Sports Nut

Save the Marlins! 

If ever there was an owner who deserves a new stadium, it’s John Henry of the Florida Marlins. OK, perhaps “deserves” isn’t quite the right word. In a sane world, multimillionaire team owners would not be able to get municipalities to build them fancy new facilities, at a cost to the taxpayers of anywhere from $300 million to $500 million, and then just hand them over. But, of course, this isn’t a sane world. It’s a world in which sports owners routinely get taxpayers to fork over that kind of money—which they do by threatening to move the hometown team to another town. Yes, it’s a form of extortion, but it’s worked magnificently over the years. By one estimate, taxpayers have spent somewhere between $9 billion and $12 billion, just in the last decade, building new stadiums for rich owners. The result has been the greatest stadium-building boom in American history. Houston, San Diego, Cleveland, Baltimore, Seattle—there is hardly a major city in America that hasn’t seen the construction of a new stadium, and quite often multiple new stadiums. (One for baseball and another for football. And we haven’t even begun to discuss all the new basketball and hockey arenas.)

Sports owners argue that they need these stadiums—and all the new revenues they generate—in order to stay competitive. In the case of baseball, at least, that argument is essentially true. Because baseball, unlike the other major sports, lacks a salary cap—and because salaries are essentially set by the big-market teams, such as the Yankees and the Dodgers—salaries have been spiraling relentlessly upward, year after year. The Yankees, for instance, had a payroll of $50 million just a few years ago. By next season, it is likely to top the $100 million barrier. The only way the Baltimores and the Clevelands of the world have been able to keep pace is by building gorgeous, old-timey stadiums, which not only throw off cash (from luxury suites, higher ticket prices, and the like) but also act as drawing cards. Last year for instance, Camden Yards in Baltimore was virtually sold out all season—even though the Orioles were the biggest disappointment in baseball.

Which brings us back to John Henry and the Marlins. In the two years he’s owned the team, he’s done just about everything right. First, he persuaded David Dombrowski, the best general manager in the game, to stay put. Then, Henry and his GM began assembling an exciting young team with a heavy emphasis on Latin players, which he hoped would appeal to Miami’s huge Latin population. Last year, the Marlins were lovable losers—they always hustled, and it was fun to watch them play—but this year, the pitching has improved dramatically, and they’ve become a .500 ball club, more or less. Clearly, if Henry can keep his core group of players together, the Marlins could be a pennant contender in another year or two. The oldest Marlin player right now is only 27.

But here’s Henry’s problem: There is simply no way he’ll be able to keep his core group together without a new stadium. The Marlins payroll this year is only $19 million, one of the lowest in baseball. Within a few years, many of the Marlins’ key players, such as center fielder Preston Wilson, will be eligible for free agency, which of course means they’ll be able to command millions—even tens of millions—once they’re on the open market. But right now, the Marlins don’t have that kind of money. The team plays in Pro Player stadium, which was built for football and is the home of the Miami Dolphins. As we’ve all come to realize, football stadiums are lousy places to watch baseball games. Even with this wonderful young team, fans have stayed away in droves. The average attendance this year is under 15,000 people. What’s more, the Marlins get none of the revenues from the stadium, something that teams with new stadiums command as a matter of course.

For much of the last year, Henry has been laying out this state of affairs to groups all over Dade County, trying to generate enthusiasm for a new stadium. So far, he’s gotten nowhere. So, what’s his problem? Why can’t John Henry land a new stadium just like every other owner in baseball?

Part of the reason has to do with Henry’s political skills—or rather, his lack of political skills. A shy, quiet man who made his money as a commodities trader, he’s just not very good at this sort of thing. Part of it has to do with history: Henry bought the team after previous owner Wayne Huizenga decimated it in an act of vengeance that devastated South Florida baseball fans. (As you may recall, the Marlins won the World Series in 1997, but after Huizenga realized that South Florida politicians weren’t going to build him a new baseball stadium, he sold off every good player on that team.) As a result, baseball fans in Miami are fearful of falling in love with the team again, worried that they’ll have their hearts cut out again.

But you know what John Henry’s biggest problem is? He’s just too damn nice. When he makes speeches to Dade County audiences to promote a new stadium, he gets all warm and fuzzy about baseball. He talks about it as something fathers do with sons. He talks about his own childhood, listening to ballgames at night on the radio. He talks about how baseball can help build community. And of course he talks about how good the Marlins could someday be, if only he had the kind of stadium revenues other owners have. What he never, ever does is suggest that he’ll move the team out of South Florida if he doesn’t get a new stadium. Indeed, when he first bought the team, he vowed not to threaten to move it—and he’s kept that promise. John Henry, God bless him, won’t play the extortion game that every other owner plays.

And that’s why he’s never going to get a stadium. It turns out that extortion is pretty much required to get a new stadium. I met one of Henry’s lobbyists once; he rolled his eyes when he started talking about Henry’s refusal to make the Big Threat. “Threatening to move is the best weapon anyone in his position has,” the man said. “He’s crazy to take that off the table. He loses all his leverage.” At the time, I thought the man was incredibly cynical. But over the course of the last year, as I’ve watched Henry try—and fail—to get anyone in Miami to back his stadium, I’ve come to realize that there was truth in what the man said. A sorry, pathetic truth, perhaps, but a truth nonetheless.

What was it Leo Durocher said? Nice guys finish last. John Henry, I’m sorry to say, is living, breathing proof.