This is an article from the March 25, 2013 issue
Late on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 23, with the light going buttery and the sky a perfect blue, with temperatures in the 70s and a slight breeze rustling the palm fronds—precisely the conditions that supposedly distract South Floridians from matters such as civic decay and the woes of their sports teams—nearly 1,000 men and women filled the chairs set up on an indoor volleyball court at the University of Miami. Some could barely speak. Ron Fraser had been dead more than a month. They still didn't want to let him go.
For the next two hours there were tributes to the Hurricanes' legendary baseball coach, from the Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda, former Miami football coach Howard Schnellenberger and Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez, among others, all attesting to how "the Wizard" had created a national power from nothing, to his lovably shameless shilling, to the way he kept the game alive in the region long before Major League Baseball cast a covetous eye there. It was sweet, at first, but soon all the references to the "innocence" of cozy Mark Light Stadium, to what UM president Donna Shalala called "the plain, unabashed fun of America's favorite pastime played up close and personal," reflected one jarringly sad reality. It had been a long time since anyone had spoken so lovingly about baseball in Miami.
Afterward, Charles Johnson stood engulfed by fans and old friends. No wonder: In South Florida's ever-eroding sandscape, Johnson has been one of the few constants, not to mention an embodiment of the old notion that Miami could become "major league" without pain. An All-America catcher for the Hurricanes during Fraser's final season, in 1992, Johnson was the Florida Marlins' first amateur draft pick, a two-time major league All-Star and the anchor of the 1997 World Series--winning team. "They built a tremendous fan base," Johnson says of those early Marlins, "but then they gave the fan base back."
He has since witnessed the club's signature boom-and-bust cycles, the parade of departed homegrown stars such as Miguel Cabrera and Josh Beckett, the revolving door of managers, the endless and bitter battle for a downtown ballpark that, in the long run, will cost the county a jaw-dropping $2.4 billion. He saw it all blow up worse than ever last year, when Marlins Park opened and drew the fewest fans in the recent history of new stadiums, and the club cratered, and then, in November, the Marlins were gutted yet again in a faith-shattering 12-player trade with Toronto. It's why Johnson, himself traded away by the Marlins in the summer of '98, feels a warmth for Fraser's program that he rarely felt as a pro.
The next morning Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria ended three months of silence by publishing a full-page, 800-word missive to fans in four Sunday newspapers in South Florida, sparking a fresh round of columns, TV smirks and online comments that dismissed him as clueless and irredeemable. Gimenez says, "We'll go see a winner. Will we ever forgive? No. It'll always be in the back of everybody's mind, what happened here." But with ticket sales plummeting, Loria's newly hired public relations firm—armed with a full-time crisis management team and called, yes, the JeffreyGroup—clearly figured that he might as well go down fighting.
Letter to Our Fans
It's no secret that last season was not our best—actually it was one of our worst. In large part, our performance on the field stunk and something needed to be done. As a result of some bold moves, many grabbed hold of our tough yet necessary decisions to unleash a vicious cycle of negativity....
Many of the things being said about us are simply not true.... The ballpark issue has been repeatedly reported incorrectly.... Fans didn't turn out last season as much as we'd like, even with the high-profile players the columnists decry us having traded....
Are we fiscally capable and responsible enough to fill the roster with talented players, invest in the daily demands of running a world-class organization and bring a World Series back to Miami? Absolutely!
And Loria wasn't done. Baseball's most besieged owner, almost a hero only a year ago, had paid his money. He was intent on reclaiming the narrative. Never mind the crucial task of solving the eternal puzzle of sports in South Florida. Never mind that some people inside his shaken franchise are wondering whether Miami was ever a baseball town. The Three Days of Jeffrey Loria had begun.
What's It All About, Charlie Brown?
Pity an owner? Impossible, of course. We're talking about men with dream lives—multiple homes, private jets, never a need to stand in line—who swan into luxury boxes, threaten constantly to take away our toys, and get richer by the day. But with all that, the role of team owner is essentially pathetic, if only because of the resentment that attends his every step. Reporters think they're smarter. Fans want him to sign checks and shut up. Players know he has won the eternal struggle between jocks and nerds, but only on paper. Because the owner is only tolerated. The owner looks silly in a locker room. The owner, for all his riches, can't make the play. He can't win.
The day after the letter, Loria sat on a broad couch in his spacious office at Marlins Park. He reached into a FedEx envelope and pulled out a creased napkin from a London hotel, evidence of an idea that should've made him different from, or at least more interesting than, any other owner alive. "The Hall of Fame asked for this drawing," he said, "and I want to make a copy of it and keep one here." He handed it over. "Does it look similar?"
The hasty cluster of black lines is Loria's 2008 sketch for the Marlins' park, and yes, it's pretty close to the $634 million cruise ship now beached in Little Havana. But instead of being hailed as a pop-modernist blend of his two lifelong passions, art and baseball, the stadium has become a source of venom. Even if Loria doesn't see it that way. He ignores any context around last year's 69--93 meltdown—including the subsequent shock of a payroll slashed, overnight, from more than $100 million to around $40 million—and frames it as a baseball failure alone. The ballpark, to his mind, remains a delight.
Indeed, to see Loria lead yet another tour past all the great, goofy touches—Joan Miró's ceramic palette, the bobblehead museum, an enlargement of Roy Lichtenstein's painting The Manager, Red Grooms's glorious monstrosity in centerfield—is to wonder how the 72-year-old New York City art dealer made it to this point at all. If the stadium, with its garish color scheme and sun-bleached views, could be nowhere but Miami, it mostly reflects Loria's whimsy, taste and ego. Come for the baseball, but you'll end up thinking a lot about Jeffrey. It's fun, at first.
His career began like some high-low clash dreamed up by Andy Warhol. When Sears teamed up with schlock-horror actor Vincent Price in a startlingly ambitious bid to sell fine art to the masses in 1962, Loria served as Price's primary "ghost," hustling around the U.S. and Europe commissioning works from the likes of Andrew Wyeth and Marc Chagall. Loria had been in the first few rows when JFK spoke at his Yale graduation in '62; the morning Kennedy was killed, surrealist painter Salvador Dalí called to talk about a work Loria, just 23, had commissioned. "Cher Maestro," Loria wrote to Picasso the next spring, "Je suis associé avec le départment des Beaux-Arts √† Sears, Roebuck and Company...."
Such was the basis of everything to come: the prime contacts needed to make a fortune as an art broker; the loopy 1968 book Loria wrote with Charles Schulz's approval, What's It All About, Charlie Brown?, on the life lessons in Peanuts cartoons ("Personal contacts—whom you know at the top—will conceal your failings and slip you over the rougher business hurdles"); the mid-'70s marriage to Sivia Samson, his third wife and the mother of Marlins president David Samson; "the hornet's nest," as Loria describes it, that exploded after he bought a controlling stake in the Montreal Expos in 1999 and sold them three years later; and, not least, Loria's reputation as a shark who left every room with his pockets bulging. He's given plenty of money away: There's a building with his name on it at Yale. But perhaps most telling is the fact that Loria's 2005 split with Sivia was so civil that the mouthy Samson never felt threatened.
As ever, Samson would be by Loria's side when he appeared later that day in the Diamond Club, on the ballpark's ground floor, to defend himself to a group of local columnists. Yet for an hour now, Loria had been airing out his talking points, none of which admitted what the columnists want him to admit: that he understands why citizens feel betrayed, or why his ownership is swamped by a tropical depression that may never lift.
"It was not the 1927 Yankees I broke up," he said. "It was a disaster, two straight years. And although I had fulfilled my obligations and done what I wanted to do in terms of payroll and bringing some additional players in here, the core wasn't going to help us for the future. If we didn't do what we did—I tried to explain to the fans—we wouldn't have had a very good future."
But the future isn't the only thing keeping Loria going. He stood on the concourse, about to step into an elevator, when he started talking about his father, Walter, dead now 21 years. "It was yesterday, February 24, 1992," Jeff said. "Yesterday was sort of a sad day for me."
Walter, a lawyer and an inventor with a dozen patents to his name, was a devout Yankees fan. Talk turned to the Marlins' last great moment, Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, when they won the title in Yankee Stadium. Jeff tugged the massive championship ring off his left hand, a hunk the size of a baby's fist, encrusted with 242 diamonds and rubies. "If you look inside my ring," he said, and there, etched into the still-warm gold, were the words OH MY GOD. He nodded, as if that explained everything.
"I wear it all the time," Loria said. "I'm what I am: It's what you see."
I am no native son. I lived in Miami for a decade beginning in 1990, when the city still ached from racial clashes and the predations of cocaine cowboys, and The Miami Herald was a powerhouse of talent, balls and wit. On its best days the paper was one of the few bulwarks against corruption and greed in a place steeped in the stuff. Dopey politicians, bad roads, ignored housing codes: You could all but hear the termites gnawing away. If ever a place needed a great watchdog—eyeing the action from its downtown quarters on Biscayne Bay—this was it.
Soon after I arrived, one of the yearly rumors that Fidel Castro was dead rocketed around the newsroom. Whispers flew about the Herald's contingency plan: dozens of writers and photographers shooting across the Florida Straits, a small cruise ship serving as a floating command center. I'd never worked for a paper with a plan to invade a country, so when my boss told me, "We're going to get a big league team, and you're going to break the story," I finished the sentence with "—or else." His name was Anger, after all, and the Herald was a merciless shop. I broke the story, barely. It became official in June 1991.
The first season, 1993, was the love affair everyone expected. Some three million fans showed up to see an awful team in a boxy football stadium night after sweltering summer night. It seemed even more remarkable considering that the No. 1--ranked Hurricanes often played to a half-empty Orange Bowl. But when the novelty faded, so did attendance. Owner Wayne Huizenga, the waste disposal and video king, loaded up on talent in '97, but with a proviso to the fans: Support this team or else. People hated the man for blowing up the roster a year after winning the World Series. But no one could say he didn't warn them.
Loria, who bought the team in 2002 from current Red Sox owner John Henry in an unprecedented three-way swap, unloading the Expos in the process, was always a more confounding figure. Though the Marlins won the World Series in '03, Loria's perceived arrogance ("If you know anything about the game," he often begins replies to reporters) and Samson's lightning-rod persona grated—especially when the losses and stars' departures began to mount, and there were disasters such as the September 2011 hiring of manager Ozzie Guillen. "They're looked at as carpetbaggers," Gimenez says. "These guys aren't from here. That's not to say that you have to be from here, but they're just tone-deaf. Everything they do backfires on them."
Yet unlike Huizenga, Loria is a baseball romantic. Everyone, even those in Montreal who feel Loria conspired with Major League Baseball to shutter and move the Expos, attests to his love for the game, his late-night chats about obscure minor leaguers. As owner of the Triple A Oklahoma City 89ers in the early 1990s, Loria had a special phone line installed so he could listen to games when he was in Paris or Rome or anywhere else; otherwise he would call the press box and have the G.M. relay the action to him.
An all-city second baseman for New York City's Stuyvesant High in the 1950s, Loria might seem to have much in common with Miami billionaire Norman Braman, a former athlete who once owned the Philadelphia Eagles and boasts an art collection worth an estimated $900 million. But Braman, who has spent the last decade fighting government-sponsored financing for the Marlins'—and now the Dolphins'—stadium projects, insists there's a vital difference. "Jeffrey was always a jock-sniffer," Braman says. "After I sold the Eagles he said, 'How can you sell a sports team?' It means everything in the world for him to have arrived where he is today. He doesn't give a crap about anything else. It's him."
Actually, he cares about at least one other thing. When Jeff Conine, an original Marlin and a member of the '97 World Series team, rejoined the club late in the 2003 season, Loria's first words to him were, "You're here to help us win." In the six organizations he played for, Conine says, no owner wanted that more.
"That's all he talks about," says Hall of Famer (and Miami native) Andre Dawson, who, like Conine, now works in the Marlins' front office. "Winning another World Series."
Loria's quick trigger with managers—Mike Redmond is the seventh in the last seven years—recalls George Steinbrenner's two-decade-long blue period, complete with public sniping. When Fredi Gonzalez, the last Marlins skipper with a winning season (2009), quipped to the Herald last spring that "there's not a manager, dead or alive, that Jeffrey thinks is good enough—not Connie Mack, not anyone," Loria responded by calling him "classless" and "a colossal failure." The two men later spoke by phone, and Gonzalez says he never took Loria's comments personally. Loria gave him his first shot to manage, after all, and essentially put his kids through college. "He really cares," Gonzalez says. "He's an easy target—the easiest target. But he's got a big heart. I've seen him do stuff for strangers, to people on the street—take care of them. He's good that way. People don't see that."
And for the one manager who won it all for him, Jack McKeon, Loria can't do enough. When the Marlins made the '03 playoffs, Loria walked McKeon outside the stadium and handed him the keys to a new Mercedes convertible. After they won, Loria went to Rome and brought back a blessing from the Vatican for McKeon, a devout Catholic. In '05, after McKeon won his 1,000th game as a manager, Loria gave him and his wife a week in the Bahamas. "The best owner I ever worked for," says McKeon, who worked for some doozies: Charley Finley, Ray Kroc, Marge Schott. "[He] gave you everything he could, tried to make some trades to help you win a pennant and never interfered one bit."
That last claim may seem stunning, but it's all in how you define interfere. Loria doesn't make calls to the dugout during games. Says Gonzalez, "He never meddled. He asked a lot of questions—win, lose or draw."
"We have a direct line to him with anything we want to bounce off him or would like to do," says Larry Beinfest, the Marlins' president of baseball operations. "It's his money, his team, and if he wants to know what's going on, I think he should. That's something he demands from us: communication."
But to say Loria doesn't overstep is to ignore a lifelong trait. "Jeff, stay out of things that aren't your field," wrote one of his superiors at Sears in 1965. Examples abound of Loria's otherwise heavy hand: firing, rehiring and refiring manager Joe Girardi in 2006, adding a third year to reliever Heath Bell's $27 million contract in '11, micromanaging the demotions of pitcher Chris Volstad in '10 and catcher Brett Hayes last August.
"So relievers, especially, are peeking over their shoulders when they have one or two bad outings, just waiting for Loria to be, like, 'You're out of here,'" says one former Marlin. "There's no sense of stability from the front office. Nobody really knows what's going on. When Mike Dunn got sent down for the first time last year, [Guillen] didn't even know it."
Indeed, few if any owners involve themselves as intimately as Loria in their team's baseball operations. It has an upside. Loria was the force behind the 2003 signing of veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the Marlins' linchpin during that championship season. (He moved on to the Tigers the following year.) When leftfielder Logan Morrison's father died in 2010, Loria quietly sent a plane to fly the family from Louisiana to Kansas City for the burial. There was also that flourish, in the minutes just after the '11 free-agent market opened, when Loria dazzled shortstop Jose Reyes by wearing a Marlins jersey with REYES stitched on the back.
"Meddlesome is not what I would say he is," Samson said of Loria. "I'd say that he's passionate in a way that can sometimes be misguided."
But even after last season's debacle, Guillen's firing and the November trade of Reyes, starting pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, utilityman Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck for six raw but intriguing prospects and a major league journeyman, Loria remains cocky. He said, "With the players we have now? In another year or two people are going to look back and say, 'Jeffrey, you were a genius.' I have faith in our people, I have faith in myself, and I have faith in Miami."
Still, the strain of last year's extravagant failure—documented on Showtime's all-access series The Franchise—has only exacerbated the team's dysfunctions. Beinfest, who has run the Marlins' baseball operations since 2002, is the obvious head on the chopping block these days. And when asked what team he followed as a kid, it's clear Beinfest isn't feeling all that safe. "The Dodgers," he says. "I grew up in L.A., in the Valley, and my whole childhood I listened to Vin Scully on the radio every night, and it was Garvey, Cey, Lopes and Russell. So I came from about the most stable thing growing up to...." Then he stops himself and jumps up from his chair, sort of laughing. The interview is over.
If You Build It, He Will Come
At 5:35 p.m. that Monday, Day 2 of what one Herald wag had begun calling Loria-palooza, the owner and his former stepson stood within 10 yards of each other in the Diamond Club, trying to make the Marlins' case. It was odd, because crisis managers don't usually go in for overlapping spin, and because if you closed your eyes, you'd have sworn that there had been some identity switch. Loria, he of the flamboyant career amid lunatic artists and billionaires, was chewing up pointed questions in a lawyerly monotone, eyeglasses perched on his forehead, every bit of emotion masked. And Samson, with his New York law degree and Morgan Stanley bona fides, was going on in detail about his daily underwear choice and yanking up a pant leg to display a vivid pink sock.
Such flipness is hardly a baseball norm. Samson is obviously smart, and the fact that he squeezed a new stadium out of Miami when most observers thought it impossible speaks to a formidable toughness. But he's made bitter enemies among agents and fellow executives, summed up by Seattle G.M. Bill Bavasi's 2007 quote, "My mother always taught me that if the only thing you have to say is 'Screw Dave Samson,' then don't say anything at all." Had it been known that the Marlins president had been smacked in the face by an errant baseball while playing catch at a food and wine event two days earlier, there would've been pockets of applause nationwide.
Still, Loria has never wavered in his support of Samson. The two go back to 1976, when Loria married eight-year-old David's mother, a fellow art dealer. They'd all go to Knicks games together, where David would taunt visiting team execs, and on school nights Loria would scribble up notes from the game and leave them on the boy's bedside table. "I think David still has most of them," Sivia says. "They've always had an extremely close relationship. They admire each other, they trust each other. Jeffrey has always regarded David as his son—not his stepson."
If, as it's said, every baseball story is at heart about fathers and sons, why should the Marlins be different? That Walter Loria had a slim tie to Yankees greatness—he surrendered two home runs to Lou Gehrig in high school—only heightened Jeffrey's devotion as he grew up in the 1940s. The Yankees' players were "superhuman" to him, he says; when Eddie Lopat stopped to chat with him outside the clubhouse, it was as if God were smiling down. A dozen times a season the two Lorias would take the subway four express stops to Yankee Stadium and sit 20 rows up behind third base. "Dad was a righty," Loria says. "Had a pretty good curveball too—until he ruined his back trying to throw it to me."
The family was small: Jeff's mom, Ruth; Walter; Jeff and his kid sister, Harriet. They went to all of Jeff's games at Stuyvesant, cheered his unassisted triple play as a junior, dreamed his dream of playing for the Yankees. Harriet grew to love baseball nearly as much as the Loria males did. When a knee injury killed Jeff's chances of playing at Yale, the family adjusted: Walter wrote a letter out of the blue to Vincent Price on Jeff's behalf. The actor called back about a job in the summer of 1962; Jeff thought it was his dad joking and hung up. The family laughed about that forever.
Then, one by one, they fell away. Ruth died in 1980, cancer. Walter suffered a stroke a decade later, spent the next 13 months in a hospital in Suffern, N.Y., barely conscious. In March '94, seven months after Jeff lost out to Peter Angelos in a bid for the Baltimore Orioles, the phone rang in his Manhattan apartment. Sivia answered. It was the sheriff of Bay Minette, Ala., calling about the crash of a single-engine plane. Harriet and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, were gone too, leaving behind three children. "I was devastated," says Jeff.
That's one reason Loria was so overwhelmed the night of Game 6, 2003: Here was the dream, realized, and he had no one left who knew him when he dreamed it. As the last few outs flew into the Bronx sky, Loria glanced at the stands on the third base side, 20 rows up. "I remember when my dad took me here," he muttered to his security man, John Anderson. "I wish he were here to see this." Then Beckett gathered in the final ground ball. As the players leaped and hugged, Loria began drifting away from his seat, repeating, "Oh, my God...."
Later, after midnight, Loria stepped onto the base paths in Yankee Stadium, crying a bit and thinking of Walter. He trotted to first base, then second, then third. For the next decade he would be ripped for this run: In papers up and down the East Coast it was implied that he had disrespected the Yankees, especially because he supposedly finished by sliding across home plate face-first. But Loria, and three others watching that night, insist that didn't happen. "I never slid home," he says. "I'm not going to get my pants dirty. It's just not my way." He has been furious about the story ever since.
In the spring of 2005 Sivia filed for divorce. She won't say why. She has a daughter, Samantha, with Loria, and another daughter by her first marriage, and says that she and Loria remain "very close friends." Loria, she adds, is "a superlative father and grandfather."
But for Samson it's hardly that simple. He says the split between his mother and his mentor was "strange," forcing him to compartmentalize "more than you'll ever know. I don't know if that's remarkable or pathological or therapy inducing—but it's probably a combination of all those things."
Still, when Sivia says that he and Loria complement each other, Samson doesn't disagree. "He's a simple guy, and I don't mean that insultingly," he says. "He's stayed in the same room in the same hotel in Paris through multiple wives. That's what he does. And he loves baseball, man. Always."
Asked if he was similarly wired, Samson pauses. "I'm very fair and consistent and very black and white," he says finally. "I'm not in the middle; I live on the fringe. Which doesn't make me worse or better. It's why we've always been a good pair, right? I mean, I'm willing to swim in the gutter far more than Jeffrey is."
Why Should We Believe You
You haven't seen a politician this happy in a while. Carlos Gimenez giggles at the absurdity: He owes much of his current popularity to the Marlins, to Loria and Samson and everything that has gone wrong. Gimenez voted against the ballpark deal as a county commissioner, won the Miami-Dade mayor's office in 2011 when his pro-ballpark predecessor was bounced in the biggest municipal recall election in U.S. history, then easily won reelection last year in part, he's sure, because the team's failures kept making him look good. "For me," he says, "it's the gift that keeps on giving."
Ozzie Guillen declaring that he loved Castro? "Thank you, Ozzie!" Gimenez says. "They let go all their players? Thank you, David, I appreciate that! Every time the Marlins do something, everybody goes, 'You were the guy who voted against it: You were right!'"
He laughs again, but he knows it's not funny. In fact, Gimenez needs it to stop. Because Miami needs the Marlins to play well, sell lots of tickets, be a success. The city—one of the nation's poorest—and county are the team's partners now, no matter how toxic the air between them has grown. The ballpark financing agreement sparked an SEC investigation and is considered so one-sided that almost no rhetoric sounds too extreme: The team will pay for $160 million of the $634 million facility, and compounded interest and balloon payments on one $91 million loan will end up costing the county $1.1 billion when it is paid off in 2048.
"Miami has a history of bad deals, but I would rank this Number 1," says city of Miami mayor Tomàs Regalado, whose vocal opposition to it helped him win election in 2009. "The residents of Miami were raped. Completely."
That most of the public funding for the retractable-roof stadium is paid out of a tourist tax provides little solace: Miami has far more pressing needs than a baseball stadium, critics say, and any shortfall in tourist-tax revenue could force the city to dip into the already-stressed general fund used to pay for police, education and public-works projects. Meanwhile, storefronts flanking the blindingly white edifice, built upon the Orange Bowl site, sit empty; more than three years since breaking ground, Marlins Park has yet to provide the promised economic boost to the surrounding neighborhood.
"I don't blame Jeffrey Loria or David Samson," Braman says. "I blame the ignorant, stupid politicians, the ignorant, stupid chamber of commerce and business groups that supported this and made this happen."
As ever, the South Florida journalists covered it all—and well—and many of those same writers who'd held Huizenga and Henry to account did superb jobs tormenting Loria. But like every newspaper, the Herald, sitting a little more than a mile east of the ballpark, has suffered drastic cuts in staff, circulation and resources over the last 20 years; as Braman spoke, a mass invite was circulating for a farewell party for the iconic old Herald building, now owned by a Malaysian resort conglomerate.
Neither deposed Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Alvarez, then city of Miami mayor Manny Diaz or county manager George Burgess nor the county commission required that the Marlins open their books, an oversight that became a civic embarrassment when Deadspin obtained financial documents in 2010 revealing that—in contrast to team claims that it couldn't survive financially in old Sun Life Stadium—the franchise received a league-high $92 million in revenue-sharing income during the 2008 and '09 seasons and turned a $33 million profit.
With that, antique terms like con job and shell game enjoyed a local resurgence. When Samson, Loria's top executive since 2000, told The Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's economic development group, in a speech just before the '12 season that politicians aren't "the cream of the intellectual crop" and implied that Miamians in general were even dumber, he came off as arrogance unbound. "They insulted the taxpayers, and then they insulted the fans," Regalado says of Loria and Samson. "It was: We did it to you—and screw you."
It's rare that the people atop a sports team are described as flat-out dishonest, but the dissolution of last year's underperforming lineup, however defensible in pure baseball terms, only cemented the impression. As a rule, the Marlins have not allowed no-trade clauses on multiyear deals. But in the aftermath of the Toronto trade, both Buehrle and Reyes said Samson and Loria "lied" last season when they repeatedly assured the two players that they would not be dealt. This spring Reyes said that at a charity dinner in New York days before the trade, Loria had urged him to buy a South Florida home, a claim Loria has strenuously denied. "I never encouraged Jose to buy a home," he says, and adds that he even called Reyes's agent, Peter Greenberg, when the deal was completed to make sure the shortstop did not purchase a house.
Greenberg confirms that last exchange but says that Loria encouraged Reyes "several times" to buy during the '12 season. Greenberg and Loria discussed this in a subsequent phone conversation, on March 1. "I told him, 'I remember you telling me to tell Jose to buy a house,'" Greenberg says. "Jeffrey said, 'I never told you that. I always asked, 'Is Jose considering buying a house?'"
Such hairsplitting is one reason Buehrle blasted the Marlins in a posttrade statement in November. ("Just like the fans in South Florida," he said, "I was lied to on multiple occasions.") He didn't let up when he arrived at spring training. He says Samson repeatedly promised him and his wife, Jamie, that the Marlins were committed for the long term. Buehrle was tossing a ball to his rescue dogs at his house in St. Louis when Samson called to say he'd been traded. One of the family's adopted pets is a pit bull, a breed Ontario bans, so Jamie, a strong advocate for canine welfare, and their two kids will stay in the U.S. this season.
Like the Buehrles (who bought a house in South Florida), people in Miami "are angry because they feel betrayed," Regalado says. Reporters attending Loria-palooza repeatedly asked Samson and Loria, "Why should we believe you?" It never came off as a question.
"This is the most despised ownership I've ever seen in this town," Gimenez says. "They took the county for a ride to get a stadium. They've taken the people for a ride with the product they've put out. They develop players, and as soon as they become good and somewhat expensive: Boop! Off they go. There's no continuity here."
In a Herald poll published last November, only Fidel Castro had a lower approval rating than Loria. The ensuing months brought no change: When Herald columnist Greg Cote conducted a blog poll the day after Loria's letter to fans, 98% voted in favor of his selling the team. Yet those hoping that Loria will cut and run will have to be patient. The $15 million investment he made when he bought into the Expos in 1999 has now blossomed, according to Forbes, into a franchise worth $450 million, but if Loria sells his 93% stake in the Marlins before 2015, he'll have to give the county a cut of the profit, per the terms of the stadium deal. Samson says that since completion of that deal, he's received feelers from interested buyers "once a week"—and is advising Loria to sell.
"I would've sold it opening night," Samson says of the stadium's debut a year ago. "Just walk on the field, say, 'Thank you Miami, I love you, this is your ballpark, see you later.'
"[Loria has] had a great run: won a World Series, built a ballpark, done things in this community that no one had done before in baseball. What's left? In his mind, what's left to do is win more World Series."
Indeed, Loria says he's never given the idea of selling "a moment's thought." And he dismisses as trivial the off-field controversies that most use as bookmarks for last year's meltdown. Guillen's Castro comments? Loria says, "There were 'cries and boycotts' ... what boycotts? Like, four people showed up with a banner. Those things don't bother me." Buehrle's assertion that he was lied to? "We didn't do anything we didn't bargain for," Loria says. "Buehrle's problem with his dogs—or whatever it is that he can't bring there?—is his problem, not mine."
The Last Quadrant
How did it all go so wrong? Samson, sitting in the quiet of his office one afternoon, pulls out a blank piece of paper and draws a huge cross in the middle, creating four squares. "I wrote this and gave this to our baseball people," he says of the last months of 2011, after Loria had green-lighted the team's "all-in" strategy and the Marlins blew past their $75 million budget and began spending on players like never before. He starts scribbling in each square. "Here's all the things that can happen in a season: NO WIN/DRAW [fans], NO DRAW/NO WIN, NO DRAW/WIN and WIN/DRAW."
WIN/DRAW is the jackpot, of course: The Marlins make the playoffs and the ballpark is packed every night. NO WIN/DRAW is unfortunate but nice, because it means the ballpark sells itself and will produce enough revenue to make the team better. Samson stabs his pen into what actually happened in 2012, the third quadrant on the page: NO DRAW/NO WIN. The Marlins not only "stunk," he says, but actually pulled only 1.4 million people through the turnstiles, far below the official attendance number of 2.2 million.
Says Loria, "We lost tens of millions of dollars last year."
Even for those with no skin in the game, it was a shock. The Marlins hadn't just followed baseball's fail-safe marketing blueprint (fancy new digs, big-name free agents): With a crazy-uncle manager and reality-show cameras recording every move, they'd pumped it full of steroids. Samson and his number crunchers had assigned NO DRAW/NO WIN a probability of just 5% in 2012, and then.... "A nuclear meltdown," Samson says.
That anomaly—and not, Samson says, some secret plan to strip-mine the roster after one season—led to the Toronto trade and the outrage from the likes of Buehrle. "The worst [phone] call I've made in my 14 years in baseball," Samson says. "Having nothing to do with pit bulls, having nothing to do with Toronto, having nothing to do with anything except"—and here he taps on NO DRAW/NO WIN—"that it meant that this was in action, and there was nothing we could do.
"What we [predicted] turned out not to happen—but that's not lying. That's like saying that everyone who gets divorced was lying on their wedding day."
But for Samson and Loria, and now the city and Miami-Dade County, that wasn't even the scary part. No, looking back, what's most alarming is the fact that, even after the December spending spree and the Marlins' quick start in 2012—they were in first place on June 4—the new ballpark drew fewer than 29,000 fans a game. In other words, before the team's June swoon and Heath Bell's collapse made such numbers seem logical, bad questions were starting to take shape: What if everyone was wrong? What if Cuban-Americans don't actually like going to baseball games? What if the baseball market in Miami was a propped-up corpse from the start?
Samson admits the numbers shook his faith, but not fully, because last season's fall into last place left one shred of hope. He points to the last quadrant. "There's only one place left that I can hang my hat on for this market," Samson says. "Once we win and don't draw? Then it's over."
Early season-ticket sales for 2013, he says, dropped to 5,000 from last year's 12,000—and if critics respond to that figure with Why should we believe you?, well, no one's predicting big crowds, either. The easy explanation is that the market has never had a chance to prove itself, that the ballpark debate poisoned the air, that Ozzie's love of Fidel gave the casual fan pause and then the team tanked. Maybe. But there are plenty of us, too, who recall blackouts for Dolphins playoff games and swaths of empty seats when the LeBron-led Heat made their first playoff run. Miami is the nation's hardest sell in sports.
God knows, Loria's public display won't help. Premier free agents will avoid the Marlins until they lift their ban on no-trade clauses, and even then the franchise's reputation for dissembling will give other suitors endless ammo. The club would love to lock up burgeoning superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton with a long-term deal, but he's from L.A., still angry, and has no reason to believe the rebuilding will ever end. "Nothing we can do now but move forward from it," Stanton said, standing in an ice bath. "Go about my business and help take care of the team we got now." He couldn't have looked more miserable.
For his final run through the media gantlet, on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 26, Loria rode up to the Marlins' spring training site in Jupiter, Fla. There, five television crews, another half-dozen writers and a clutch of new-media types awaited his arrival, springing up to snap cellphone footage as he stepped out of a black town car. The cameras made it a more aggressive crowd, nobody wanting to be seen as being too soft, but Loria still couldn't be pushed off message. He turned one question about last year's "betrayal" into a discourse on "disappointment," another jibe about his new "Triple A team" into the claim that "we have the core and the makings of a championship-caliber team now."
As for Miami, he assured everyone he still has faith. "Miami is a wonderful baseball town," he said, and then, after 14 testy minutes, he grimaced, turned on his heel and ducked into the clubhouse. He was sighted an hour later sitting in his box to watch the Marlins play the Mets. Someone in the crowd yelled, "Trade Loria!" and a former season-ticket holder turned to me and said, "Want to throw something at him? I do. I hate that guy."
Loria heard none of that. At 5:01 p.m., after a day of meeting with Redmond and Beinfest and the players, he walked back out to his car. Three fans were waiting behind a fence. One asked him to sign a ball, and another told Loria how much he appreciated his letter. "You got to put that out there," the man said.
Loria nodded, trudged to the car and sank into a quiet backseat. He was heading to New York while, some 85 miles south, Marlins Park sat in the fine winter air awaiting its second season of judgment. Late in May, when Miami hosts the Mets, the Herald will have completed the move from downtown to its bland new headquarters out west, closer to the Everglades. In its place the out-of-town owners hope to someday put up a giant casino. The state hasn't legalized such gambling, and yes, opponents abound. But there's no reason, really, to think it can't happen.