Concerns growing over Florida ballpark
Marlins facing time constraints with no new field in sight
TORONTO -- The Miami situation is nearing critical mass and with no ballpark deal in sight, the Marlins have become one of Major League Baseball's top priorities.By explicit terms in their lease, the Marlins must be out of Dolphin Stadium at the end of the 2010 season. Although Marlins officials are not ready to announce the team's departure at this point, with no plan and no site for a new ballpark, the Marlins' future in South Florida has become questionable at best. "My nose is crushed [against the glass] because we're so up against it," Marlins president David Samson said Thursday after the quarterly owners meeting. "Every day that passes makes it more and more difficult. The longer this goes on diminishes the possibility of making the timing work." The Marlins' crisis wasn't an action item on Thursday's agenda, but it will certainly be in the near future if the issue can't be resolved at the local level. Early this year, with MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy spearheading the effort, the Marlins seemed close to finalizing a stadium deal in downtown Miami. That ballpark, replete with a retractable roof, would have been located in a redevelopment district just miles inland from American Airlines Arena, which is nestled on the banks of Biscayne Bay and is home to the NBA's Miami Heat. The roof is a necessity, the Marlins say, because it gives fans certainty that games will be played during summer months in South Florida, when heat and humidity is a constant and showers are always expected. But in June, the Florida State Senate denied approval of $60 million in public funds that would've closed the deal. The city of Miami, Dade County and the Marlins had already agreed on their contributions to what would have been a 60-40 percent public-private partnership. Now all parties are back to square one, but time is running out and Commissioner Bud Selig said on Thursday that he's becoming concerned. "We need to make progress there," he said. "This team needs a new stadium. I've said many times that I like South Florida. I like it as a Major League market, but I like it as a Major League market as long as they get a new ballpark." Jeffrey Loria and his group of minority partners purchased the Marlins on Feb. 15, 2002. Loria had previously owned the Expos, but he and his stepson, Samson, fell short in financing a new stadium in Montreal to save that franchise, which ultimately moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005. At the same time, MLB purchased the Expos from Loria, and John Henry, the previous Marlins owner, became part of a group that bought the Red Sox. Loria is the third Marlins owner who has tried to resolve the stadium issue since the franchise expanded into the National League in 1993. Since Loria bought the team, the Marlins have been on the precipice twice. A few years ago after a deal in Miami to build a facility on land near the Orange Bowl fell through when a $30 million gap in the project's cost couldn't be closed at the state level, the Marlins were allowed to explore moving the franchise elsewhere. But a possible shift to San Antonio, Texas, was essentially nixed by MLB, which decided at the time to keep the team where it is. At the time, MLB's stadium efforts were bifurcated between Montreal/Washington, D.C., Minnesota, Oakland and Florida. But each of the first three situations now is resolved, with the Nationals opening a new ballpark south of the U.S. Capitol building next year, groundbreaking for a new Twins facility in downtown Minneapolis imminent, and A's ownership slowly moving forward on a partnership with Cisco Co. on a new yard in Fremont, Calif. Thus, all eyes are on Florida, Selig said. "Bob and I are going to talk about it in the next week or so," Selig said. "There are options [outside of Florida], but I hope we don't have to use them." Despite their economic problems, the Marlins have been one of MLB's most successful expansion franchises on the field, having won the World Series twice, in 1997 and 2003. Despite defeating the Yankees with a $45 million payroll in 2003, Samson claimed that the Marlins were losing in excess of $30 million a year. After the Miami stadium deal collapsed in 2005, Loria ordered the team gutted and the player payroll was reduced from $60.4 million that season to $15 million in 2006. It was increased to $30.5 million this year, but that's where it will remain without a new ballpark deal, Samson said. "Jeffrey has stopped writing out checks," he said. "Our payroll will pretty much match our revenue." Though the Marlins were surprisingly competitive last season, they drew a National League-low 1,165,120 at home, well below the league average of 2,598,741. Again this year after 60 dates, they've drawn 1,002,844, the lowest in the NL and 29th out of the 30 MLB teams, just ahead of Tampa Bay. The Marlins attracted a high of 3,064,847 during their inaugural 1993 season, but since then have only exceeded two million once, in 1997. With only three seasons to play in a facility that has recently been upgraded for football, the Marlins can't sustain those kind of numbers, said Samson, adding that there is no wiggle room in their lease. "I have a letter that I carry around with me that states pretty unequivocally that 2010 is our last season," Samson said. "Still, our whole focus with the Commissioner and Bob [DuPuy] is to find a Florida solution."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.