Thursday, July 1, 2010

Don't judge this ownership group yet...(Jeffrey Loria is bad for baseball)

As we rapidly approach the halfway point of the 2010 season, and we watch the Cubs waste away into complete insignificance in the standings, there have been grumblings amongst bloggers and causal Cub fans alike about the results of the Rickettses first half year as Cubs owners.

It is far too early for us to accurately judge the Rickettses right now.  Tom Ricketts is a very keen business man...and so far, this has been feeling out period. A majority of what they have done so far has been to improve and alter the things that they could be immediately observe and that they had the resources to do.  These things, as we all know, have been to make minor alterations to the ballpark, help improve the ballpark experience for the fans and slowly add some new front office staff...oh, and of course the advertising revenue stream increases. 

The Cubs will have a new manager next year...and possibly a new GM too (but don't hold your breath on that one, though).  Look for a couple of more hirings in the scouting area...and I do believe Crane Kenney will be out of a job at some point.

Things will get's going to take a couple years...but they will get better.


So why have I brought this up?

Well, as you all know if you read here regularly, I am a big fan of Fredi Gonzalez, the recently fired manager of Florida Marlins.

Every once in a while, a list of the best and worst owners in sports comes out.  The lists for worst owners almost always include Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers, Bill Wirtz (before he died) of the Blackhawks, and Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

One person that must be added to any "worst owners" list is Jeffrey Loria.  Loria is relatively new in the ownership realm of Major League Baseball.  Amazingly, he has only been around since 1999 when be bought into ownership of the Montreal Expos.

Shortly after he became the controlling member of the ownership group, he took the Expos off TV and radio, taking a page from Bill Wirtz's book (and we all saw how well that worked out for the Blackhawks).  He demanded that Montreal build him a new stadium even though Olympic Stadium, which had painstakingly been renovated to better house baseball, still hadn't been paid off.

And people stopped going to baseball games in Montreal. 

People are under the impression that Montreal was a bad baseball town to start with.


This franchise, which was founded in 1969 had outstanding attendance in the late 70's and early 80's....a decade after the team was founded.  And before that, they drewnot much below the league average in attendance most seasons while playing at the ridiculously small Jarry Park.  In 1979, the Expos where actually 4th in the National League in attendance behind the Dodgers, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.  In 1980, the Expos were again 4th in the National League, with the Phillies, Dodgers and Astros ahead of them.  In '81 (the strike ravaged season) and '82, the Expos were third in attendance (Phillies and Dodgers ahead of them), and in '83 they were second in attendance (Dodgers).

You can't say that was all due to success...during that time, the Expos only made it to the playoffs once, and that was in the 1981 strike season which was split into two different half (with the division winner of the first half of the season playing the division winner of the second half of the season in a "division series").  The Expos went to the NLCS that season and lost to the Dodgers (who went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series).

But back to the point here...

People complained that Montreal was not a good baseball town.  That's a load of crap.  Montreal was a good baseball town until ownership decided that they didn't need to listen to their fans any more and also decided to restrict access to their product.

Attendance plummeted during the 3 years (1999, 2000 and 2001) of Loria ownership in Montreal, as the team, year after year, let any player that showed even a spark of potential move off to another team.

As a reward for the great job he did in destroying that franchise, Major League Baseball (after initially attempting to contract the Expos), allowed Loria to sell the Expos to the other 29 owners and then gave him an interest free loan to buy the Marlins.  Loria basically took everything (and everyone) from the Expos organization except the players and the stadium and moved to Miami.

In his first year as owner of the Marlins...attendance...well...plummeted.  Big surprise.  But they did out draw the Expos that year (but by only 10k fans...or about 100 fans a game).

Unfortunately, as often happens for bad owners, there is one magical season that gives them justification for what they do.  That season was Loria's second in Miami, as the Marlins won the World Series.

The two years after that season, the Marlins saw a spike in attendance...

Loria, in return for that increase in support, cut payroll and shipped almost the entire 2003 championship team to other franchises.  


Before I go any further...I need to say, baseball can work in Miami.  It is not just a huge retirement home like Tampa and St. Petersburg.  There are tons of baseball fans in Miami...and a huge Latin American fan base that is just begging for a team to support.  That team is the Marlins.  Miami will support this team...just as the Montreal supported the Expos for the better part of 3 decades. 


So in 2006, the Marlins fans returned the favor after their team's players all left...and they stopped coming to the ballpark.  The Marlins have been at the bottom of attendance ever year since.  With the roster almost entirely turned over from the 2003 championship team, the Marlins, with a $21 million payroll (which was $4 million less than Alex Rodriguez earned that season) hired Joe Girardi as their manager.  After a miserable start to the season, the Marlins finish a respectable 6 games under .500.

Loria promptly fired Joe Girardi.

Girardi didn't seem to mind. (Neither did the Yankees...who hired him in 2008.)

In a pattern that is oddly familiar to the one we saw in Montreal, since the 2005 season, the Marlins have become a incubator for young players, and have been competitive almost every single year.

After Girardi was fired, Fredi Gonzalez was hired...the Marlins didn't do all the well in his first season, but improved every single year since...without significantly increasing payroll.

This past season, the MLB Players Association filed a complaint on the Marlins, who get a large chunk of revenue sharing money, saying that they are not using enough of their revenue on payroll.  The Marlins were forced to agree to an increase in payroll.

But, interestingly, Loria, last year, did score a major victory for baseball in Miami by getting some funding (and a site) for a new retractable roof stadium.  The truth is, as far as I'm concerned, the MLBPA was insuring that the revenue sharing money, which is supposed to be used for payroll, was not going to be used to build the new stadium.  And they should have been concerned about it.

So now we get back to Fredi Gonzalez, who was fired last week.  The Marlins did very little to improve their team this year.  In fact, in a division with the 2 time National League Champion Phillies, the high payroll New York Mets and the re-emerging powerhouse Atlanta Braves, the Marlins, with a $46 million payroll still had little chance to win this year.  Yet...they remained they often seem to be.  With only 5 players over 30 years old (and only one of those 30 year old players earning more than $2 million), the Marlins are still going on the cheap as most of their players are years away from being eligible for free agency.

Gonzalez did a good job.  But Loria expected this team with crappy veterans, and inexperienced (yet under-payed) younger players to compete for the division title.  The Phillies got Roy Halliday this year.  The Marlins got Nate Robertson.  Good luck with that.

So Gonzalez was fired.  Fine.  It's not the first time that's happened.

Bobby Valentine was the man who was to take over.

It didn't happen.  Why?  Well, in a number of the stories I've ready, Valentine wanted an increase in payroll.  Not going to happen (especially with the bill for a new stadium on the expense report right now).  Valentine wanted a top notch salary for himself.  Not going to happen.

Valentine has supposedly been friends with Loria for a long time...for what reason, I don't know.  But money usually can destroy friendships, and that appears to have been what happened here.

So now the Marlins, which Jeffrey Loria believes should be competing for a division title, are left with no manager.

And did Fredi Gonzalez seem upset?  No. The Marlins players took the firing worse than he did.  Gonzalez now has no obstacles in his way to take over for his long time mentor, Bobby Cox, in Atlanta.

As for Bobby Valentine, while he was at the top of the Marlins wish list, if you think Bobby Valentine is all 'that', you are wrong as well. He would not have been an improvement over Gonzalez. 

If a team thinks it still has a chance to win and they fire their manager in the middle of the season, the should have had a deal in place to replace that manager with someone better.

And now the Marlins have no fans, no manager, and a bunch of upset players.

Good job Jeff.