Saturday, November 17, 2012

All of Jeffrey Loria's Risks

So the Marlins have traded their two best starters, their All-Star shortstop, their super-utility guy, and their catcher (who, to be fair, offers slightly less value than a used La-Z-Boy recliner but makes a lot of money) to Toronto for some prospects, some kids, and a no-hit shortstop who's yakked his way out of two of the most laid-back situations in the majors (with a side of homophobic eyeblack). With this move, the Marlins have dropped their payroll to about $16M, or as we like to call it, "Ruben Amaro Jr's Idea of a Bargain Starting Pitcher" a year after opening a publicly funded ballpark that cost taxpayers such an obscene amount of money that I can't even type it. (Yes, I know it's supposed to be paid for by taxes on tourists. Except, of course, it never quite works like that - check out the Florida General Fund shenanigans and you'll get the idea).
Now, it is vaguely - vaguely defensible to say that the Marlins realized they weren't going to win anything with their current core, and shipped it off for good pieces. Which would be reasonable if A)they had given said core more than about half a season together B)they hadn't spent like drunken sailors at last year's winter meetings, swearing up and down that this time they really were going to put a competitive team on the field and they weren't backloading the contracts they were handing out so they could ditch the Heath Bells of the world before they got expensive C)they got back anything like a reasonable approximation of talent for all the talent they were shipping away and D)they hadn't pulled this crap multiple times before. No, to even the least cynical eyes out there (which excludes Jon Heyman), this is an obvious cash grab, a cynical rollback of the people Gollum-like team owner Jeffrey Loria used to soak his business partners and his municipality for giant gobs of filthy lucre the second it was possible for him to do so. (This article at Fangraphs lays out nicely how Loria got caught with his hand in the revenue-sharing cookie jar, how he was under the gun for three years, and how he went berserk with the sell-off as soon as the heat was off)
Smarter people than me have been all over the business aspects of this (starting with the estimable Maury Brown, here) and precisely how this whole scenario (back-loaded contracts, anyone? No no-trade clauses?) was always designed to funnel cash away from the product on the field. And that's really what this comes down to, right? Pulling money away from the product on the field - the team, the thing people are theoretically coming to see, the business that this turkey is supposedly engaged in - and into personal revenue. And you can spare me the arguments of "well, they weren't winning with those guys, might as well try to win without them" - when you've got most of the pieces in place, you add the missing one or two, you don't tear the whole thing down instantly. Last year's Marlins were basically a couple of bullpen arms and a few health breaks away from being beasts; they were not the hapless train wreck (except in the dugout) that Loria apologists are describing. No, the team was always an excuse, and that's all.
I'm sure there are folks out there applauding the move from a strictly business sense. I mean, hey, you have to respect the business acumen that turns so little personal investment into so much personal profit, right? Cheers to Loria for using baseball to make money, and why should we hate the guy for being successful.
Except, of course, it's not that clean. Yes, he grabbed an immense profit. Good for him. But to do so, he damaged the business models of his industry and his partners. He damaged the brand of baseball - the notion that the hometown nine is actually trying to win, which is at the core of the game's appeal. He salted the earth of what should be one of the most baseball-friendly markets in America by putting it on the hook for $2.4B in stadium costs while failing to deliver on any of the promises that came with the project, and he alienated the fan base - the customers - with his blatant disregard for the on-the-field product. He took $300M of his partners' money and redirected it to himself. He altered the competitive balance of the game - NL owners are by all accounts pissed that the other NL East teams get extra games against a AAA squad next year. All of this speaks to immense damage to the long-term prospects of the business, weighed against a short-term cash grab. So no, it's not good business, it's just a case of gimme now and damn the torpedoes, and screw the rest of you in the process.
And I read this, and I think of, of all things, hockey, and the NHL lockout. I think about the owners there demanding a unilateral rollback of all the stuff they agreed to last go round. I think about all the apologists who claim that the owners should be getting All The Monies because they take All The Risks. And I think about an owner in Miami, who got the city to pay for his stadium, who got his business partners to pay him $300M to stay in business, who deliberately ran his franchise into the ground for a cynical bout of profit-taking, and who will make another enormous profit once the league finally gins up the courage to make him sell. And I wonder, what risk, exactly, did he take?
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