Expensive experiment: Will MLB work in Miami?

Nov 25 2011 - 5:13pm

MIAMI -- Step back. Sometimes, to really appreciate a view, to see scope clearly, you have to take a step back. This can be true whether you are looking at the art that made the owner of the Miami Marlins rich, or the new ballpark he has built, or the suddenly expensive business blueprint he is now trying to stuff inside it. Step back from the lucrative offers being made to baseball's stars, away from the florescent and distracting details ($200 million?! Albert Pujols?!), away from even your earned cynicism about whether this is all an elaborate sham meant to create interest, and look at the bigger picture taking shape. It really is a sight to behold.

Do you see what's happening, right before your eyes, an ethnic business plan being constructed piece by piece, rising from the dusty ground every bit as surely as the new ballpark that will soon house it? The Miami Marlins, changing even their name to fit a changing country, are looking to become Latin America's team, catering to the fastest growing minority in the United States, throwing unprecedented dollars at an experiment that will prove, once and for all, right there on Calle Ocho, whether Major League Baseball can indeed work in Miami's weird and wonderful market.

A sold-out stadium in 1993 didn't prove it. Two championships haven't proved it. But the Marlins, building from the ground up in almost every way, are literally banking on it working now. It is not a coincidence that, in introducing their new uniforms, their new look, the new Miami Marlins did so with Emilio Estefan and Pitbull, old Miami and new Miami merging to be very, very Miami. It is an interesting and expensive risk, one that couldn't be taken until a new ballpark could act as a safety net, and it means taking a wrecking ball to the way the Marlins always have done business. It isn't merely that a franchise that has a local and national reputation for being cheap is pushing mountainous millions toward Hispanic faces. It is that, even outside the dollars, the Marlins are doing things they never would have even considered previously, things that don't even make sense until you realize that the international business plan takes precedence over the local baseball plan.

Take Ozzie Guillen, for example. The erratic, colorful new manager of the Marlins doesn't fit at all with a management team that has run off company men such as Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez. In fact, based on what we've seen publicly at least, this is the most flammable marriage in the big leagues, a management team that has clashed with two very conservative managers getting in bed with maybe the most combustible leader in sports. Not only that, the Marlins traded prospects for Guillen and paid him millions. They never would have done either of those things before, never mind both of them, but they are doing both now even though they've never even thought the manager is that important. Why? Because it gives them a famous Latin face and accented, foul-mouthed Hispanic voice, that's why. And it gives them the kind of buzz and momentum and credibility they are looking to build, piece by piece, just like they built that new ballpark on Calle Ocho, tucking beisbol amid the cafecitos and croquetas .

The crown jewel on this construction, of course, is named Albert Pujols. What the Marlins are offering him only goes against almost every single principle they've ever believed. The total dollars are in dispute, depending on whom you believe, but the number of years offered is not. Nine years. That's insanity, especially since, like a lot of teams, the Marlins believe Pujols to be older than the 31 he claims to be. It doesn't matter if the offer is $190 million or $225 million, it is still a breathtaking move for this group, which hates long-term contracts and prefers to work the system with young, cheap talent. The Marlins, given their history and reputation, given how they've always preferred to do business, are actually the least likely team in the sport to offer a player that age that many years. Keep in mind, the Marlins told popular Dan Uggla they wouldn't ever give a player older than 30 a contract of more than four years. And now they're offering nine to Pujols, whose age they don't even know.

Why? Because they think he can be their LeBron James not just in this country but beyond. They think he'll pay for his contract in the first three or four years of the deal, rendering the burdensome and scary last half of the contract irrelevant. They believe they can sell his face and name all over Latin America in a way they can't sell, say, Prince Fielder.

It is not a smart baseball move. But it is a fascinating business move. Fielder, younger and cheaper, a man whose age is known, makes more baseball sense. If this were strictly about baseball, not business, Fielder fits Florida's philosophy a lot better than Pujols because you don't have to give him as much money or years, and you get him in his prime and ascending as opposed to Pujols, who has to terrify you coming off the worst year of his life now that, in the post-steroids era, there is no fountain of youth and the normal decline of a hitter begins around the 33, 34, 35 that Pujols indeed might be. But you can't sell Fielder to Goya and Cafe Pilon before your new park has even opened. He doesn't pay for himself as immediately as Pujols does on Calle Ocho.

With Fielder, you have to win and then build momentum. With Pujols, you build the momentum and then try to win -- winning before winning. Baseball is too cruel and whimsical for any one player, no matter how great or expensive, to guarantee you victories. But Pujols starts paying for the investment in him before he even takes the field b-- in everything from priceless credibility, which can't be quantified, to international corporate sponsorships, which can be.

You won't believe Pujols will be here until you see it? That's fair. This management group has certainly earned your distrust. Some will shrug and say that an absurd nine-year, $200 million offer is just a sham meant to look good, meant to look like they are trying, an offer just good enough to be rejected. That says more about the asinine business of baseball than it does about the Marlins, but that's where the Marlins find themselves today: The only way for them to erase your distrust, the only way for them to actually get Pujols, is to overpay and make an even more gigantic offer that is really dumb.

But, clumsy and cold as the Marlins have been over the years, give them this: They are very good at the business part of this game, very good at making money. They built a stadium without delays or overruns. They built a champion on the cheap. We can quibble a million ways over how good they are about the baseball end, about how they can care so little about public relations and how they can somehow screw up a decade of first-round picks while the Tampa Bay Rays build a cheap empire out of the draft, but there is no arguing about this: They are very, very good at making money for themselves. That new ballpark growing out of the ground in our broke city is a shining tribute to that. And that makes what they are trying to do now so fascinating.

Given the cost of the ballpark, given the size of the contracts being offered Pujols and Jose Reyes, this is basically a billion-dollar gamble to see if baseball can indeed work in our market long-term. The upside is spending and winning, and the Marlins becoming the Phillies phenomenon, selling out every game, money pouring in from all angles and then being poured into more payroll and more winning. The downside is pretty huge, too: If the Marlins are good and fans don't go, the game is over, and at quite the cost. Baseball can't work here, period, and the franchise will wheeze under the weight of bad, long contracts ... or, even worse, become the Pittsburgh Pirates, not spending or winning in a brand new ballpark built with tax money.

It is a huge and expensive gamble.

But it is going to be mucho fun, in two languages.

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