About 300 miles up the road, within the former Major League Baseball wasteland known as Florida, there is a team managed by people who know what they’re doing and where they’re going.
Vision, in other words. A plan.
The Tampa Bay Rays proved again that nothing beats brainpower by completing a trade stocked with foresight. They reduced their surplus of pitching in exchange for Kansas City’s Wil Myers, 22, the best hitting prospect in baseball. They gave up durable starter James Shields and reliever Wade Davis for highly regarded right-handed prospect Jake Odorizzi, plus lefty Mike Montgomery and minor-league third baseman Patrick Leonard.
Pay attention, Miami Marlins.
The Royals, seeking an immediate return to relevancy after 27 years missing from the playoffs, got a pretty good pitching upgrade. The Rays got talent for the future to complement what they have at present at prices they can afford. They keep adjusting their building blocks while the Marlins tear down and stack from scratch.
You think 2012 was bad in Miami, with the last-place record, the fire sale of recognizable names, the axing of yet another manager? Next season could be worse, because it will be loss upon loss without the novella entertainment value.
No free agents could possibly want to join the Marlins, not with Mark Buerhle and Jose Reyes — jettisoned to Toronto — whispering in their ears. The stars who remain want a ticket out.
So, as a model of sense and cents-ability, look at the Marlins’ marine-creature counterpart. While the Rays swim along, smoothly and steadily, Miami’s flashy fighting fish are flailing at the end of a line being jerked by owner Jeffrey Loria.
Tampa is no baseball paradise. The franchise was conceived in chaos, endured doormat years and is still housed inside unappealing Tropicana Field. The small-market Rays have a limited payroll, and they play in the same division as the rich and popular Yankees and Red Sox.
But within three years of progressive new ownership taking over, the Rays were in the 2008 World Series. The Marlins won the 2003 World Series but have not returned to the playoffs since.
The big splash
Loria went for the big splash to coincide with the opening of his half-a-billion-dollar stadium, 75 percent of which was publicly financed. But his $161 million in free agent signings — his personal choices — didn’t pan out, Ozzie Guillen got off on the wrong foot by sticking his foot in his mouth, and a succession of poor drafts plus an unproductive farm system caught up with the franchise. Result: A big flop.
The Rays spent lavishly in 1999 and finished 69-92. They, too, were ruled by a dictatorial, miserly, meddling owner, Vince Naimoli, who alienated fans, businessmen and employees. According to Jonah Keri, author of The Extra 2 Percent: How Wall Street Strategies Took A Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, Naimoli invited a high school band to play the national anthem, but insisted they buy tickets. He ordered ushers to throw out a diabetic lady who brought “outside food” in a Ziploc bag into the stadium. He had his general manager sign declining veterans and trade promising youngsters. Then there’s the story of the scout who told the Rays to sign a kid named Albert Pujols. He was ignored.
Under owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matthew Silverman and general manager Andrew Friedman — all former Wall Street moneymen — the team and its image were retooled. They removed the Devil from Devil Rays. They retrained service workers at Disney World. The held a campout and concerts for fans inside Tropicana. Offered free parking. Installed a suggestion box. Hired manager Joe Maddon, also an innovator.