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Marlins Can’t Take Heat as Salary Dump Leads to Anger in Florida

The Miami Heat are the toast of the town after winning a basketball championship this year. Baseball’s Miami Marlins are simply toast.

The Marlins moved into a $515 million, retractable-roof ballpark in 2012, adding pricey players such as Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle as well as manager Ozzie Guillen. The result: a last-place finish in the National League East with a 69-93 record, their worst in 13 years.

Yesterday, the franchise did what it’s done twice before in its 20-year Major League Baseball history -- shed financial obligations and All-Star talent. It agreed to send Reyes, Buehrle and most of its other top players to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Miami Herald said, angering fans and their remaining players.

Both the Heat and the Marlins began play as expansion franchises within five years of each other and have won two championships. They’ve each opened modern venues and brought in marquee players. While the Heat and their owner, Carnival Corp. (CCL) Chairman Micky Arison, have become a cherished part of Miami culture, the Marlins, owned by New York art dealer, writer and investor Jeffrey Loria, have struggled to build fan support and on-field consistency.

“It’s night and day,” said Wayne McDonnell, associate professor of sports management at New York University. “Jeffrey Loria has once again assumed the prominent position of public enemy No. 1 in Miami and this really puts a major dent into the viability of competitive baseball in South Florida. There’s going to be baseball there for quite a long time because of the new ballpark, but how competitive is it actually going to be?”

Marlins spokesman Matt Roebuck didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment. “We finished in last place, that’s unacceptable,” Loria told CBSSports.com. “We have to take a new course.”

Toronto Trade

In the salary dump, the Marlins agreed to trade All-Star pitchers Josh Johnson and Buehrle; Reyes, a shortstop who won the NL batting title in 2011 with the New York Mets; catcher John Buck; and outfielder Emilio Bonifacio to the Blue Jays in exchange for shortstop Yunel Escobar, infielder Adeiny Hechavaria and prospects, according to the Herald. Guillen, a Venezuelan brought in to appeal to Miami’s large Cuban community, was fired last month after one year of a four-year deal.

The Marlins invested heavily in introducing Marlins Park this year, raising their payroll to $118 million -- seventh among baseball’s 30 teams -- from $60 million in 2011, which ranked 24th, according to USA Today.

The Heat, who began play during the 1988-89 NBA season, won titles in 2005-06 and 2011-12, the second campaign since it brought in LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join a third National Basketball Association All-Star, Dwyane Wade. They averaged 19,935 fans per game at AmericanAirlines Arena last season, fifth among the NBA’s 30 teams.

‘Debit Card’

“The Heat is like a credit card with no spending limit, and the Marlins are a prepaid debit card,” Scott Becher, executive vice president at Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based Zimmerman Advertising, said in an e-mail. “Arison puts the best team possible on the court regardless of luxury tax ramifications. He then trusts his business team to do its best to underwrite the spending. The Marlins operate within pre-determined profit models. Spending is tied to revenue.”

The trade will save the Marlins $160 million in salary, the Herald said.

Entertainment Choices

The Marlins averaged 27,400 fans a game at their new stadium, which is 80 percent financed by taxpayer money. That’s 18th among 30 major league teams and more than 8,000 above 2011 but still less than the 35,000-37,000 needed to sustain the business model they developed, said McDonnell, who created the “Business of Baseball” course at NYU.

“Everyone knew that the Marlins could not sustain this business model,” McDonnell said in a telephone interview. “It was overly aggressive, $191 million dumped into three players and that was even without stepping foot into the new facility.”

Television ratings show that there is a high enough level of interest in the Marlins, though they need to be competitive to compete for the entertainment dollar, said Becher.

“It’s up to the team to create enough value to convince fans to buy tickets,” Becher said. “If the team is great, the fans will pay to see them play. Otherwise, there are plenty of other great things to do in South Beach that don’t cost much to enjoy.”

The Marlins, who joined the major leagues in 1993, won the World Series in 1997 and 2003.

First Purge

Two years after beating the New York Yankees for the second title, Marlins President David Samson said the club would undergo a “market correction” and consider relocation because it was unable to get a new stadium built. The team traded away top players Juan Pierre, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca, Luis Castillo and Mike Lowell, shaving what would have been more than $35 million from the roster.

In 1997, the team also shed its top players after beating the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, with then-owner H. Wayne Huizenga saying the team had $30 million in losses. Traded away were pitchers Kevin Brown, Robb Nenn and Dennis Cook, outfielders Moises Alou and Devon White and first baseman Jeff Conine. The team, which won 92 games in 1997 to make the playoffs in its fifth year, a record for an expansion team, went 54-108 the year after the selloff.

Giancarlo Stanton, an All-Star outfielder who is among the few remaining high-quality players left on the club, expressed his displeasure with the most recent selloff.

“Alright, I’m p----d off!!! Plain & Simple,” Stanton, who made $480,000 last season, said in a Twitter post that was forwarded more than 13,000 times.

It’s a sentiment other top major-leaguers might consider if the team someday decides to reinvest in talent, said McDonnell.

“If you’re a free agent, would you ever sign with the Miami Marlins knowing what just happened?” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net; Erik Matuszewski in New York at matuszewski@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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