The attendance-challenged Miami Marlins have antagonized fans yet again by deciding a low-budget team is good enough for their new ballpark.
A blockbuster trade sending three stars to Toronto could save Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria $150 million US, which prompted a backlash from South Floridians angered by the team's latest payroll purge.
"Everybody in the world wants to talk about the Marlins and the fact they're now a AAA team," said city commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who was an opponent of the ballpark project. "The Marlins have lost pretty much all credibility with fans. Even if this trade is a positive move from a baseball standpoint, it won't be viewed by the general public as a positive move."
'We found a way to possibly in one fell swoop get a whole lot better. I recognize that the names coming back in a potential trade are not names people are familiar with, but in the baseball world, people are familiar with them.' —Marlins president David Samson
Miami traded All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, left-hander Mark Buehrle and right-hander Josh Johnson as part of the deal, which awaited final approval Wednesday pending physicals for the players.
Loria declined to discuss the trade with reporters as he passed through the hotel lobby at the owners meetings in Chicago.
"Not today, boys," Loria said. "If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not going to figure it out for you."
Team president David Samson said the trade improved the Marlins, who have finished last in the NL East each of the past two years. This season they expected to contend for the playoffs with the highest payroll in franchise history but instead went 69-93, their worst record since 1999.
"We sat down after the season and talked about the team and said we cannot keep finishing in last place," Samson said on his weekly radio show on WINZ-AM. "We found a way to possibly in one fell swoop get a whole lot better. I recognize that the names coming back in a potential trade are not names people are familiar with, but in the baseball world, people are familiar with them."
When asked about fans feeling betrayed, Samson said, "I think that people should feel betrayed by the fact we're losing so much, and that they wouldn't want us to stand pat and keep losing."
Samson's description of the roster shakeup as an upgrade failed to mollify fans. Radio talk show host Jeff DeForrest began fielding calls from irate listeners shortly after news of the trade broke Tuesday.
"The next move obviously is to have Fidel Castro throw out the first pitch next year," DeForrest said. "That's the only way they could alienate the fans more than they have."
Castro became a source of acrimony last April, when Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen's praise of the former Cuban leader infuriated team supporters. That was shortly after the new ballpark opened in Miami's Little Havana neighbourhood, and attendance never recovered from the tempest.
Management had projected the rebranded team would contend for a playoff berth and draw nearly 3 million fans, but instead the Marlins staggered to a last-place finish in the NL East and attendance barely topped 2.2 million.
With revenue falling short of projections, Loria decided to end the franchise's brief era of big spending. The players traded by the Marlins have combined guaranteed salaries of $163.75 million through 2018, including $96 million due Reyes. The deals he and Buehrle signed when they joined Miami a year ago were heavily backloaded.
Salaries for 2013 include $13.75 million for Johnson in the final year of his contract, $11 million for Buehrle and $10 million for Reyes. The net in guaranteed salaries coming off Marlins' books is expected to be $154 million, which does not account for any cash that may be involved in trade.
Three years ago, the Marlins reached an agreement with the players' union to increase spending in the wake of complaints team payroll had been so small as to violate baseball's revenue sharing provisions. But the trade with Toronto leaves the Marlins with an estimated opening day payroll of $34 million, which would be their lowest since 2008. Oakland had the lowest payroll in the majors last year at $53 million.
Of the lineup that took the field for the festive first game in the new ballpark less than eight months ago, only two players remain — Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison.
Stanton tweeted that he was angry about the trade and changed his Twitter photo in an apparent protest, swapping out his Marlins uniform for a black shirt.
"I'm not saying fans can't be upset," Morrison tweeted to his 123,000 followers. "I'm saying I'm not going to get upset. I can't control it. So don't expect me to be upset."
Fan ire was targeted primarily at Loria and team president David Samson.
"People are steamed," DeForrest said. "To dump the whole team is mind-boggling, but nothing is surprising with these two guys."
Many fan complaints involved the ballpark project, which was financed mostly with taxpayer money as Loria and Samson promised a new era with higher payrolls and more competitive teams.
The ballpark is state of the art, but the team has started looking like the same old Marlins.
"This," Sarnoff said, "has taught many who voted for the stadium a lesson: When you go into a public-private partnership, know your partner."