Jim Crane Tells Astros Fans What He Thinks Of Them

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In this Wall Street Journal column by Brian Costa discussing the Astros’ decision to gut the big league product, strip it down to nothing and basically assure that it has the chance to approach the “accomplishments” (is “decomplishments” a word?) of the worst teams in the history of baseball, owner Jim Crane made some arrogant statements that would make Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria cringe at the unthinking and obnoxious audacity.

The money quote from the mostly laudatory piece was the following:

“It doesn’t bother me that people want us to spend more money,” Crane said. “But it’s not their money. This is a private company, even though it’s got a public flair to it. If they want to write a check for 10 million bucks, they can give me a call.”

Was Crane smiling when he said this? Was he being facetious? Was he serious in essentially kicking the remaining fans that will be willing to pay money to go watch the 110+ loss monstrosity they’ve put together in displaying this level of “screw you” attitude?

While refreshing in its honesty, Crane is forgetting that he’s in a service industry and the fans are the key to making a baseball team work. Baseball is different from a “normal” business and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The roster the Astros have put together is going to have significant impact on the fortunes of many of those other teams due to their historic awfulness. Jobs will be saved and lost; teams will make or miss the playoffs based on their ability to beat on the Astros. In years past, I would have agreed with Crane if they made an effort to put a competent big league product on the field. That can be done as the Marlins under the aforementioned Loria have shown several times. The Astros aren’t doing that.

When your best pitcher is Lucas Harrell; your best hitter is Jose Altuve; and your closer is Jose Veras, you’re not winning a lot of games especially in the American League West. They’re feeding their fans garbage with the promise of a potential future coming to fruition in perhaps 2016 if all goes well with their rebuild. The elephant in the room is that there are no guarantees that it’s going to work.

They’re operating within the rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the game and it made me rethink my belief that teams shouldn’t be forced to spend a minimum amount on payroll as they are in other sports such as the NFL and NHL. It’s bad enough that the Astros are not competitive, but that they’re so blatantly wallowing in the lack of competitiveness and doing so on purpose to garner revenue sharing money and have more cash to spend in the draft and on international free agent makes it feel overtly wrong. Crane’s statement to that effect is bold, frank and distasteful to the fans who will be willing to come to the park to watch the Astros in their current form.

As you can see here, it’s not a cheap little trek to go to Minute Maid Park with the most inexpensive tickets being $5 for the privilege of sitting in the upper deck of the outfield, then rising incrementally with the best seats fetching $160 a pop. Then they’re paying to park and spending money on food and items while there. Does that not count in Crane’s demands of someone who wants to watch a better team to give him money towards that end?

Crane’s right in that it’s a private company, but it’s a private company that is functioning within a group dynamic with 29 other teams. There’s also a certain amount of, as Billy Joel put it, “they rub my neck and I write ‘em a check and they go their merry way,” in being a sports owner. Maybe Crane felt that he made his money in private business and deserves to own something he can: A) enjoy; B) make money at while spending a limited amount of cash; and C) not have to eat crap from people.

He’ll learn, though, that he does have to eat crap from people. In this life, it’s unavoidable in getting what one wants. The President of the United States has to scrounge for money; pose for photographs; sell his agenda. It applies to everyone. The only possible way to prevent it is to make enough money to disappear; make other people enough money to disappear; or not have any money at all. And then disappear.

I mentioned Loria and he’s a relevant figure as a comparison. Considering the vitriol he attracts, think about this: he probably is being somewhat muted in his responses when criticized. So when he storms out of a press conference; makes ridiculous assertions that not even a sycophantic assistant would believe; calls former players like Jose Reyes liars; or insinuates that the fans should be grateful that they now have a beautiful new ballpark in Miami (without mentioning that they paid for it), he’s dialed down what he really wants to say by a substantial percentage. If a person is disposable in his eyes, I’d venture to guess that he makes George Steinbrenner look like Art Rooney in his treatment of them.

Crane showed the real Crane in his comments and it’s not a pretty picture. The ruthless businessman stuff isn’t going to sell while his team is this rancid. He needs to learn when to use “owner speak” and say something without saying anything or we’ll hear far worse than this in the coming years especially if the rebuild doesn’t go according to the blueprint or the inherent expectations in the conclusion of the WSJ piece:

“I didn’t make $100 million by making a lot of dumb mistakes,” Crane said. “We’re not going to get everything right, but we’re going to get a lot right.”

This article was not a good place to start in getting things “right.”

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Did Ozzie Guillen Deserve to be Fired and What’s Next for the Marlins?

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After his firing as manager, Ozzie Guillen will receive $7.5 million over the next three years under the terms of the 4-year contract he signed when the Marlins acquired his rights from the White Sox at the conclusion of the 2011 season. Since they waited two weeks from the end of the 2012 season to pull the trigger, I thought that Guillen might get another shot to start the 2013 season, but the Marlins cut the ties and it’s understandable.

When a person is known for his shtick and pushing the envelope with, “he did not just say that,” level comments, the line between candor and self-immolation becomes blurred. A vast chunk of what Guillen says is simply for the sake of taking the pressure off his players and bringing the spotlight onto him. He doesn’t know when to stop and this is how he gets into trouble with statements of “love” for Fidel Castro—a reviled figure in the town in which Guillen had just signed on to manage for four seasons. For a club that was struggling and desperate to bring fans into their new ballpark and whose targeted fanbase includes a large number of Cuban expatriates, escapees, and descendants of people who lived under the oppression that accompanies a communist, dictatorial state, the laudatory comments about their nemesis was a fireable offense when he said it. The Marlins suspended Guillen, gave him another chance and it wasn’t his comments that were the impetus of his dismissal, but that the team didn’t respond to him on the field.

The Marlins are now examining what went wrong in 2012 and the first two things they did was jettison the two most prominent instigators, Heath Bell—who was traded to the Diamondbacks—and Guillen. After a second half full of rumors and innuendo debating who owner Jeffrey Loria was going to fire among the front office and field staff; which players would be next to follow Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez, and others out the door, they got rid of Bell and Guillen and kept Larry Beinfest and his baseball staff.

In defense of the Marlins under Loria, they’ve had remarkable front office stability and treat the manager as a disposable entity that can be quickly replaced. Because the Marlins have made their managerial changes in a ham-handed fashion and made headlines with the decision, for example, to hire the 81-year-old Jack McKeon in 2011, there’s a perception that the firing of the manager is an inherent problem with the team. But if they were winning after doing it, there wouldn’t be the negative connotations. Loria had fired his friend Jeff Torborg in 2003, hired McKeon and the team won the World Series. The criticism is always in retrospect and contingent on whether or not the decision worked.

“What did they expect from Guillen?” is an unfair question to ask. Loria knew his new manager was controversial and would say things to generate headlines, but no one in their right mind could have foreseen the immediate uproar from pro-Castro comments for someone who’d just taken a job in Miami no less.

A 69-93 season amid the lavish outlays for star players and the talent on the club was unacceptable even if the team was injured and gutted at mid-season. Before they cleaned out the house, they were in mid-plummet and had widely become an industry-wide laughingstock. So yes, he deserved to be fired.

Guillen is young enough (48) and has a resume to get another managing job, but it won’t be in a new age situation where the GM is the boss and the manager is a mid-level functionary there to implement edicts coming from above. It would have to be a situation like that of the Dodgers where the front office is willing to take risks and wants to, as the Marlins did, generate buzz. Guillen is not an empty vessel designed to attract attention like a talentless sing-and-dance act that is created to sell a load of songs, records, and tickets, get the money and get out. He’s a good manager. We didn’t see that in Miami for a multitude of reasons, but most of those reasons were that the players didn’t perform.

The Marlins are rumored to be taking the young and cheap route when it comes to a replacement manager, probably with one of their minor league managers, Mike Redmond. Redmond was a member of the 2003 Marlins’ championship team and was also a respected backup to Joe Mauer with the Twins for a long time. He won’t take any nonsense, but with Bell gone the only nonsense he’ll presumably be dealing with will come from Loria himself and the speculation of when Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle are traded.

Even though they wound up 12th in the National League in attendance, the Marlins still drew over 2 million fans to their new park and experienced an increase of 700,000 in the number of people that came to watch them play. Had they been any good and contending, that number would probably have approached 3 million. If they’re retooling or rebuilding will determine what they’ll look like in 2013. Eliminating Bell and Guillen from the equation was a necessary first step back toward respect and respectability.

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The Marlins Do Realize They Hired Ozzie Guillen, Right?

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What went wrong in Miami with the Marlins?

Was it the new, cavernous ballpark?

The odd mix of personalities?

The misjudgment of talent?

Injuries? Apathy? Dysfunction?

A combination?

Speculation centers on whom owner Jeffrey Loria fires. First the target sat squarely on the back of President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest. Now it’s turned to manager Ozzie Guillen. Given Loria’s history, I’m not going to venture a guess as to what he’ll do. He could say, “I’ve fired managers before, let’s try firing some people in suits.” Or he could say, “I like my baseball people, the manager and players were the problem. I’ll change the on-field personnel.” Or he could do nothing with the manager and executives and get rid of more players. He could fire everyone. He could fire no one.

Loria has a habit of firing managers, but the front office has remained largely intact and is signed long-term. To him, it’s clear that the manager is fungible and not all that relevant. It’s a similar argument in a different context to the new-age stat-based theories that say the manager is an implementer of the strategies laid out by the bosses and can be easily replaced. In his time, Loria’s fired every manager he’s had. Some were deserved, some weren’t, but as the owner it’s his right to do what he wants.

For years he wanted Guillen and took the step of trading minor league players to get him at the end of the 2011 season. Had Loria examined Guillen’s tenure with the White Sox closely and understood what he was getting before jumping in with a heavy financial commitment (4-years, $10 million) and expectant enthusiasm, he probably would’ve hired him anyway.

Was it because he thought Guillen was a good game manager with the background of success and the fiery temperament to keep the heat off of the players and drum up attention in the media? Absolutely. Guillen has all of those attributes. But he also says ridiculous things and doesn’t think before he speaks. There’s no filter and the fine line between being outrageous and offensive is blurred. He casually and without regret crosses into insubordination. Honesty and self-destruction are melded together and Guillen has essentially dared Loria to fire him as related in this blog from The Palm Beach Post.

The Marlins created a carnival complete with colorful uniforms, rampant ballpark diversions, a team of intriguing talent, and negative personalities. The White Sox, under Guillen, won a World Series with a blend of intriguing talent and perceived negative personalities so there was a basis for thinking Guillen could cobble it together again. Instead, the Marlins are a disaster.

But blaming Guillen for being Guillen? It’s an easy case to make that his comments praising Fidel Castro were a tipping point, but that was in April and the Marlins went 21-8 in May. The players don’t care about that stuff; the only time they’re bothered about some off-field controversy is if they’re constantly asked about it. It’s easy to say a calmer, more patient, and respected clubhouse voice would have handled the chemistry issues in a more diplomatic way than Guillen, but I don’t think the results would’ve been any different.

It was the front office who decided to build a cavernous ballpark tilted toward pitching, but put a horrific defense on the field. It was the front office that signed John Buck and Heath Bell; that traded for Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, and Carlos Lee. They put a toxic mix together in a bowl, expected it to smell good and for people to eat it. No one did.

They can fire Guillen; they can fire Beinfest, Michael Hill, Dan Jennings; they can trade away more players and bring in others; but that’s not going to alter the reality that the fans in Miami wouldn’t have gone to see this club play if their record was reversed and they’d hired a manager who had the power to free Cuba rather than one who expressed love for its aged dictator. New ballpark or not, the people in that area don’t care about the Marlins. There’s no reason to go to the park to see this team, but not many people would’ve gone even if there was.

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Figures of Attendance, Part IV—the Lack of Simplicity in Drawing Fans is Self-Evident

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What teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and now the Phillies have learned is that when you achieve that level of success and fans begin investing financially and emotionally into the product, there’s no rebuild allowed. Would the Red Sox have been better-served to clear the decks after last season’s debacle and not necessarily tear the whole thing down, but accept that the prior era of annual championship expectation was over and realize that they had to dump certain players like Kevin Youkilis, Josh Beckett and others for the greater good of the franchise? Absolutely. But they couldn’t do that. So what they did was to hire Bobby Valentine, sign a few veteran names and try to patch it together using the extra playoff spot to put forth the pretense of still winning every…single…year.

But life doesn’t work that way and the Red Sox are finally seeing that perhaps it was a bad idea to take that tack. As much as their fans would loathe to admit it, the Red Sox have become a mirror image of that which they despise most in the world: the Yankees. One championship and a shattered curse wasn’t enough. The failures of the club in years hence caused the spending sprees and ultimate decline and increased demand for more, more, more. Stars at every position; 110 win predictions; the gutting of the farm system—everything was hand-in-hand. Understanding the failure and acting upon it are two different things and they’re more likely to double and triple down rather than walk away from the table. In general, double and tripling down only speeds the descent toward 65-97. Then the fans will really stop coming.

This is how it gets to the point where the Yankees lose Alex Rodriguez for a couple of months and fans start speculating that they should trade for David Wright without letting facts get in the way of their delusions; it’s how people like Joel Sherman look at the Yankees when they lose CC Sabathia for a few starts and speculate on them trading for Cliff Lee. They lose Brett Gardner? Hey, go to the Rockies and take (because that’s what it amounts to) Carlos Gonzalez.

Where does it end? If a star pitcher in the year 2017 has a hangnail and has to leave a game or miss a start, do the fans demand a trade for another team’s star pitcher to replace him because they can’t stand one night—and going to one game—without seeing a megastar pitcher? You can scoff at the extreme nature of such a concept, but is it really that farfetched?

Fan attendance is not about a new park; it’s not solely about winning; it’s not about attractions and stuff. It’s about markets. No amount of bottom line, hard core, sacrosanct “rules” are going to change that. As much as the Mets are torn for their lack of attendance, it’s understood why fans don’t come to the games; why fans aren’t going to the new Marlins Park; why the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies have overspent and made clear mistakes in running their clubs, they’re not exactly mistakes or macro-factors. They’re instances of trying to twist reality. But reality won’t be twisted. It just is. Until that “is” changes, this is how it’s going to be.

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.

Read Part III here.

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Figures of Attendance, Part I–the Mets, Rays and Marlins

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In today’s NY Times, amid the accolades doled out on R.A. Dickey for another superlative performance, the attendance situation surrounding the Mets is discussed. GM Sandy Alderson all but said he’s keeping veteran outfielder Scott Hairston in spite of his attractiveness on the trade market as a power righty bat off the bench and as an occasional starter because wins help credibility and he might help the team win a few extra games.

It’s very easy to criticize the decision and say that once a team is guaranteed of missing the playoffs that there’s no difference between winning 76 games, 66 games of 56 games. Apart from the requisite jokes of a team being so terrible that they lose over 100 games, there’s some logic in the theory. Specifically, in his book The Extra 2% about the Rays, Jonah Keri said that the Rays new ownership and management team knew they were awful and shunned the idea of wasting money and resources to bring in players that would likely have helped them win 5 or so more games, but wouldn’t have done much of anything to help them in the long term.

The Rays could do that because they were such a perennial laughingstock and no one knew what to make of the financial guys who’d taken over the team. Given the moves they did make—changing the name, appearing to be afraid of making a mistake in trades to the point that they were frozen in time—there was much to ridicule. But bolstered by the high draft picks; some truly savvy trades; clever long-term contracts and service time sleight of hand; and more than a little luck, the Rays have become the case study of building a winning team under a strict budget.

That the Rays have made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years and have a chance to make it again this year doesn’t alter the fact that their attendance is 13th out of 14 AL teams in 2012; was 13th last season; 9th in 2010; 11th in 2009 coming off their pennant in 2008; and were 12th in 2008. In 2007, they lost 96 games and were last with almost 1.4 million fans coming to Tropicana Field. They’ve gained around 400,000 people a season since they started winning. That’s not good.

The Marlins have a new ballpark and went on a spending spree to try and win. Non-baseball-related amenities and attractions were installed in Marlins Park with the undertone of ownership not caring why people were coming to the park; whether they were there to watch the game, go to a restaurant or nightclub, get a haircut or just look at women mattered little. Attendance hasn’t risen to the levels they desired and the 51-61 Marlins are 12th in the National League. That’s after being last from 2006-2011 and next to last in 2005; 14th in 2004 (coming off a World Series win); and next to last in 2003 when they did win the World Series.

If the Rays think a new park in St. Petersburg or wherever else in Florida they can find the space and get the approval to build one is going to help, they need only to look at the other Florida franchise to see the truth. And good luck after the way the Marlins ballpark was built with the subsequent investigations into the shady practices that were its genesis.

With mercenaries; corporate entities; team bosses who think their installation was based on merit and not on marrying someone; and questionable ethics and morals, the Marlins are getting what many think they deserve. It gets worse from here.

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National League Patience Or Panic?

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Earlier I wrote of the American League teams that either need to have patience or panic. Let’s look at the National League teams in the same predicament.

Miami Marlins

It’s safe to assume that Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria’s office is outfitted with escape hatches, listening devices, nefarious contraptions and trapdoors at various spots on the floor—one of which sends the hapless victim to the airtight, windowless room (complete with Lazarus Pit) in which Jack McKeon is kept.

There’s one small vent as a concession for McKeon’s cigar smoke.

Along with these amenities is, presumably, a dutiful assistant carrying a black box. Inside that black box is the panic button.

When said panic button is pressed, something happens: a manager is fired; a player is demoted; a son-in-law is sent to speak to the media; a pretentiously gauche extravaganza masquerading as art is activated; a fealty-induced political marker is cashed.

Something.

Is it time for the Marlins to panic?

Just about.

Already under investigation by the SEC for the way the new Marlins’ Stadium was financed, with manager Ozzie Guillen under siege for his pro-Fidel Castro comments and the team playing poorly, it’s not long before a Steinbrennerean missive is issued on stationary emblazoned across the top with the words:

From the Mildly Artistic Mind of Jeffrey L.

He learned his lessons from George Steinbrenner in terms of morally-challenged behavior under the guise of business and personal interests and now his team is eerily similar to the Yankees of the 1980s: expensive, underachieving, fractured, dysfunctional and disinterested.

Heath Bell and Jose Reyes have both been atrocious; Hanley Ramirez isn’t hitting; and, on the whole, they look like a group that not only doesn’t know how to play together, but don’t like each other very much.

Loria thought he was buying a contender and that the attendance to see that contender would be commensurate with the amenities of a new park and a good team.

The winning team would attract the real baseball fans; the nightclub, pool, dancing girls, acrobats, restaurants and art would attract the eclectic denizens of Miami who go where it’s cool regardless of the venue.

They’re seventh in the National League in attendance.

The team is flawed and, right now, just plain bad.

Loria’s finger is itching to hit that panic button and it should be because veteran teams in disarray tend to spiral out of control early once they sense the season is lost.

Philadelphia Phillies

No team could function with the spate of injuries that have befallen the Phillies. All they’re trying to do is keep their heads above water until Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee are healthy.

Manager Charlie Manuel has been trying to find a lineup combination that works. He’s playing small ball to account for the lost power and it’s failing. Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco aren’t hitting and as good as Freddy Galvis is defensively, the Phillies currently can’t afford to carry his popgun bat.

If they get healthy, they’ll be fine. The question is what level of Howard and Utley are they going to get when they return and how long is Lee going to be out with a strained oblique? They don’t want to fall too far behind, but the second Wild Card added this year makes it much easier to be patient even in a demanding city like Philadelphia.

Cincinnati Reds

Amid all the preseason talk that the Reds’ decision to trade chunks of their farm system to get Mat Latos and Sean Marshall and the pending free agencies (in 2014) of Joey Votto and (in 2013) of Brandon Phillips made them a “win now or else” team, they’re well-situated for the future with all their pieces in place.

Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs are all under team control for the foreseeable future; and they signed Votto, Phillips and Marshall to contract extensions.

The loss of Ryan Madson was a blow, but they’ve replaced him with Marshall and Aroldis Chapman can close if necessary.

The pitching has been solid; they just haven’t hit. This core of this Reds team was second in runs scored in 2011 and first in 2010. They’re going to hit.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants’ strength was in their starting rotation and that they had a deep, diverse and organized bullpen with a horse of a closer.

The rotation should be fine but the bullpen is in flux with the loss of Brian Wilson. Bruce Bochy is not the closer-by-committee type of manager, but that’s where he is as of now. He named Santiago Casilla as the closer and proceeded to treat him as if he’s just another arm in the bullpen as soon as he got in trouble in one of his first save chances after being dubbed the closer.

The lineup has been better than expected, but is still carrying potential black spots at shortstop, second base, first base and right field.

And Angel Pagan, being Angel Pagan, will inspire the entire team—individually—to strangle him at least once by forgetting how many outs there are; running the team out of an inning; throwing to the wrong base (or wrong team); or something.

The Giants don’t need to panic, but they do need to be vigilant that unless they settle on a reasonable plan with their bullpen, they’re going to fade by August.

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Ali and Loria

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For the purists, the new Marlins’ ballpark is a tribute to ostentatious excess. True to form, owner Jeffrey Loria went over the top in his choice of people to celebrate the stadium’s opening by getting Muhammad Ali.

Rather than have opening night be about Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Giancarlo Stanton, Ozzie Guillen or Logan Morrison, the first game of the season was dedicated to vicious attacks on social media directed at Loria; they were visceral and bordering on threats to his safety.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The park has attractions—a nightclub, fish tanks, carnival acts—that have nothing to do with baseball. Why would the first pitch ceremony have a baseball-related theme?

Considering Loria’s shady business practices and his Steinbrennerian way he runs his club (without spending the money that George Steinbrenner did), I’m not defending him, but if he’s going to be attacked he should be attacked for the right reasons.

Because Loria and the Marlins had Ali deliver the first ball to Commissioner Bud Selig, it was seen as an attempt on the part of Loria to protect himself from being booed by the Miami “faithful” who aren’t all that faithful to Loria’s baseball team and whose disinterest is a major factor in the aforementioned shady practices in pocketing revenue sharing money and the tactics he used to get the new park built in the first place—tactics that are getting him investigated by the SEC.

But is it warranted to savage him for using Ali?

It’s not as if Loria kidnapped the former champs’ children, held them for ransom and forced him to appear. Or that the Parkinsons afflicted former champion was picked up like a drooling vegetable and stuck next to Loria without benefit to him.

I’d be surprised if Ali was aware of who Loria was before and after the appearance.

(Ali was the same person who, during a clowning session with the Beatles, posed for pictures danced around and joked…then after the session turned to an assistant and asked, “Who were those little faggots?”)

At this point, Ali doesn’t do much of anything unless he’s heavily compensated. Whether he’s cognizant of his surroundings is known only to him and those closest to him.

I wasn’t able to find Ali’s direct appearance fees, but in this review of Thomas Hauser’s book, The Lost Legacy of Muhammad Ali, one of the editors of a prior Ali book, GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, Ovais Navqi, writes that Ali’s appearance fee was “apparently $200,000”.

The Hauser book was published seven years ago. It’s safe to assume that the appearance fee is substantially more now.

I’d guess Ali got at least $400,000-500,000 to appear at Marlins Park last night.

As for the connections between Ali and Miami, there are plenty. He won his first heavyweight title by knocking out Sonny Liston on 1964 and in this link to the 2008 PBS documentary “Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami”, you can read how Ali and Miami are inextricably connected. The final paragraph says the following:

Until now, Muhammad Ali’s time in Miami has been treated as little more than a prologue to his worldwide fame. Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami provides a fascinating chronicle of the personal and professional transformations the legendary fighter experienced in the city, and argues compellingly that, without Miami, there might never have been a Muhammad Ali.

Was Loria thinking that if he had his arms around Ali as a human shield to protect him from the raining boos that not even the retractable roof would prevent from drenching him?

Possibly.

But was the aged and infirm Ali a random American hero that was plucked out of nowhere for Loria to use without benefit to Ali himself?

No.

Trust me, Ali wasn’t doing anyone any favors by showing up.

He got paid.

You and Ali can take that to the bank along with his check.

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