Franchise makeover sends Marlins on spending spree
MIAMI—A new playground for multimillionaires shimmers in the South Florida sun, all steel and glass and girders, looking like something beamed down from the future into the modest surrounding Little Havana neighborhood.
Such an eye-catching edifice will always draw attention, and while the first game remains four months away, the Miami Marlins' new ballpark already is attracting brisk business, All-Star players and the scrutiny of federal investigators. The ballpark made possible a spending spree unprecedented in the Marlins' strange history.
"We have a glorious new ballpark, and we want to be good," owner Jeffrey Loria said. "We want to win."
After years of poor attendance and meager payrolls, the Marlins anticipate capacity crowds next season, and with revenue on the rise, Loria went shopping to upgrade the team.
A decade after buying the Marlins, art dealer Loria has mastered the art of the multiyear deal. The New York native suddenly became George Steinbrenner.
First he hired Ozzie Guillen, a veteran manager as colorful as the Marlins' new uniforms. Then Loria turned his attention to free agents.
The Marlins were the talk of baseball's winter meetings in Dallas this week, making deals for NL batting champion Jose Reyes, All-Star left-hander Mark Buehrle and All-Star closer Heath Bell that totaled $191 million.
"I was a little surprised they had that much money to burn," said Terry Collins, manager of Reyes' former team, the NL East rival New York Mets.
The Marlins struck out in their bid for slugger Albert Pujols, the biggest prize in free agency, who eventually chose the Los Angeles Angels. Even so, Miami's makeover is extreme. The Marlins' offer to Pujols was for more than $200 million over 10 years, roughly equal to what they paid every player combined over the past five years.
The courtships came as the Securities and Exchange Commission began to investigate whether the Marlins' ballpark agreement with the city and county violated federal securities laws. Despite the investigation, team officials went to Dallas in a spending mood.
In the past, they spent the winter meetings as spectators -- or worse, as sellers unloading talent when it became too expensive. All-Stars Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett and Dan Uggla were among those traded. But this year, Marlins executives proudly moved about the hotel in Dallas with their chests out, a big-budget posture so familiar to agents they have a name for it: puffing.
Twitter was abuzz with quips about the Marlins buying the Yankees and signing Brett Favre. It's a big change for a franchise long regarded as thrifty -- or just plain cheap.
"Wow!! The Marlins are putting it out there," tweeted outfielder Torii Hunter of the big-budget Angels. "Baseball party in Miami."
"It's good for baseball," San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes said. "There's a lot of excitement there. It's amazing how the game runs in cycles."
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economics professor at Smith College, said Loria wants to give next year's big crowds a competitive team so fans keep coming back. For that reason, spending big now makes sense, he said.
"Nobody knows if it's going to pay off," Zimbalist said. "This stuff is largely a crapshoot anyway. But I think it's the right bet. The time to do it is when you're moving into a new stadium."
Not everyone in Miami has been toasting the new Marlins. Some civic leaders continue to fume about the $515 million deal for the ballpark, which was built mostly with public money. Financial details remain murky, and recent SEC subpoenas to the city and Miami-Dade County seek a long list of documents and records, including those involving communications between government officials and executives with the Marlins and Major League Baseball.
Among those applauding the investigation is Miami auto dealer Norman Braman, who led a legal challenge trying to stop the project and a successful recall of the county mayor who supported the deal.
"Maybe now we'll find out how this whole travesty occurred," said Braman, former owner of the NFL Philadelphia Eagles.
Some have viewed Loria with suspicion since his days as a team owner in Montreal, where baseball fans still blame him for the demise of the Expos. Skepticism about the Marlins' finances grew when statements were leaked showing they netted $49 million in 2008-09, when they had baseball's smallest payroll. The team said the income was needed to ensure being able to borrow money to help pay for the new ballpark.
Two years ago, the Marlins reached an agreement with the players' union to increase spending in the wake of complaints team payroll had been so small as to violate baseball's revenue sharing provisions. Even so, on opening day 2011 the Marlins ranked only 24th in payroll at $57 million.
Next season will be the first time payroll exceeds $60 million, and it may go beyond $100 million. Braman contends that because of the way the ballpark project was financed, the money Loria is offering free agents essentially came from the public.
"Everything falls on the taxpayers' back," Braman said. "I don't know if you could call these acquisitions the property of the taxpayers, but they're certainly paid for by the taxpayers."
Such criticism might be another reason Loria loosened his wallet, Zimbalist said.
"There's a lot of political pressure on him with the financing of that stadium," Zimbalist said. "He can make some of that disappear if he puts a good team on the field."
Loria has already succeeded where the Marlins' two previous owners failed, campaigning successfully for public money to help build a ballpark. The franchise played its first 19 seasons in the Miami Dolphins' stadium, and while there were spasms of success, with World Series titles in 1997 and 2003, the Marlins finished last in the NL in attendance each of the past seven years.
Many question the viability of baseball in Miami, which makes the new ballpark an expensive experiment. Air-conditioning and a retractable roof will provide fans refuge from South Florida's hot, wet summers, and crowds of more than 30,000 are expected for each game next season. Concessions, signage and suites will be more profitable than at the Marlins' previous home.
Loria added up the anticipated revenue and decided to go shopping. Team president David Samson said Loria told him: "We have the ballpark, but that's not enough. Put the team together."
But it was Loria calling the shots and writing the checks.
"He has a plan," pitcher Bell said. "He really wants to win."
And now he's willing to spend. The Marlins have become a big-market team, thanks to a shiny new ballpark that makes the outlook for baseball in Miami a lot sunnier.
AP Sports Writers Ronald Blum, Stephen Hawkins and Ben Walker in Dallas contributed to this report.