Departing Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria didn’t attend the news conference Thursday intended to put a bow on his 16-year stewardship of the franchise, which includes the exhilaration of a 2003 World Series championship and the exasperation of not a single winning season this decade.
With Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman set to take over as Marlins owners after the sale’s closing on Monday, the responsibility of summarizing Loria’s tenure as owner fell to team president David Samson, who said Loria and initial Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga are the only “two people in the world responsible for baseball in South Florida.”
Speaking inside the third-base dugout club at Marlins Park before the Marlins played the Atlanta Braves, Samson said: “Without Wayne, there would be no team to start with. And without Jeffrey, there would be no team to end with. Without Jeffrey, there is no baseball in Miami.”
Samson was referring to the fact the Marlins would have attempted to leave South Florida without a new ballpark, which was funded largely through public money, with the Marlins contributing $155 million toward the $645 million price tag.
The Marlins had only five winning seasons under Loria and none since 2009. Several factors worked against them under Loria, including low revenue and many years of low-to-modest payrolls, not enough smart personnel decisions, and as Samson noted, “we’ve had a lot of unlucky things happen over the years,” including the death of star pitcher Jose Fernandez last September.
Asked what baseball needs to succeed in this market, Samson said: “We need a few breaks. We need for one time to have complete calmness around the Marlins and to have people who have faith in leadership. … Are people happy for a change? They may be.”
Samson thanked Marlins fans but conceded that attendance at Marlins Park, which opened in 2010, has fallen well below expectations.
The team consistently has ranked in the bottom quarter of attendance, with this year’s average of 20,320 ranking 28th among MLB’s 30 teams.
“When Marlins Park opened, we had greater expectations for attendance, but I would never blame fans for that,” he said. “I blame myself because we couldn’t give fans what they wanted, which is consistent winning. … The one thing we never saw at Marlins Park was winning.”
Samson declined to quantify the team’s financial losses or the extent of Loria’s out-of-pocket funding of payroll. The franchise is expected to lose more than $50 million with a $115 million payroll this season, but Loria is walking away with a substantial sum. He sold the team for $1.2 billion, before taxes and other expenses.
“Jeffrey funded this team by himself for 16 seasons,” Samson said. “There were several seasons where he didn’t have to, but way, way more where he did have to.”
Despite the team’s financial challenges — which include the least-lucrative local TV contract in baseball — Samson said Jeter and Sherman “have great ideas on how to increase revenue and do things differently. I’ve always looked at us as a low-revenue team.”
Although Samson wasn’t retained by the new owners — he said his final day is Sunday, when the Marlins close the season against Atlanta — he expressed confidence that Sherman and Jeter would operate the franchise effectively.
“The Marlins are in good hands,” Samson said. “Watching Jeter through this process has been enlightening in terms of what he can accomplish off the field and on the field.
“I have complete belief in Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter. My wish is Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman get every benefit of the doubt and every person in South Florida looks at this as a new beginning.”
Why is Samson confident in Jeter’s ability to be an effective CEO, considering he has never run a business?
“I spent a lot of time with Derek,” Samson said. “He understands that decisions have consequences, that words have meaning, that people are watching. He understands he is not being judged by the fact he can play shortstop.”
Asked about accepting Jeter’s request for Samson to fire special assistants Jack McKeon, Jeff Conine, Andre Dawson and Tony Perez last week, Samson said he agreed to do that because “sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. Sometimes things hurt, and sometimes you just have to press forward. I don’t consider it anything difficult” despite his fondness for them.
Samson, 49, addressed other issues:
▪ He said he would have “been happy” to work for the new owners “because I believe in them” but that it was never discussed during the sales process.
“I have not had nothing to do for a long time,” he said. “I am not ready to retire.”
He declined to say what Loria’s future plans included.
▪ Samson, speaking with a “heavy heart” and emotional at times during the news conference, had a final meeting with Marlins employees on Thursday.
“I couldn’t be more honored to have held this role for two-thirds of the franchise’s history,” he said.
Most of the employees do not know whether the new owners plan to retain them long-term.
▪ He said there were times in the process during which he was certain the team would be sold to either Wayne Rothbaum or Jorge Mas or a mystery fourth group that was never publicly identified.
“Derek specifically and Bruce showed the most passion for wanting to be owners of the Marlins, showed the most desire, showed the most stick-to-it-iveness,” he said. “They are so happy to be a part of this community. It’s not a short-term thing for either one of them. It made the most sense for baseball to consummate a deal.”
▪ Asked why anyone would pay $1.2 billion for a money-losing franchise, Samson said: “There’s only 30 franchises and only one Miami Marlins. Who wouldn’t want to be in Miami? Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to own a team in your home state and try to get a third” World Series title?
▪ He said the new owners have not told him whether they plan to build a statue for Fernandez, which Loria had planned to do. “I don’t think anyone needs a statue of Jose to be reminded of who Jose was,” Samson said.