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With Two Strikes, Marlins Make One More Pitch

3rd Attempt for New Ballpark Nears Deadline

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page D11

MIAMI -- In just 12 years of existence, the Florida Marlins have gone 2 for 2 in the World Series and 0 for 2 in front of the Florida state legislature. They managed to beat the mighty New York Yankees in October, but found themselves overmatched by Gov. Jeb Bush in April. They won one World Series in an extra-inning Game 7 but saw time expire on funding for a new ballpark in the state senate.

This week, the Marlins once again made nearly simultaneous pitches at Dolphins Stadium, the football park in which the team plays its home games, and the state capitol in Tallahassee.

Josh Beckett was overpowering the Braves on Opening Day while Miami's mayor was at the state capital trying to gain financing for a new ballpark. (Alan Diaz -- Reuters)

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As Florida starter Josh Beckett led the Marlins to a 9-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day Tuesday, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and other high-ranking friends of the team were nowhere to be found in the crowd of more than 57,000. Political bigwigs in the city and county journeyed upstate to try to sell a senate committee on a $60 million sales tax rebate that would represent the final piece in a complex funding puzzle for a $420 million baseball-only ballpark slated to open in 2008.

The baseball season will unfold languidly all summer, but there is a nerve-rattling deadline on the stadium issue, which has tormented the Marlins for years in a region that still harbors grudges about two other stadiums built with public money since 1998 (one in downtown Miami for the NBA's Heat and one west of Fort Lauderdale for the NHL's Florida Panthers).

The storyline is familiar to baseball fans in the dozen or so markets across the country that have in the last 15 years agonized over the economics and even ethics of publicly financed stadiums: If the legislative session closes May 6 without approval for the tax rebate, another Marlins ballpark deal will be dead, and Florida owner Jeffrey Loria -- who has quietly led the most recent charge to win a stadium after former owner John Henry, now a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, failed twice -- will have to decide whether three strikes against a stadium means out for the franchise.

Loria declined to discuss the situation in detail as he stood in front of the Marlins' dugout on Tuesday, saying only, "I'm very confident the legislature will do the right thing to keep baseball here in south Florida."

Loria, without a doubt the least controversial owner in the team's history, has said little publicly about his designs on a new ballpark since buying the team from Henry in 2001 and promising to turn around its fortunes. Having generated much goodwill by building and maintaining a winner -- the team spent $52 million this offseason on slugger Carlos Delgado and kept much of the World Series championship team together last year -- Loria seems determined not to be perceived as an owner trying to hold a town hostage for a stadium.

Said Marlins Manager Jack McKeon: "I think the fans love this guy now."

That could change quickly, if history is any guide. Any issue involving a team owner's word and wallet can become a touchy one in south Florida, where there is lingering resentment over the perceived greediness of the two previous Marlins owners: Henry and Wayne Huizenga, who owned the team from its inception until 1999. Huizenga, who also owns the Miami Dolphins and Dolphins Stadium, is still reviled by many baseball fans for unloading the team's best players after the Marlins' first World Series victory in 1997.

If the state money comes in, the Marlins will get a 38,000-seat retractable-roof park adjacent to the Orange Bowl -- the classic old stadium still used by the University of Miami football team -- in the heart of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. Opening Day would be in 2008. The Marlins, who expect to be evicted from Dolphins Stadium in 2010, say they absolutely need a new park. They get no revenue from suites at Dolphins Stadium and little from parking, concessions and advertising. Marlins President Dave Samson said Loria has lost about $20 million annually on the franchise.

Loria has pledged $192 million toward the stadium, with the county offering $138 million and the city chipping in $28 million and land. Parking revenues are expected to bring in $32 million, leaving a $30 million gap the state sales tax rebate is projected to cover.

The state money, though, seems far from a done deal. Rep. Fred Brummer (R-Apopka, Fla.), who chairs a house committee that will consider the bill next week, said in a recent phone interview that he did not support the measure, which would also benefit professional sports franchises in other parts of the state.

"At the moment, it will not go forward," said Brummer, chair of the finance and tax committee. "If it's an important issue to Miami and Miami-Dade County, they are more than welcome to spend the taxpayers' dollars from Miami and Miami-Dade County."

In 2000, Henry's plan to use a cruise-passenger tax to pay for a ballpark died on April 4 -- the Marlins' Opening Day -- when Bush said he would veto any bill that included such a provision. A year later, the house passed a bill that extended a parking surcharge to benefit a proposed stadium but the Senate, expected to approve a similar bill, failed to get to it before time ran out on session.

Having learned from Henry's failures, the Marlins spent a couple of years quietly rounding up city and county advocates before discussing the issue publicly and approaching the state. The result: a plan that already has solid local support and only a small missing piece.

If the state money does not come in this year, Loria will be faced with a decision before the All-Star Game: Should he attempt to go back to the bargaining table with the city and county, though all sides have suggested they cannot stretch their resources further (the Marlins' stance: putting more money toward the park would force Loria to slash payroll and sell off stars, which he is dead-set against)? Should he follow the path of Henry, who all but denounced south Florida after his second ballpark failure and promptly sold the team?

Or should Loria get on the phone to a city seeking a major league team and move the Marlins to a new market? Marlins officials recently met with the mayor of Las Vegas, which wants a team. The other losers to Washington in the Montreal Expos' sweepstakes are expected to line up for the next available franchise.

"To use a baseball analogy, we're in about the top of the fifth inning and the Marlins are behind," said Tim Chapin, an assistant professor at Florida State who helped author a report on major league ballpark costs while at Marquette University Law School, "but they still have a chance to drive in the winning run."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company