September 10, 2015, citylab.com/equity/2015/09/the-never-ending-stadium-boondoggle/403666/, and David Schein, James Phillips, and Caroline Rider, “American Cities Held Hostage: Public Stadiums and Pro Sports Franchises,” Richmond Public Interest Law Review, Vol 20, Is 1, Richmond.edu, February 1, 2017, scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1389&context=pilr.

33 Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Oct. 25, 2010, available at youtube.com/watch?v=14hm7qX8JM0.

34 Barry Petchesky, “The Real Cost to Miami for Marlins Park Is in the Billions,” Deadspin.com, January 25, 2013. deadspin.com/5978964/the-real-cost-to-miami-for-marlins-park-is-in-the-billions.

35 Tommy Craggs, “Florida Marlins Financial Documents,” Deadspin.com, August 23, 2010. deadspin.com/5619235/florida-marlins-financial-documents/.

36 Tim Elfrink, “Six Lies About the Marlins Stadium,” Miami New Times, May 5, 2011. miaminewtimes.com/news/six-lies-about-the-marlins-stadium-6380692.

37 Sarah Talalay, “Marlins More Than Profitable, Records Show,” Miami Sun-Sentinel, August 23, 2010. articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-08-23/sports/fl-florida-marlins-financial-document20100823_1_payroll-profit-marlins-president-david-samson.

38 Elfrink, “Six Lies…”

39 Ibid.

40 Joe Frisaro, “New-Look Miami Marlins Make Colorful Splash,” MLB.com, November 11, 2011. web.archive.org/web/20150721022711/http://m.marlins.mlb.com//news/article/25960478/.

41 Michelle Kaufman, “In Popularity Poll, Miami Marlins’ Jeffery Loria Ekes Out a Win Over Fidel Castro,” Miami Herald, November 25, 2012. miamiherald.com/latest-news/article1944837.html.

42 Ibid.

43 Jeb Lund, “The 15 Worst Owners in Sports,” RollingStone.com, November 25, 2014. rollingstone.com/politics/politics-lists/the-15-worst-owners-in-sports-144598/jeffrey-loria-miami-marlins-180681/.

44 Barry Petchesky, “Marlins Tickets Are Basically Free, and Still No One’s Going,” Deadspin.com, April 25, 2013. deadspin.com/marlins-tickets-are-basically-free-and-still-no-ones-480819877.

45 Ibid.

46 Tim Elfrink, “Marlins Sue Season Ticket Holders, Vendors Who Went Bankrupt,” Miami New Times, May 24, 2016. miaminewtimes.com/news/marlins-sue-season-ticketholders-vendors-bankrupted-by-small-crowds-8475702.

47 Des Bieler, “Jared Kushner’s Family Says It Won’t Buy Marlins if Jeffry Loria Becomes Ambassador to France,” Washington Post, February 15, 2017. washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/02/15/reports-marlins-owner-may-sell-team-to-jared-kushners-brother-and-become-ambassador-to-france/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d86e4895e596.

48 Douglas Hanks, “Jeffrey Loria Claimed No Profits on His $1.2 Billion Marlins Sale. Miami-Dade Is Suing,” Miami Herald, February 16, 2018. miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article200635529.html.

49 Marissa Payne, “Derek Jeter-led Group Reportedly Wins Bid to Buy Miami Marlins,” Washington Post, August 11, 2017. washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/08/11/derek-jeter-led-group-reportedly-wins-bid-to-buy-miami-marlins/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.24ca750e9063.

50 Rene Rodriguez, “Here’s How the New Marlins Money Man Made His Fortune,” Miami Herald, August 11, 2017. miamiherald.com/sports/mlb/miami-marlins/article166847967.html.

51 Cork Gaines, “ESPN’s Dan LeBatard Refused to Stop Criticizing MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred After Being Asked by Management to ‘Back Off,’” BusinessInsider.com, December 21, 2017. businessinsider.com/espn-dan-le-batard-mlb-commissioner-rob-manfred-2017-12

52 Douglas Hanks, “How Could Jeffrey Loria Claim No Profits From $1.2 billion Marlins Sale?” Miami Herald, February 2, 2018. miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article198173034.html.

53 Douglas Hanks, “Jeffrey Loria Claimed No Profits on His $1.2 Billion Marlins Sale. Miami-Dade Is Suing,” Miami Herald, February 16, 2018. miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article200635529.html.

54 Douglas Hanks, “Miami Marlins in Federal Court: Don’t Call Team a U.S. Citizen. We’re Foreign, Too,” Miami Herald, July 10, 2018. miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article214621475.html; Douglas Hanks, “To Avoid Miami Courtroom, Marlins Claim Citizenship in the British Virgin Islands,” Miami Herald, April 9, 2018. miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article208398234.html.

55 Douglas Hanks, “Judge Rules Against Marlins on BVI Foreign Citizenship,” Miami Herald, August 14, 2018. miamiherald.com/sports/mlb/miami-marlins/article216686760.html.