The reason Washington now has the Nationals, the team with the best regular season record in baseball, also is due to Loria as much as any one person. In Montreal, he ruined the Expos. He had help. Montreal didn’t care much about baseball. But, as his three bitter seasons there passed, the shape of something not unlike a plot began to emerge.
The team was so bad and its future so bleak that his partners refused to meet cash calls. Thus, Loria’s original 24 percent stake, reportedly bought for just $12 million, grew to 94 percent by default. By 2002, the Expos were so pathetic that MLB bought the team from Loria for $120 million and then gave him a $38.5 million interest-free loan. Nice deal. What did he do with that $158.5 million? He used it to buy the Marlins from their unhappy owner John Henry. That paved the way for Henry to buy the Boston Red Sox.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “old boys’ network.” That’s it. It must be legal because nobody’s in jail, right? But it seems close.
Loria’s former partners sued him and MLB under racketeering statutes, but lost the case in arbitration. MLB sold the Expos, now virtually worthless in Canada, to the Lerners for $420 million, provided the District built a new $640 million park.
It’s not racketeering, but it sure is a racket.
Now we can add Miami to the towns that would like to throw the book at Loria. This week, he completed the ruination of another franchise. The Marlins sleep with the fishes.
On some days, only a brief history lesson such as this one, will suffice to give depth to the disgrace of the day. You cannot understand the devastation of the Marlins, the fleecing of hundreds of millions of dollars from Miami taxpayers for a new park and the crippling of a franchise for many years to come until you grasp the pattern of business depravity of the man behind it.
On Tuesday, the Marlins didn’t just trade away most of the best and most expensive players left on their roster: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and others, dumping more than $160 million in salary to Toronto.
Loria and his executives turned their seven-month-old, $600-million, 80-percent-publicly-funded park into a toxic dump where no sane player will choose to play as long as present management has its hands on the throats of the team.
Last winter, as Loria’s Marlins went on what now looks like a fake “good faith” spending binge, some free agents, such as Albert Pujols, were smart enough not to take his money, perhaps because Miami’s “policy” is never to give any free agent a no-trade clause.
That way, a player is always meat-on-the-hoof, mere inventory, as long as a team can find somebody who’ll take his contract — or a portion of it, depending on how much the Marlins have to eat. Now, Reyes, who’s from the Dominican Republic and loved the Hispanic influence in Miami life, is obligated to play at least five seasons in Toronto. The $96 million he’s owed may help. But that’s not enough to heat all of Canada.
Now, in the context of Loria’s past, it looks like Miami had more than a Plan A: We buy stars, we draw fans and everybody wins. They also had a Plan B: We backload contracts, see how many fans we draw, if the crowds aren’t good enough (they weren’t) or the team stinks, we’ll dump you all and to hell with everybody. Now hand over that fat revenue-sharing check.
As has always been the case with Loria, there’s a short-term, narrow-focus way to view his actions as being within the pale of proper business practice. You can’t prove Plan B was always under Plan A. But you can say, “This is Jeff Loria. Take a good guess.” You can bet Miami believes it. If baseball gave him a sweetheart price and an interest-free loan so he could flip the Expos for the Marlins and skip Montreal, what will MLB have to do to get him extricated from Miami? Of course, you can sell a team for a whole lot more, even if it stinks, if you just got a brand new ballpark.
For decades the sports world has recognized that baseball plays cities against each other to get new ballparks built at (mostly) public expense. The ballpark-building boom will be Selig’s primary financial legacy.
This is why cities, and even new owners, hold their breath when they get in bed with baseball. Sometimes it works. After the Loria-Henry Marlins swap, Boston eventually ended up with Henry as owner and, in a couple of years, had shed an 86-year-old curse. The District and the Lerners (combined) forked over more than $1 billion for a new team and park, then watched five years of lousy clubs; yet Washington ended up with a playoff club after 79 years, plus a park that’s a dozen years ahead of schedule in paying off its 30-year stadium bonds.
But the cities that don’t win often lose big. Miami backloaded its debt for its new park. MLB to Miami: Good luck with that, citizens. It’s amazing what you can do with a sanctioned monopoly and Soprano ethics.
What if baseball history in the Bud-as-kingmaker era had played out slightly differently? What if Loria, not Angelos, had gotten the Orioles? Would the Birds be in MLB receivership by now? Or moved to Las Vegas?
What if the Expos had moved to Washington in ’05, but with Loria still, somehow, their owner! That’s probably just a nightmare fantasy.
But feel free to shudder. It’s a cold wind that blows Jeff Loria your way. Right now, it’s freezing to the bone even in South Florida.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/