In a game so often described as one of failure, in a game that promises to be one of meritocracy, there is one job immune to both: the owner’s.
That much was made clear by news Friday that Jeffrey Loria will sell his Miami Marlins — to a purchase group led by businessman Bruce Sherman and online publisher Derek Jeter — for $ 1.2 billion, an almost eightfold return on the $ 158 million that he officially (but only sort of) acquired the Marlins for in 2002.
The deal will need MLB owners’ approval, but Loria is poised get almost double the estimated $ 675 million at which Forbes values the franchise. He would turn a large profit after 15 years of losing, petty controversies, public outrages, personnel churn and strange baseball decisions. If Loria’s Marlins can’t decline in value, a major league baseball team can’t decline in value.
Loria’s sins and bungles run the gamut, to say the least. He was once compelled to hike the Marlins’ payroll after union complaints that he was pocketing revenue checks instead of investing them in the club’s roster. He convinced Miami-Dade County commissioners to fund the bulk of his new ballpark costs, then gutted his major league roster after the first season there. He named his general manager the manager — a highly unusual show of highly unusual faith — then, when that didn’t work, he fired him outright five months later. He also once fired Joe Girardi just weeks before Girardi was named Manager of the Year.
He let his payroll dip as low as $ 20 million, when the league’s median payroll was $ 80 million. He signed Mark Buehrle to a long deal, convinced Buehrle that he was truly committed to keeping him in Miami, then after one season traded him to a country where Buehrle’s beloved dog was illegal. His handpicked hitting instructor resigned after complaints that he was verbally abusing young players. He fired his team’s TV analyst for negativity. There’s plenty more, but maybe nothing says “directionless hate pit” as well as the Godot-like exchange between Loria and Ozzie Guillen that was captured by the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath just before Guillen’s first season as Miami’s manager:
“If I get this man to where he should be, it gonna be a raise,” [Guillen] said.
Loria lifted his eyebrows. “The World Series?” he asked.
“Oh, no, that’s up to them,” Guillen said, and turned to look back at the players on the field.
“Oh, so they should get the raise,” Loria said.
“I get paid to win World Series,” Guillen continued.
“OK,” Loria said, verging on impatient. “So just do it.”
Guillen shook his head. “They gonna do it,” he said.
Guillen got fired after the season. The Marlins haven’t had a winning season since Loria lifted his eyebrows.
Every economic and competitive force in the game exists to keep teams like Loria’s from ruin. By buying into Major League Baseball, an owner joins one of the country’s last legal monopolies. He owns a 1/30th share in a resource that never loses its scarcity. His territory is protected from competition within the industry. It’s protected from outside competition by the impossible infrastructural disadvantage any upstart competing league would face. The average major league team, according to Forbes, is worth 59 percent more than it was two years ago. In the 15 years since Loria bought the Marlins, the average team’s value has increased 500 percent.
Meanwhile, the league has an incentive to lift such “small market” teams as Loria’s out of perpetual despair. So the Marlins have been able to cash revenue-sharing checks that can be nearly as large as the league’s lowest payrolls. If the Marlins lose, they reap the draft picks and international bonus pools that promise to continually refill the organization with indentured labor. If they lose aggressively, then they free themselves from the restraints and pressures that competitive teams have to deal with, and they can simply trade anything expensive for low-paid young players.
All it takes to run this scheme forever is to not care too much about winning. If you don’t care too much about winning, you’ll almost always find somebody to take big contracts off your hands. You’ll always “win” those trades, collecting young, cost-controlled talent from teams chasing present-day dreams. Your fans may hate you, but ultimately, how big a concern is it whether they give you money? Eventually, some billionaire will.
Were one to mount a defense of Loria’s tenure, it would probably go something like this: The city just didn’t support its ballclub. A team that draws only 1.4 million fans (the league average in 2016 was more than 2.3 million) can never afford to pay for good players. Heck, a team that draws only 1.6 million fans in the middle of a pennant race has little incentive to even try. Free agents won’t come play in such empty coliseums. A team that can’t afford good players surely can’t afford to invest in the best front-office executives. And such hardship, alas, begets more hardship — and the sort of internal and external complaining that tarnishes a franchise as collapsed.
There’s a problem with that excuse: Those attendance figures we just cited aren’t the Marlins’ at all. They’re the Indians’: 1.6 million fans while making the 2013 postseason, 1.4 million in 2014 and 2015, and 1.6 million (rounding up, sad face) while going to the World Series last year. The Marlins have averaged 1.7 million fans per year in the same time period.
Despite drawing fewer fans, Cleveland’s payroll has been, on average, nearly $ 20 million higher than the Marlins’ over the past four years. And while the Marlins were among the last teams in baseball to even build an analytics department, the Indians are the farm that feeds the rest of the league’s front offices.
Since 2007, every team but the Astros has won more games than the Marlins. They entered the season with the second-worst farm system in baseball, according to ESPN’s Keith Law. They’re seven games under .500, on track for their eighth losing season in a row. A prospective owner might look at what Loria leaves behind and wonder what he’s getting for $ 1.2 billion. But the answer’s obvious: a franchise that, apparently, makes money no matter what, and the best job in the sport.