February 28, 2013

Marlins' Loria: The pro owner who pulled a con job

He got the public to pay for his stadium, then shipped his stars away.

By TIM DAHLBERG The Associated Press

When Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss died last week, it didn't take long for the conversation to turn to his place among the best owners in the history of sports.

Jeffrey Loria
click image to enlarge

Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Miami Marlins, is trying to soft-pedal his image in south Florida, where fans aren’t bothering to buy tickets for a second-year stadium and a team, because of a payroll purge, that may not be good enough to win 50 games this season.

Photos by The Associated Press

Jeffrey Loria
click image to enlarge

Jeffrey Loria got the public to pay for his stadium, and he’s guaranteed millions through baseball’s television package. So if he doesn’t want to pay for quality ballplayers … well, so what?

Perhaps it's only fitting that the disastrous public reappearance of Jeffrey Loria renewed debate this week over who is the worst.

In Miami, there is no debate. The Marlins' owner is so reviled he might want to avoid going to his year-old stadium lest he find a mob ready to run him out of town.

His payroll is so low the team would have trouble competing in the Pacific Coast League, much less the National League.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are on the hook for a $634 million stadium that might have more tropical fish swimming around inside than fans in the stands.

If he's not the worst owner ever, it's only because there's a lot of competition. The late owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, comes to mind, as does Robert Irsay, who fled Baltimore in the middle of the night and took the city's beloved Colts with him.

But Loria is in the top five.

His decision this week to embark on a public relations campaign to convince fans he was right to trade the team's top talent -- Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, among others -- because he wanted to make the Marlins better, reeked of arrogance. It didn't work mostly because Loria acted the way he always acts, like he's the smartest person in the room.

Maybe he is. This is a guy, after all, who parlayed a small investment in the Montreal Expos into ownership of a team and a new stadium in Miami.

He got handouts from Major League Baseball for years, and got lucky with a World Series winner a decade ago. Now he's got fans paying the freight, and rewarded them with a team so devoid of talent that the payroll is expected to be only $45 million, the lowest in baseball.

The trouble with smart people is sometimes they believe their own press releases. That seems to be the case with Loria, who hired a high-powered PR firm to try to mend his image in south Florida and, more importantly, convince people they should spend more of their money at his ballpark.

The campaign began with his open letter to the citizens of Miami defending everything he's done and promising good times just around the next corner.

"We're in this together and I humbly ask that we start fresh, watch us mature quickly as a ball club, and root for the home team in 2013," Loria wrote.

That went over about as well as former manager Ozzie Guillen praising Fidel Castro in Little Havana last season. But it got worse when Loria met the press, not all of whom seemed to be on board with the idea the Marlins need to make their owner more money before they can be competitive.

Asked at one point if he had pulled a con job, Loria bristled.

"A con job? I'm not even going to answer that," he said.

Actually, con job might be an understatement. He convinced businessmen and politicians not only to build him a new ballpark but guarantee him almost every dime generated from it.

He took on payroll because it was part of the deal, but backloaded the contracts so he didn't risk much of his own money doing it.

Then he dumped the new players before the year was over. True, they didn't perform as expected, but the contracts were structured in a way that seemed suspicious.

Now Loria is raking in more money from MLB's new television deals than he's paying players. He's guaranteed tens of millions in profits even if his team doesn't win 50 games. And if he's not the most popular person, well, so what.

Loria won't even commit to signing the team's only remaining star. Giancarlo Stanton isn't eligible for arbitration and Loria said he wants to see him play another year before deciding to pay big money.

Apparently the 71 home runs Stanton hit the last two years weren't convincing enough.

Fans are reacting the only way they know, by refusing to buy tickets. The pitch Loria made to get his stadium was fans would come out in droves if they had a proper ballpark with a retractable roof. But the turnstile count last year was just 1.4 million, a million below expectations. This year will be even worse, with season ticket sales not even half the 12,000 sold for the inaugural season.

One newspaper called Loria the most hated man in baseball, and with Frank McCourt no longer controlling the Dodgers and Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list, it's hard to argue with that.

No, Loria may not yet be the worst owner ever. But give him time and he may get there.

 

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