Nothing unites like a common enemy.
Baseball has been fragmented for decades. Players and owners are perpetually at odds, wrestling over salaries and benefits, hurling accusations at each other, and dealing with several work stoppages, one of which led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Teams battle home cities over financing of new stadiums, each insisting that the other bear the brunt of the expense. Fans lament escalating ticket prices, complaining that the game has been rendered unaffordable and taken away from fans for the benefit of millionaire players and billionaire owners. Owners battle owners over distribution of profits, with richer teams compelled to surrender large amounts annually to teams from smaller markets. Politicians square off against players and owners, seeking to clean up a sport altered by performance enhancing drugs, and utilizing federal prosecutions and Congressional hearings to get their point across.
Last week, however, these factions set aside their differences and aimed their collective bulls-eye at Jeffrey Loria and David Sampson, owner and president of the Miami Marlins.
The reason for baseball’s discontent was an international exchange of personnel by the Marlins and their American League counterparts, the Toronto Blue Jays. In one quick stroke, the Marlins shed themselves of more than $150 million in salaries, trading away several of their best and most expensive players for promising and inexpensive prospects.
Analysts almost universally agree that, from a pure baseball standpoint, the trade was good for the Marlins. A last place team wiped out long-term salary commitments that would have assuredly hampered its rebuilding efforts. The young prospects obtained by the Marlins are rated among the Blue Jays’ best, and some among baseball’s best.
But the player analysis does not tell the whole story. Last year, the Marlins opened the doors to their new $515 million stadium, largely financed by public funds. The Marlins, who under two ownership groups had a history of dismantling successful teams and placing profits over quality on the field, had convinced local politicians that a new stadium would bring a new approach to management. Gone, they said, were the days of penny-pinching and wholesale player sell-offs. With the new stadium, the Marlins would compete for top talent, and pay top dollar to do so.
Last December, the Marlins signed several high-priced free agents, announcing to all that better days had arrived. The team expected to contend for the National League East title, and expected to do so before near sellout crowds.
But the 2012 season did not go as planned. After a month of May in which the Marlins won more games than any other major league squad, the team fell apart. Injuries, lack of hitting and an inconsistent bullpen led to repeated losses on the field. And with those losses the Marlins changed course, trading three of their better players at mid-season for less experienced, inexpensive players. Amongst those traded away was Hanley Ramirez, an underachieving yet supremely talented infielder who had long been considered the face of the franchise. Not surprisingly, attendance dropped.
While the mid-season trades caused some concern about the team’s long-term plans, most believed that this would be a mere blip in the Marlins’ rise to prominence. The team had, after all, signed all that expensive talent during the off-season and promised its fans (and Miami-Dade County) that better days were ahead. Few expected a wholesale tradeoff of the very talent the team had recently acquired, which is why last week’s trade, which shed the Marlins’ payroll by more than fifty percent, has angered so many.
Local politicians who had supported public financing of the new stadium feel betrayed – they would not have agreed to the deal had they known that one year after debuting their new home, the Marlins would revert to their old ways and trade away most of their better players. Fans are outraged, realizing that the team will effectively field a minor-league squad in 2013 (and not making this apparent until after season-ticket holders had commenced payments on tickets for the coming season). Players traded away have stated that the Marlins lied to them when they were signed, promising that the team’s commitment to these players was long-term, despite refusing to include no-trade clauses in the players’ contracts. Player agents have warned that, given the Marlins’ apparent deception, it will be nearly impossible for the team to attract top free agent talent in the future, possibly dooming the team to a decade of mediocrity. And owners are concerned that the Marlins’ actions will make it difficult for other teams to obtain public financing for future stadiums – the relationship between host cities and teams will be governed by a mistrust fueled by the Marlins’ sell-out.
Despite the criticism, the Marlins’ management insists that its actions were necessary, and are best for the future of the franchise. By shedding expensive contracts, the team can go back to square one and try to build a winning squad from the bottom up, unencumbered by long term financial commitments. Other teams, most notably the 2012 Oakland A’s, have adopted a similar approach and achieved success on the field. The implication seems to be that team owner Jeffrey Loria should not be compelled to spend needlessly on a losing product. If he wishes to cut costs and pocket profit while the team rebuilds, it is certainly his right to do so.
But the logic of the Marlins’ argument has failed to mitigate the ill-will that this trade has generated.
The Marlins have achieved the near- impossible. With one controversial trade, the team has brought the warring factions of the game together. Players, owners, politicians, player agents, fans and media are united in their contempt for a Marlins ownership group which apparently never learned a basic tenet of human behavior:
Just because you can do something does not mean you should.