Jeffrey Loria bought the Florida Marlins in 2002 and the next season the club won a wild card and would rally to beat the Cubs in a memorable National League Championship Series and upset the Yankees to win the second World Series in franchise history.
Since winning that World Series, the Marlins haven’t made the playoffs. Key pieces like Derrek Lee, Josh Beckett and Brad Penny were traded away and Miguel Cabrera was eventually traded after the 2007 season. They’ve finished as high as second place just once since 2003 and are headed for their eighth consecutive losing season. It’s safe to say that nobody is really going to miss Jeffrey Loria as owner of the Marlins.
The Miami Herald reported that Loria has agreed to sell the team to a group led by billionaire money manager Bruce Sherman and former Yankees great Derek Jeter for $1.2 billion. Sherman, a venture capitalist with ties to Florida, would be the managing general partner of the group of investors (which includes Michael Jordan), while Jeter, who is reportedly investing $25 million of his own money, would run the franchise on both the business and baseball operations ends.
Loria’s ultimate legacy will be that of a lousy and disliked owner, but, in one sense, he outfoxed everyone all along. His original investment was $30 million in the Montreal Expos. Some of his former partners there accused him of deliberately destroying baseball in Montreal. He became part of a controversial swap that allowed him to buy the Marlins and then-Marlins owner John Henry to purchase the Red Sox while the league-owned Expos were eventually relocated to Washington, D.C.
After crying poor for years, Miami-Dade County finally caved and helped build Loria a stadium in what will be an economically disastrous deal for the county: a $91 million loan will eventually cost the county more than $1 billion to pay off. That’s not Loria’s fault, but the new stadium has done little to improve the Marlins’ fortunes.
For years, Loria’s game plan seemed simple: Keep the payroll as low as possible while cashing a big revenue-sharing check. The Marlins ran the majors’ lowest payroll in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2015 while ranking second-lowest in two other seasons. The Marlins undoubtedly were profitable many of those years despite poor attendance and poor TV revenue. In fact, in 2010 the club was forced to raise its payroll after reaching an agreement with the union. Ultimately, this was a skinflint owner who may have liked baseball, but had no idea how to build a successful franchise. The team has rarely invested in Latin America and the farm system has turned into one of the weakest in the game in recent years.
The past two seasons, the Marlins did raise their payroll, essentially doubling the total from 2015, and the club had the 20th-highest Opening Day payroll. Unfortunately, the product on the field remained mediocre and the Herald reported that “The Marlins are expected to lose more than $60 million this season, according to a source who has seen their books.” The team reportedly carried a debt of $500 million.
If that’s the case, I guess the billion-dollar question is what Sherman, Jeter & Co. can hope for with this purchase. Loria’s ultimate failure wasn’t just on the field, but in building a fan base. The team ranks last in attendance in the National League -- just as it has each season since 2006, except for the first year in the new ballpark. Maybe that’s not Loria’s fault. It could be that Miami just isn’t a good baseball city (or sports city, for that matter). But it’s also true that the fans were treated to the sell-off after 1997 and then Loria’s slow sell-off of the 2003 team. It also takes a generation or two to form a history and loyalty needed for consistent support. Still, who wants to support a team that is suing one of its own fans?
Winning over the fans may be tougher than building a winning team, and who knows how much the team’s finances will affect the new owners and the ability to spend on payroll (it doesn’t help that Giancarlo Stanton’s salary increases from $14.5 million to $25 million next season and escalates from there if he doesn’t opt out).
The other unknown is Jeter. He was obviously a great player, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be great at running a baseball team. It also doesn’t mean he won’t be great. It’s impossible to know. As good a player as he was, it’s difficult to get a read on Jeter’s potential acumen in running a team. He was always the master of being accessible without ever saying anything that was interesting.
Still, this can be viewed only as positive news in South Florida. The franchise needs new blood and new ideas. Good riddance to a bad owner. For the first time in a long time, there’s hope in Miami.