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Don’t be fooled by the positive All-Star Game vibes: The Marlins are in need of rescue

Marlins Park usually isn’t this full. (Steve Mitchell/USA Today)

Miami and its Marlins are firmly in the spotlight this week by virtue of hosting Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game, and while the residents of South Florida seem to be shedding their reputation as barely interested sports fans for a few days — the crowd at the glossy Marlins Park during Monday’s home run derby appeared to be genuinely into it — beneath the surface rests simmering resentment and uncertainty.

The issue centers on the stadium itself — built at great cost to South Florida taxpayers — and the team’s legal pursuit of money it says it is owed by season ticket holders, among them a fan named Kenneth Sack. The team sued him in December 2014, alleging that he owes $97,200 on the four-year season ticket contract he signed in 2012, after Marlins Park’s first season. Sack paid for his first season of tickets but decided to walk away after that, alleging that the Marlins failed to deliver on promised perks made to season ticket holders (pregame and postgame buffets, private parking, etc.). A number of other season ticket holders made similar arguments in trying to back out of their contracts, and the team is suing them, too.

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But what makes Sack’s case a little different is that the Marlins have taken legal action to seize a commercial property he owns in Oakland Park, a city just north of Fort Lauderdale. According to a property appraisal obtained by the Miami New Times, it’s worth $725,000, much more than the $97,200 the team claims Sack owes.

And while the difference in the two monetary amounts is jarring, it’s actually a run-of-the-mill legal maneuver on the Marlins’ part considering that the team won a judgment against Sack in January for the entire $97,200 (he’s appealing on the grounds that his attorney suffered a heart attack during the previous legal proceedings and missed a number of court appearances, the New Times reports).

“It’s standard operating procedure in the collection of a judgment,” Daniel Wallach, a sports-law attorney who’s based in South Florida and has been following the Marlins lawsuits, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The creditors are going to try to collect on that debt by attaching whatever identifiable debt can be seized. It’s a power move by the Marlins to force him to pay the judgment … designed to pressure the season ticket holder to pay the debt.”

As Wallach explains, the Marlins would sell Sack’s building should they take control of it, keeping $97,200 plus expenses for themselves to cover the legal judgment and turning the rest over to Sack.

Other teams have sued season ticket holders over unpaid bills, including the Washington Redskins, so it’s not like the Marlins are breaking new ground here. Nevertheless, it’s “somewhat unseemly, and a terrible optic for the franchise,” Wallach says, especially when you consider the team’s aforementioned fleecing of South Florida’s residents. Claiming poverty, the Marlins asked for and received public financing from the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County to build the new stadium, and taxpayers covered $508.8 million of the stadium’s $634 million immediate cost. But when you factor in the interest involved with the bond payments, that cost will balloon to more than $2 billion over 40 years.

This horrific deal — compounded by the fact that documents unearthed by Deadspin showed that the team was in relatively good financial health at the same time it was asking for money — scuttled whatever remaining goodwill remained between the team and the notoriously fickle fan base in South Florida. With the stadium-financing issue fresh in voters’ minds, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz’s hand-picked, Marlins-backed successor was routed at the polls by an opponent of the stadium-financing plan in 2009. Two years later, a number of officials in Miami-Dade County lost their jobs in recall elections. Attendance has flatlined: The Marlins are averaging just 20,904 fans per game this season, worst in the National League and 28th in the majors. Since the new ballpark opened, the teams has ranked no higher than 27th. In May, a game against the division-rival Phillies drew just 1,590 fans, according to one sportswriter’s count, the least-attended MLB game since 1989.

But there’s another wrinkle to this story, perhaps a chance for the Marlins to hit the reset button in South Florida: Owner Jeffrey Loria has put the team up for sale, and a number of groups are in the running. One of them is helmed by Yankees great Derek Jeter, who has cobbled together an investment group that includes NBA great and quixotic MLB hopeful Michael Jordan, according to the New York Post. A competing group includes Florida governor and U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who once was part of the Jeter bid but has since cast his lot with the likes of Tagg Romney, son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Miami-based rapper Pitbull.

Whoever buys the team — MLB initially wanted the sale finished by the All-Star Game but now expects it to be done next week, the New York Post reports — will inherit the lawsuits, according to Wallach, and the new owners could score a PR coup by working to resolve them amicably.

“The judgment is considered an asset of the company and the purchaser acquires those assets, so the lawsuit would still be an asset of the Miami Marlins. It will transfer to the new ownership,” Wallach said. “Whoever owns the franchise will not change the character of the lawsuit. Maybe the new ownership, in an attempt to build goodwill for the fan base, will solve it in a less heavy-handed matter.”

It would be a chance for the team to “transform the image of the franchise in its own market,” Wallach said, something a new stadium, two World Series titles and now an all-star game have failed to do.