The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Nationals Situation Threatens Marlins Existence

Well there’s nothing like having your bluff called. In a round-about way, the recent issue with the Nationals' stadium funding efforts effectively calls the Marlins bluff about potentially moving the team to Las Vegas, and even worse – it makes them a front-runner to be contracted following the 2006 season (along with the Nationals).

Today the baseball headlines (thankfully, at least, they’re not about steroids) are focusing on the seemingly-perpetually perilous fate of the ex-Expos, current-Nationals. As you probably already know by now, the D.C. council changed the rules of the game the other night by requiring the team to come up with some of the money (half) to finance their new baseball stadium.

This is troublesome for the Nationals on a number of fronts. First and foremost, Major League Baseball agreed to relocate the club to the nation’s capital on the promise that a new stadium would be built for the team in the short term, and that the stadium would be exclusively publicly financed (whether the D.C. council is requiring private financing or funding of the other half of the stadium is a whole separate subject). Now that that's not the case, the Expos may not be moving to Washington (at least not permanently) to become the Nationals. Second, and possibly even more difficult to overcome, is that the Nationals don’t have “owners” at this point (they’re collectively owned by the owners of MLB’s 29-other teams), so turning to someone to fork over the rest of the cost of building the other stadium would be tough at this point (as owners of other teams are used to sticking their hands out for stadium money – not sticking their hands into their own deep pockets).

While all of that is largely irrelevant to the Marlins current situation, what does come into play is that if some solution to building a stadium for the team can’t be worked out (and quickly – as in by the end of December), it becomes very likely that the Nationals could be contracted after the 2006 season. The Marlins become involved because contraction won’t occur with a single team. This sort of action can only logically happen in even numbers (there are currently 30 teams in major league baseball, which – when a full slate of games is scheduled – allows everyone to play; contracting one team would leave twenty-nine and would force on team to be idle each day, which just doesn’t work with the three and four game series that baseball teams usually play).

The subject of contraction has been broached before – prior to the 2003 season – and was fairly quickly quashed. At that time, the likely contraction candidates included these same Nationals (then the Expos) and Marlins, as well as other teams like Tampa’s Devil Rays and the Minnesota Twins. Since that time the Twins have gone on a solid run of division titles and playoff berths. In addition, it was discovered that the Devil Rays are locked into a long term stadium lease and breaking it (via contraction, moving, or anything else) would incur a substantial financial penalty. Thus the Devil Rays and Twins are essentially eliminated from the discussion.

I’m sure that the possibility of contracting other teams would be bandied about – like the Athletics or the Blue Jays – but since the Nationals would be an almost foregone conclusion here, it would make more sense to eliminate another National League team. The National League already has more teams than the American (16 versus 14), and once again it makes more sense from a scheduling standpoint to contract in even numbers. (Sure, one team from each league could be eliminated, but then one team – at least – would need to switch affiliations; that’s just messy).

And the Marlins, despite their two World Series titles in their short existence, are a logical candidate for contraction. They have an owner without deep pockets. Their fan base is amongst the smallest in the league and they play in one of the league’s smaller media markets. The Marlins have also publicly lobbied for a new stadium, arguing that they cannot continue to operate in the long term within their current financial constraints. Compounding this matter is that they have struggled to find a way to get a new ballpark built. The current ownership is the third group to try to arrange something, and so far no one has been successful. Making matters even worse, their current landlord has informed them that after 2010, they won’t be invited back to use their current stadium (so unlike the Devil Rays, there won’t be a pesky lease to break). The Marlins have even gone so far as to take meetings with leaders from Las Vegas, with the premise being that the team could explore relocating to Vegas in the near future.

Initially, many interpreted the threat of moving to Vegas as a smoke screen, and an attempt to spur Florida legislators to find the money to build the Marlins a stadium. Vegas didn’t seem like the likeliest of alternatives for the Fish for many reasons. Vegas wasn’t good enough for the Expos, who had a search over a number of years before settling on D.C. Vegas, while growing – and growing rapidly, also isn’t that big; it is only the 52nd largest television market in the country. Sure, the casinos and their high rollers would provide a steady stream of likely customers, but in the end – when all the numbers are crunched – it probably makes more sense to eliminate a team than to send it to Sin City.

Unfortunately for the Marlins, and for folks in South Florida who love baseball, recent events may be conspiring to take the team away. Efforts to build a stadium for the Marlins in Florida (including the threat of moving them to Las Vegas) have exposed the Marlins’ situation as precarious. That, coupled with the struggles to get a stadium funded in Washington may be enough to doom the Marlins’ future. So while I’m still maintaining my ban on attending any more Marlins games, the rest of you might want to consider getting out to Pro Player Stadium as much as you can during these next two seasons. After that, there might not be anymore major league baseball in South Florida… other than Spring Training.


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