Accepting the Marlins Inevitable Reality (It Was Clear from the Get-go)

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In today’s New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes about the empty seats in Marlins Park; about the gutting of the franchise; and the possibly bright future the Marlins have because of all the prospects they accumulated in trades of veterans.

We can go into the lack of attendance and perceived wrongdoing of owner Jeffrey Loria, but what he does is in the same ballpark (pardon the dual entendre) of what the Astros are currently doing, but the Astros are receiving widespread praise for putting together a big league club that is a big league club in name only. Weeks ago, I gave Astros owner Jim Crane a written lashing for his arrogant statements that if fans want the team to spend money, they should write him a check among other, “I’m a big shot, you’re not” alpha male nonsense, but no one else did. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is a stat guy centerfold and little criticism is heading the way of their front office in spite of their on-field atrocity.

The political machinations that got Marlins Park built, predominately at the expense of Floridians, is still being sorted out with allegations, accusations and SEC investigations. Does anyone really believe that the investigation will amount to much, if any penalties for the likes of Loria or the powerbrokers who facilitated him getting his new park and not paying for it? Loria fits every small bit of chicanery into the flexible rules under which he operates. Similar to the Astros within-the-rules stripping of their payroll to the bare minimum and putting a team on the field that on most days is non-competitive against legitimate Major League teams, there’s no rule saying Loria can’t sign free agents and trade them a year later; that he can’t fire his manager Ozzie Guillen one year into a four year contract; that he can’t take the benefits from the new park, pocket the profits and flip a chubby middle finger at anyone who dares question him.

The Marlins were a disappointment in 2012. Loria was right to fire Guillen for the poor job he did on the field and the ridiculous statement he made early in the season praising Fidel Castro. He had options rather than gutting the club (again) by retooling with a different manager and a tweak here and there to give it another shot in 2013. But it wouldn’t have made a difference with the fans if the Marlins were contending in 2013 with a manager who didn’t alienate a vast portion of the fans they hoped to attract. It wasn’t and isn’t going to work in Miami because the fans aren’t interested.

The Marlins attendance improved dramatically last season in comparison to 2011. During that year, their usual numbers were between 10,000 and 20,000. It was an annual problem. When there were higher attendance figures, it stemmed from ancillary attractions like the Mets and Dodgers fans who’ve relocated to Florida and wanted to watch their teams. One the one hand, it’s not fair to question the reasons the fans are coming—their money is just as green regardless which club they’re rooting for—but on the other, the Marlins can look at the increase in attendance and realize that it’s fleeting and say, “Yeah, but they didn’t come to see us,” and act accordingly.

In 2012, the attendance was better than it was when they played in Sun Life Stadium, a football facility. With the new park, they regularly drew crowds of nearly 30,000 and finished twelfth in the National League in attendance. That’s counting the second half after they’d conceded the season and traded Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante. Before 2012, they were annually at the bottom in attendance going back 15 years. In 1997, when they spent a ton of money and won the World Series, they were fifth in the National League in attendance, but it’s petered out and whether the team was good or not, the fans don’t have the passion. Since then, it’s gone rapidly downhill and even after they won another World Series in 2003, there wasn’t the usual accompanying attendance spike. The Marlins have stayed anchored to the bottom of the ocean of attendance.

And that’s the point. The Miami fans are not fickle, hammering home the point that the new park shouldn’t have been built in the first place. If someone stood up and told Loria to take his threats and his team and move if that’s what he had to do, none of the other stuff—the park, the investigation, the free agents, the trades, the faux anguish—would’ve happened. If he received a new park in San Antonio, Oregon, North Carolina or anywhere, the overwhelming probability is that he would’ve moved and done the exact same thing that he does in Miami—bought people’s favor, made promises and then utilized flexible statements and semantics to justify the gutting of the team and defend against accusations of ruthless profiteering. He’s a combination of a politician and a classically brutal businessman. He may want to have a team that wins, but when he sees that it’s not going to happen, all bets are off. It’s admirable in its way if you know what you’re dealing with going in.

Amid all the head shaking and abuse raining down on Loria, it all goes back to the initial mistake: giving in to his threats to move the club and Florida allowing him to get his park without paying for it. No one should be surprised, chagrined, or angry at the Marlins method of doing business. The system was rife for abuse and Loria abused it. There was no other way this could’ve ended and if the traded players Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, et al, didn’t see it coming; if the people who could’ve stopped the park from being built didn’t make a greater effort to do so; if MLB is allowing clubs like the Marlins and Astros to do whatever they want in their own best interests, then it’s on them for allowing it to happen. Lamenting it after the fact as if the money spent on the park would’ve been better-used for charitable causes is ludicrous. The Monday morning quarterbacking is done so in the same vein as the original decision to let the Marlins build the park. It was done for expediency and self-interest. The park wasn’t for the fans nor was it to “save” baseball in Miami because baseball in Miami can’t be saved. They don’t care whether it’s there or not.

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The Marlins-Blue Jays Trade, Part II—The Jeffrey Loria Version

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Anyone surprised by the Marlins is either blind or a fool. The facilitator of the circumstances that led to the trade between the Marlins and the Blue Jays is the the same owner, Jeffrey Loria, who:

▪   Is under investigation by the SEC for the questionable way in which Marlins Park was financed

▪   Is now on his eighth manager (counting Jack McKeon twice)

▪   Dragged Muhammad Ali out as the “surprise” star to throw out the first ball on opening night at the new park

▪   Was busted by MLB for pocketing revenue sharing money that was supposed to go into the team

Since he became involved with baseball first as the owner of the Montreal Expos and then the Marlins, Loria has been flipping the middle finger at convention and propriety with his treatment of underlings, fans, and anyone else who dared not to give him what he wanted. In a way, it’s refreshing that Loria takes baseball’s absurdity to its logical conclusion by repeatedly doing these types of things with impunity.

Technically, it’s his team and he can do whatever he wants. But the sneering, smirking, smarmy brazenness with which he continually does the same thing over and over again is a slap in the face to any fan that chooses to keep supporting the franchise.

And that’s the point.

The Marlins have fans to be sure, but they don’t have enough fans to make it worthwhile to have a team in Miami; they certainly didn’t have enough fans to justify building that ballpark. Was one year a reasonable duration to try and win before gutting the thing? No. But equating the Marlins 69-93 season with this latest razing is ludicrous. It wasn’t 2012 that spurred the series of deals that sent away Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio, Hanley Ramirez, Randy Choate, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez and led to the firing of manager Ozzie Guillen. Had the Marlins made the playoffs, there’s no reason to believe that they wouldn’t have done the same thing and found another reason—presumably the disappointing attendance—to wreck it like Gordon Gekko raiding a company and selling off all its assets.

That the Marlins baseball people led by Larry Beinfest have consistently mined other organizations for the right names under the pretense of “burn the village in order to save it” is meaningless as long as there’s a perception of profiteering surrounding the club. The baseball people know talent and know what they’re doing, but they’re perpetually functioning in an atmosphere that puts forth the image of satire where the more absurd the story is, the likelier it is to be true.

In retrospect, baseball should’ve cut their losses with the Marlins before that park was built or allowed them to move to a venue that would support the team. Instead, there’s this.

In Loria’s lukewarm defense, is it his fault that those enabling him are so stupid that they run endlessly on that treadmill like a hamster? Forgetting the methods that got the new stadium built, privately or publicly financed, the fans in Miami were not going to go. It wasn’t going to happen whether the Marlins bought high-profile players or didn’t. The audience matters. Because there are a cavalcade of stars in a film, if that film is shown to Eskimos, they’re not going to get it nor are they going to pay to see it. If a brilliant album is written and it’s sold in a location where the style of music is foreign or unwanted, it’s not going to be purchased.

Mariano Rivera, for all the mileage he’s gotten from his nickname “The Sandman” and how the Metallica song Enter Sandman is attached to his name, has said he’s not exactly a fan of Metallica and that he prefers Christian music. It’s not, “I don’t like that crap.” It’s Rivera being honest without vitriol. The fans in Miami have been honest regarding their interest in baseball: it doesn’t exist.

So they build this new park, buying into Loria’s and team president David Samson’s nonsense as to how the football stadium the Marlins used to play in was the problem; that it was the constant threat of rain that prevented the fans from coming out; that the lack of revenue from the park, concessions and other streams prevented ownership from investing in players. In part, it might have been true, but the end result with the stars, expectations and hype was the same thing as it’s been in the past only worse because not only were they bad, but they were expensive and uninteresting as anything other than an exercise in rubbernecking.

Good or bad, the fans don’t go see the Marlins. People want what they want. They don’t want what they don’t want. And what the fans in Miami don’t want is baseball.

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Off Season Winners In Retrospect

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Let’s look at the teams whose off-season moves are paying off so far in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Acquired:  Jose Molina, Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, Carlos Pena, Fernando Rodney

Subtracted: Johnny Damon, Kelly Shoppach, Casey Kotchman, Juan Cruz, John Jaso

The Rays did what the Rays always do. They cut out the players that were getting too expensive or had been signed as a short-term veteran stopgaps and replaced them with youngsters or other veteran stopgaps.

Molina hasn’t hit; Pena is doing what Pena does with a low batting average, good on base percentage and power; Rodney has been brilliant. None of the players they dispatched—Damon, Shoppach, Kotchman, Cruz, Jaso—have been missed or are doing much with their new teams.

Baltimore Orioles

Acquired: GM Dan Duquette, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Matt Lindstrom, Wilson Betemit

Subtracted: GM Andy MacPhail, Jeremy Guthrie, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerrero

The Orioles have played over their heads but Dan Duquette got rid of Guthrie and acquired Hammel and Lindstrom who are under team control and have pitched well. Chen has been very good.

Chicago White Sox

Acquired: Manager Robin Ventura, Kosuke Fukudome

Subtracted: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin, Juan Pierre

Getting rid of the volcanic and tiresome personality of Guillen and replacing it with the laid back Ventura has been exactly what the White Sox needed. They cleared salary by getting rid of veterans Buehrle, Quentin and Pierre. They’re not as good as they look right now, but the AL Central is wide open and they have enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. They underachieved horribly in recent years under Guillen and are overachieving now under Ventura.

Texas Rangers

Acquired Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan

Subtracted: C.J. Wilson, Darren Oliver, Endy Chavez, Matt Treanor

Darvish has been as brilliant as I expected. Nathan is having a good season. They haven’t missed Wilson on or off the field.

Seattle Mariners

Acquired: Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi, John Jaso

Subtracted: Michael Pineda, Josh Lueke, David Aardsma, Jose Campos

For Michael Pineda (disabled list), Jose Campos (hot prospect and on the disabled list), the Mariners got a top hitting prospect in Jesus Montero who’s still finding his way and showing flashes of immense power and a young starting pitcher who’s also learning his craft in the big leagues in Noesi. They got rid of the troublesome Lueke for Jaso who’s been contributing big hits of late.

Oakland Athletics

Acquired: Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Bartolo Colon, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Seth Smith, Kila Ka’aihue, Manny Ramirez

Subtracted: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Ryan Sweeney

Reddick has 14 home runs and is heading for the All Star Game. Cespedes was a silly signing for a team like the A’s, but there’s no denying his talent. We’ll see what Manny does and the young pitchers Millone and Parker are high-end arms.

Washington Nationals

Acquired: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Perry, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lidge

Subtracted: Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Coffey, Jonny Gomes

Gonzalez has been terrific across the board and might deserve to start the All Star Game. Jackson has been consistent despite not accumulating wins.

Miami Marlins

Acquired: Manager Ozzie Guillen, Carlos Zambrano, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle

Subtracted: Javier Vazquez, Chris Volstad, Clay Hensley, Burke Badenhop

Zambrano showed up in shape, has kept his temper in check and is showing why the Cubs gave him that contract in the first place (the majority of which they’re paying for him to pitch for the Marlins). Reyes is getting hot and Buehrle is a leader off the field and innings-eater on it. Bell’s been a disaster, but it pitching better lately.

Guillen was hired to draw attention and he did so negatively when he started trouble almost immediately with his idiotic comments praising Fidel Castro. Jeffrey Loria is under investigation for the stadium deal and looked silly using Muhammad Ali as a human shield to protect himself from getting booed at the regular season opener of the new stadium, but apart from Bell they’re getting what they paid for for the most part.

San Francisco Giants

Acquired: Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Clay Hensley, Gregor Blanco

Subtracted: Carlos Beltran, Jonathan Sanchez, Andres Torres, Ramon Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross

Cabrera’s not going to maintain this pace, but he’s still a good player and they got him for Sanchez who’s been hurt and had worn out his welcome with the Giants. Pagan is batting .314 with 10 stolen bases and has contributed several big hits to go along with his usual array of space cadet maneuvers. Blanco and Hensley have been solid, cheap pickups off the scrapheap.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Acquired: Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Craig Breslow

Subtracted: Micah Owings, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill, Jarrod Parker

The Diamondbacks are struggling because they’re not getting the same above-and-beyond performances from the players that carried them to a stunning division title in 2011. That doesn’t diminish the work that Cahill, Kubel and Breslow have done. If the Diamondbacks don’t right the ship, it won’t be because of the players they acquired over the winter.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Acquired: Chris Capuano, Jerry Hairston Jr., Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Matt Treanor

Subtracted: Jon Garland, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake, Rod Barajas, Vicente Padilla

Capuano is pitching about 20 miles over his head; Hairston is hitting about 20 miles over his head; Ellis and Harang are respected, under-the-radar veterans.

The Dodgers didn’t spend a lot of money this past winter, but are getting far more than they paid for.

Off season losers and incompletes will be in forthcoming postings.

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On the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic, We Have the Marlins

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The questions that surrounded the Marlins amid their winter spending spree and afterglow of the completion of their new ballpark were expected to crop up at some point, but no one could’ve predicted that they would start immediately, happen all in a row and risk the season before it began in earnest.

Let’s go down the list. Bear in mind that it’s only April 15th and they haven’t played 10 games yet.

  • The SEC is investigating the financing of the new park—you can read details of how it might go in this SBNation column.
  • Owner Jeffrey Loria was pilloried for using Muhammad Ali to take part in the first pitch ceremony on opening night.
  • Manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended by the team for statements praising Fidel Castro; protests calling for his firing continued regardless of Guillen’s apology.
  • Their on-field issues—a shaky bullpen and terrible defense—have already cost them games.

There are other underlying problems just below the surface. Carlos Zambrano isn’t looking any better on the field in Marlins’ fluorescent glow of blue, red, orange and yellow than he did in Cubbie blue. Josh Johnson and Heath Bell have been awful.

The concerns about Zambrano, Johnson and Bell are overreactions. The Marlins aren’t paying Zambrano anything and can release him if he pitches or behaves poorly—he’s a worthwhile gamble that had as much chance of succeeding as failing. Johnson, if healthy, should be fine. The same argument that says anyone can close also applies to proven closers who are struggling. Bell will begin converting saves.

But the team simply doesn’t look right. They’re not cohesive. They’re a glued together mix of personalities that may not gel before it’s too late, if at all.

Was the Castro gaffe the last thing that Guillen is going to say and do to get himself into a cauldron of simmering Ozzie-juice? History proves it’s not. And if he tones down his personality to prevent himself from getting into trouble, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of hiring him?

Did the Marlins not know that Edward Mujica was prone to the home run ball before installing him as the set-up man? He allowed 28 homers combined for the Padres in 2009 and 2010 and 7 for the Marlins last year. They have a pitchers’ park and leaguewide power numbers are down, but that hasn’t mattered with Mujica.

It takes awhile for teams that have been drastically altered to come together as a unit, but this was a powder keg before the season and it’s a powder keg now with sparks threatening to ignite before May. If they come together and get past the off-field controversies, will that repair their horrific defense and inconsistent bullpen?

In spite of assertions to the contrary, Jose Reyes is only one wrong step away from an extended stay on the disabled list with a hamstring strain or pull; Hanley Ramirez and Zambrano are tempestuous and flighty; and Loria and team president David Samson have high expectations and a massive amount riding on this team and new ballpark being a success.

If they’re at or under .500 by June (or sooner), the fans aren’t going to come to the park and the potential is there for a top-down eruption leading to an every man for himself evacuation.

It’s not a human tragedy on a level with the Titanic, but in a baseball-sense, it’s a burgeoning disaster.

It’s very early, but they’d better change course.

Soon.

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In Miami, Castro is a Dirty Word

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Ozzie Guillen isn’t the random, out of control raving maniac he portrays himself to be. Most of his outrageous statements are designed to take the pressure off his team and put the focus on himself. He’s done it before and will undoubtedly do it again. But the last thing he wanted to do when taking over as manager of the Marlins was to say positive things about Fidel Castro.

The Marlins’ hopes to draw fans to their new ballpark hinge heavily on the Cuban population in Miami. That population is only so prevalent in Miami because of Castro’s autocratic regime taking over Cuba and their desire to escape to freedom.

According to this USA Today piece, in a Time Magazine profile Guillen said the following:

“I love Fidel Castro.”

Then he said:

“I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that (SOB) is still here.”

The “why” Guillen said this is irrelevant. Whether Guillen was kidding around; making a blanket statement about someone who he clearly was, in some way, comparing to himself as a survivor; or said something to intentionally put the focus on himself rather than his team has no bearing on the end result and his failure to think before speaking.

There’s a big difference between off-field idiocy and on-field psychological tricks. Guillen has his hands full with keeping Carlos Zambrano in line; convincing Hanley Ramirez that moving to third base is good for his career; maintaining the health of Jose Reyes; and navigating the glued together clubhouse and roster while attracting fans to watch the team play.

The one thing you do not want to do is alienate your targeted base; to make it easier for a potential customer to say they don’t want to consume your product.

The Marlins need the Cuban-American communtity to come to the new ballpark and watch their team. With a revamped roster that’s off to a slow start, they’re clearly going to take time to gel.

The team gelling is largely up to Guillen.

Already owner Jeffrey Loria is under investigation by the SEC for the financing of that new ballpark; the amenities and gaudiness of the stadium itself are being ridiculed; and Loria was under attack for trotting Muhammad Ali out to take part in the first pitch ceremony.

They didn’t need the highly paid new manager to make off-field controversies worse.

Guillen’s act is to be front and center and the Marlins knew that when they hired him. It’s part of the reason they hired him in the first place. That said, there’s a line between ripping players publicly; chastising umpires on Twitter; challenging and questioning your GM; bickering with coaches and opposing managers—all of which Guillen has done in the past and will do in the future—and saying something geopolitically ignorant and inciteful as declaring one’s love for Castro while smack in the middle of a city that reviles Castro as the epitome of evil.

Guillen crossed that line and has apologized.

That apology should be accepted and everyone should move on.

But everyone moving on doesn’t include continuing to line Loria’s pockets by purchasing tickets; validating the hiring of Guillen by going to the games, spending money and partaking in the carnival.

The complaints and protests will die down; the team will play better than they have so far; the damage done to Marlins’ already sketchy ticket sales won’t be so easy to fix.

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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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