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Florida Marlins WAIT TILL LAST YEAR

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Florida Marlins WAIT TILL LAST YEAR

NOT EVEN TRYING/NL EAST

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue

During a Marlins exhibition game, a little plane circled above
their ballpark in Melbourne, Fla., pulling a banner that read,
WAYN'S A CHUMP. Incorrect. Wayne is not a chump. He's a swami.
H. Wayne Huizenga said last June that his team would make no
money even if it won the World Series. All that came to pass.
The team won the Series. The team lost $34 million, by the
owner's reckoning. Maybe you're skeptical about his numbers.
Well, if owning the Marlins is such a terrific business venture,
how come it's taken so long to find somebody willing to buy them?

It looks as if the long wait may be over. Last Saturday club
president Don Smiley said he finally has assembled a group of 10
to 15 investors who will buy the club for just over $150
million, a deal he hopes will be approved by the other major
league owners in June. The key to the sale was a major
cost-cutting initiative, as Dilbert might put it. After the
Series, Huizenga--who may stay on as a minority partner--ordered
the team's $52 million payroll halved. As a result, 12 players
from the championship roster are not on this year's team. Only
one pitcher from last year's rotation survived the El Nino
winter, Livan Hernandez. The four new starters would make a
superb Triple A rotation.

Is the dumping over? Probably not. The next step could be to
unload rightfielder Gary Sheffield and his gaudy six-year, $61
million contract. Other teams are not convinced of his value
just yet. The Mets, for instance, earnestly trying to win the
wild card, could have put Sheffield to good use. But they wanted
Florida to pay a third of Sheffield's salary. Those talks went
nowhere.

There's only one piece of evidence that suggests the Marlins
maintain a modest interest in winning baseball games. They held
on to their expert manager, Jim Leyland, who will earn $1.5
million this year. Clearly, Leyland is underpaid.

The oddest relationship in baseball (platonic division) must be
the one between Leyland and Huizenga. Huizenga bought a house
that Leyland can use for free as long as he is manager of the
Marlins, allowed Leyland to use his personal jet and his private
golf course, and gave him stock options in Republic Industries,
Huizenga's holding company. Even after the off-season purge,
Leyland has had nothing critical to say about Huizenga. Still,
the two are very different: Leyland's consuming interest is
winning baseball games, Huizenga's is making money. How they
coexist under one roof is a mystery.

Actually, a roof is the key to Florida's future. Huizenga and
Leyland believe the Marlins will never have a viable fan base
until they get a new stadium with a retractable roof, to counter
the storms and oppressive heat that make summer baseball in
Miami unappealing to the suit-and-briefcase set. But such a
stadium would cost $350 million. The only group rich enough to
finance such a thing is the voting public, and Florida taxpayers
were in no mood to buy Huizenga anything. Well, now that it
appears Smiley will soon be in charge--Huizenga retaining just a
small, insignificant piece of the team--maybe they'll consider
it.

Given the off-season filleting, it is surprising to report that
the 1998 Marlins are not awful. There's still a core of
excellence up the middle. Charles Johnson, the best defensive
catcher in baseball, hits for power. Shortstop Edgar Renteria
has incredible range and is a good clutch hitter. Rookie Mark
Kotsay, who will play centerfield, is one of the most touted
prospects in the game. The combined age of those three is 70.
There's newly imported young talent, too. But a bunch of kids
cannot replace Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Jeff Conine, Dennis
Cook, Robb Nen and Devon White, not in the short term. Of
course, the newcomers don't cost $21 million, either.

A few years from now, if the new owners' pockets are even half
as deep as Huizenga's and if the farm system produces big league
talent, the Marlins could be a force again. If the team does
anything this year, it will be largely because of Leyland's
resolve. During one three-year stretch in Pittsburgh, Leyland
showed he could nurture talent, that he could make a little seem
like a lot. The Marlins are not the defending champions this
year, not really. They're underdogs, and Leyland will make the
most of that. If he's not happy at the end of the year, he can
always quit--and pick up a $500,000 exit bonus on his way out
the door. Don't act so surprised. You knew there had to be a
money angle in there somewhere.

--M.B.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM COLE/AP CATCH OF THE DAY Despite all their salary dumping, the Marlins still have some big-time talents, like defensive whiz Johnson. [Charles Johnson in game]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [Gary Sheffield]