Vegas still vying for major-league franchise

MIAMI -- Foiled yet again by the state Legislature, the Florida Marlins remain winless in their bid for a new ballpark and must now decide their next move.

Might it be to another city?

Nobody made any threats Friday, and Marlins officials declined to comment on their latest stadium setback beyond issuing a brief statement when the Legislature adjourned shortly before midnight.

"We are deeply disappointed in the Florida Legislature's decision, and we feel very bad for all of the baseball fans in South Florida," owner Jeffrey Loria said. "We will now review our options and not comment further until this review is completed."

The Senate's failure to pass a $60 million tax rebate left two-time World Series champion Florida 0-for-4 in attempts to obtain state money for a ballpark.

"I think it's a major mistake," said third baseman Mike Lowell, who grew up in South Florida. "We're one of the few teams that has proven we can win a championship in this state, and it just seems not everyone is a big fan of us."

The Marlins have said that they might move without state financial help. Five months ago, team officials met in Las Vegas with mayor Oscar Goodman, who wants a new ballpark and a major-league franchise for it.

Baseball chief operating officer Bob DuPuy expressed disappointment that the Marlins' bill failed in the Legislature.

"But we will continue to work with the Marlins to try to keep Major League Baseball in South Florida," DuPuy said.

While baseball is reluctant to abandon the largest market in the nation's fourth-largest state, the Montreal Expos' move this year to Washington reflected a new willingness by the sport to consider franchise shifts. It was the first in 33 years.

Since the Marlins' first season in 1993, they have played in the Miami Dolphins' stadium. The Marlins have long argued that their own park with a retractable roof would mean no more delays caused by Florida's frequent summer showers. That would supposedly lead to better attendance, increased revenue and a higher payroll, ensuring
a competitive team for the future.

The Florida House last month approved a bill to help with ballpark financing, but Senate resident Tom Lee said Thursday there wasn't enough support in his chamber to warrant a vote.

Tallahassee has rejected three other bids for help. Gov. Jeb Bush's opposition sank a cruise tax plan on Opening Day of 2000.

"It's very disheartening," said Marlins veteran Jeff Conine, who played in the team's first game 12 years ago. "You go through the laundry list of things they've done with the team -- they built us into World Series champions and made us competitive every year -- and you'd think they would have all the ingredients to get the support to do that. But it hasn't happened."

Miami and Miami-Dade County officials pledged $166 million toward a $420 ballpark adjacent to the Orange Bowl near downtown, and Loria agreed to pay $192 million rent. A $32 million parking garage was expected to pay for itself, leaving a $30 million funding gap to be plugged by the state.

Ron Book, chief lobbyist for the proposal, said city and county officials plan to investigate other ways to come up with the money. But the city, county and Marlins have all said they can afford no more than they've already agreed to contribute, which is why they sought state help.

"It creates a $30 million hole," Book said. "I don't know where they go to fill the hole. They have to explore the options."

The Marlins are committed to their current home through 2006 and have one-year lease options through 2010. But Lowell said he doesn't foresee the Marlins still playing there a decade from now.

"There are other cities that are going to pay major dollars to build a stadium for someone," Lowell said. "I know Mr. Loria wants it to work here, but to a certain degree he's a businessman. He's a private jet away from going anywhere.

"If I'm in his shoes and Vegas calls and says, 'I'm going to build a $450 million stadium and you don't have to pay anything,' what are you going to do? Keep losing money here? That's tough," he said.

Goodman said he has spoken with Marlins officials only once since they met in December, and that was merely to say hello at the winter baseball meetings. He said he hasn't talked with the Marlins about moving to Nevada but would like to lure a team there as early as 2007.

"My position remains steadfast -- that if a team is looking to relocate, I'm a good guy to talk to," Goodman said.

Miami mayor Manny Diaz and county manager Carlos Alvarez, meanwhile, vowed they'll try to keep the Marlins from going anywhere.

"Next week I will be meeting with the county manager and speaking to representatives of Florida Marlins to determine what options still exist," Alvarez said in a statement. "My focus remains keeping the Florida Marlins in South Florida for generations to come."