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Florida Baseball Teams: Down to Their Last Out?

Few Major League Baseball teams need to work as feverishly to fill empty seats as the fan-starved Florida Marlins. With attendance down an alarming 31% from last year, the Marlins are leaving no gimmick unturned. Witness "Dog Day Afternoon," a promotion that attracted 312 pooches to Miami's Pro Player Stadium--accompanied by owners and pooper scoopers.

Fan apathy is no less a headache for Florida's other MLB franchise, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The last-place Rays, holders of a season-worst 15-game losing streak, haven't sold even half their tickets to a home game since Opening Day.

Is this really happening in Florida? A decade ago, it was the crown jewel of expansion plans, so coveted that American and National League owners haggled over how to carve up enticing markets. Says former U.S. Senator Connie Mack III (R-Fla.), grandson of the legendary baseball manager: "Because of the history of spring training in the state, it just seemed like a natural."

Now, that bright promise seems as distant as a Mickey Mantle home run. In fact, if MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and team owners make good on the promise to eliminate or move two money-losing teams, the weak sisters in Florida figure to be high on their list.

Some Florida officials wonder whether Bud and the boys are already sharpening the knife. Attorney General Bob Butterworth is fighting in court for records of meetings at which contraction or relocation was discussed.

Butterworth sent out subpoenas after MLB President and COO Bob DuPuy disclosed at a Senate hearing that owners were eyeing several distressed franchises, "including teams from the state of Florida." DuPuy says it's not surprising that the Devil Rays and Marlins would be on a list of 8-10 teams "given the length of time [they] have been in existence and their disappointing economic performance."

In Florida, debate about where baseball went wrong is a sport in itself. Theories range from lousy ballparks in the wrong neighborhoods to spring-training overload to fickle owners. Remember then-Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga complaining on the day after his team triumphed in the '97 World Series: "We're pleased and excited that we won. But we lost $34 million." In short order, Huizenga dismantled the team.

Former baseball commish Fay Vincent places some of the blame for failures in Florida on the notorious collusion among owners in the 1980s that led to a players' award of $280 million. "Owners steal $280 million from the players. Players get a judgment against them. Owners have to come up with that [money] fast, so too many [expansion] franchises are sold," says Vincent.

Although neither patient is well, the Marlins appear more stable than the Rays. New owner Jeffrey Loria, who unloaded the Montreal Expos and bought the Marlins in February, insists that he's committed to operating the team in South Florida indefinitely, though he'll lose $20 million this year.

In Tampa, Devil Rays Managing General Partner Vince Naimoli is putting the best face on another disappointing season. Says Naimoli: "In our five-year plan, we're about right on."

But other observers don't see a five-year future for the Rays, especially after rebelling minority investors last season forced Naimoli to hire a senior executive to help run the team. Then in April, it was reported that MLB had to guarantee a loan for the cash-strapped Rays. Naimoli and MLB deny that. But team officials acknowledge that the Rays--and 16 other teams--have drawn on MLB's central credit line.

"Tampa Bay is going to go under unless baseball keeps subsidizing it," predicts Vincent. "And I don't know how baseball can keep doing that." By Mark Hyman

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