IN MY OPINION

Linda Robertson: Miami Marlins could learn from Tampa Bay Rays

 

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

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.

They run the team with the financial industry philosophy of buy low, sell high, seek value, find small advantages.

“We are constantly working to balance the present and future, and trying to thread the needle,” Friedman said. “As an organization, we rely more on the contributions of our young players than basically anyone else in baseball. With this trade we’re hoping to replenish our system and add a lot of players we feel can help us sustain this run of success we’ve had the last five years.”

Lack of trust

Meanwhile, Marlins management is tone deaf to the concept of public relations. They need a voice other than David Samson’s, because who trusts him or Loria? They wildly overestimated attendance for 2012 given their history of treating fans like chumps. The “neighborhood revitalization” that was to occur around the stadium is a joke.

Keri, a Montreal native writing an Expos book, recalled how Loria was a white knight when he bought the Expos, “but when things went downhill, the shady merry-go-round started, there was an incredible backlash, and the way he left town was unsavory,” Keri said.

As for constructing a winner, Loria and Larry Beinfest are all over the map.

Look at the potential starting lineup: pitcher Ricky Nolasco, catcher Rob Brantly, first baseman Logan Morrison, second baseman Donovan Solano, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, third baseman Greg Dobbs, left fielder Juan Pierre, center fielder Justin Ruggiano, right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. Care to guess the team home run total?

Only two homegrown players, and no faith that they’ll be here if and when the Marlins turn things around.

Baseball is an inexact science, but the Rays took a deep breath and embraced positive change. These ex-Goldman Sachs guys want to make a profit as badly as anybody, but they understand the perpetual link between success on the field and in the stands. If Marlins executives care, they better pay attention.

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