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Column: Something fishy is going on in Miami

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, right, looks over to Jose Reyes during a news conference at the Major League Baseball 2011 Winter Meetings in Dallas, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. The Marlins unveiled the newly signed free-agent shortstop Reyes. Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, right, looks over to Jose Reyes during a news conference at the Major League Baseball 2011 Winter Meetings in Dallas, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. The Marlins unveiled the newly signed free-agent shortstop Reyes. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
By Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist / December 7, 2011
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At first it seemed like a joke, though new stadiums can make people do funny things. Besides, what better way to thank the taxpayers of Miami for the new digs than put a giant bow on a few superstars for their viewing pleasure?

Talent comes at a price, of course, though that doesn't seem to worry Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. He's so entranced by visions of luxury-box money streaming in that he's at baseball's winter meetings in Dallas this week offering contracts to almost everyone he meets in the hotel elevator.

While the feds are busy investigating the financing of Miami's new stadium, Loria has been busy trying to field an opening-day lineup with players fans will pay the usual new-stadium premium to see. As of now, Jose Reyes will join Hanley Ramirez in the infield, Mark Buehrle will take the mound every fifth day, and Heath Bell will close things out in the ninth.

Maybe Albert Pujols should thank the taxpayers of Miami, too. Without Loria fueling a bidding war for the first baseman, Pujols might have had to accept something less than the $220 million or so the Cardinals are rumored to be offering to keep him in St. Louis.

If this were the Yankees or Red Sox, no one would have been surprised. They've played in the big market so long that the enormous contracts they usually hand out this time of the year are as routine as Black Friday sales the day after Thanksgiving.

They also have large and rabid fan bases that can be relied on to fund the millions of every deal.

The Marlins don't and that could be trouble. It's especially true if they end up adding Pujols or Prince Fielder to the $191 million in signings made the past few days.

The new stadium is nice, of course, like all the other new stadiums (almost all subsidized by taxpayers) that have transformed Major League Baseball in the 20 years since the Baltimore Orioles built Camden Yards. It has a fancy retractable roof to keep out those pesky South Florida afternoon downpours, cozy seating for 37,000 fans and two giant aquariums behind home plate.

It helps that the Marlins barely paid a dime for it. Nearly 80 percent of the $634 million spent comes from taxpayer money -- a deal that went down without a public vote and still has Miami residents shaking their heads. About all the Marlins have to do is buy enough players to field a team and hire enough accountants to tally up the cash they hope comes flowing in.

It's a time-honored strategy in baseball. Fleece the community once to get it built, then make them dig deeper to get in.

It works. For a time.

The new ballpark surely will draw sellout crowds at first, with fans packing in to watch the fish and feed the fish. But once the new smell wears off, the future is less certain. It's a lesson the Mets and Nationals have painfully learned, and it could be even worse in a town where the Marlins couldn't even draw fans when they were winning the World Series.

"There's no guarantee fans will financially support the Marlins for years to come," said Wayne McDonnell, a business of baseball professor at New York University. "You'll have a nice honeymoon the first year, but I don't think it's sustainable in the long run."

If it's not, the back-loaded contract signed by Reyes is even more perplexing. Three years from now, the former Mets shortstop with a history of injuries will be making $22 million -- more than the entire payroll of the Marlins just five years ago in the wake of one of Loria's salary dumps.

"What happens when you're consistently getting 15-to-20,000 in a ballpark when you need 35,000 to make payroll?" McDonnell said during a telephone interview from Dallas. "The running joke around here at the winter meetings is that two years from now, when the meetings are in Orlando, is where Loria will have his fire sale."

For Loria, it seems to be all about making a splash and making people forget how awful it's been for Marlins fans over the years. He has a new manager in the colorful Ozzie Guillen, some very colorful new uniforms and even a new name -- the Florida Marlins are now the Miami Marlins.

Maybe he figures it will make fans forget about long afternoons sitting in the rain at Sun Life Stadium, where the Marlins sold 19,000 tickets a game last season, though not nearly that many people showed up to claim their seats. Indeed, a writer at an August doubleheader counted a grand total of 347 fans when the opening pitch was made.

One thing fans likely won't forget is the controversy over stadium financing, which has already cost the former mayor of the county his job in a recall vote. It doesn't help that there's an ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the nearly $500 million in bond sales to build the place. The SEC didn't announce what it was looking for, but asked for voluminous records on the financing as well as records of campaign contributions from the Marlins to area politicians.

Maybe baseball ought to launch an investigation of its own into the millions the once penurious owner of the Marlins is suddenly throwing around. Signing Reyes is one thing, but perhaps Pujols or Fielder, too?

Surely that's got to be evidence enough that something fishy is going on.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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