The Miami Marlins’ 25th season unfurled in full on Friday as the whole team assembled for the first time up in Jupiter. All of the familiar sounds of spring were there. Metal cleats clacking on cement walkways. Baseballs popping into leather. The usual words of blank-slate optimism that spring training demands.
Oh, but nothing about this is normal for the Marlins in 2017.
A ballclub still dealing with a family tragedy and now dragged into the instantly bizarre saga of talks to sell the franchise gives a surreal feel to the ushering in of the new season.
When last the whole Marlins roster was together before Friday, the family was grieving, dumbstruck and numb. They buried star pitcher Jose Fernandez after a tragic boating accident last September and played the last few games through their tears. The loss, from both an emotional and baseball standpoint, is constant black crepe upon the coming year.
If only that were the extent of the weight of distraction this team faces.
Players ambling by from the clubhouse to the practice fields on Friday were the backdrop as Marlins president David Samson spoke to a clot of media about the ongoing talks for Jeffrey Loria to sell the team — such sweet music to so many Marlins fans who loathe Loria.
Only the Marlins, though, might have sale negotiations involving a soap opera ranging from the Trump White House to an ambassadorship to France. Almost forgot: Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria missed Friday’s workout, otherwise occupied admitting to a federal jury in Miami that he had lied about not knowing a key figure in an alleged network that smuggled ballplayers from Cuba.
Is anything ever simple or controversy-free with this club? How fitting that the Marlins train in Jupiter. Mars might be even more appropriate.
Loria, the professional art dealer and would-be ambassador to one of the world’s fine-art meccas, tried successfully Friday to avoid the media throng, arriving and parking not in the main team lot as he typically does.
Instead, his driver wheeled his black Cadillac Escalade to where he might enter the building undetected to attend the team meeting, without first running into a gauntlet of unwanted questions about the Marlins sale, the Kushner family or the French embassy.
Only the Miami Herald’s intrepid Marlins writer, Clark Spencer, managed to track down Loria, although the owner deftly Fred Astaire-ed his way around all queries.
We imagined Loria mysteriously on the phone in a far-flung golf cart watching practice, the media imagining whether he might be discussing the roster with his front office or — Vive la France! — oil paintings in The Louvre.
Instead, the vilified owner took off after the team meeting and left Samson to deal with surely the oddest line of questioning aimed at any MLB team this spring. Put it this way: Political anchor Rachel Maddow on MSNBC was discussing the prospective Marlins sale on Thursday night.
Yes, Samson acknowledged for the first time, Loria is being vetted as the potential next U.S. ambassador to France.
“Jeffrey Loria is definitely being considered for being the ambassador of France,” Samson said. “He is in the process right now. It is a long, complicated process. He certainly feels honored to even be in that process. Anything of that ilk is far beyond the realm of baseball ownership.”
So, then, Loria would accept the ambassadorship if offered?
“Anyone who is in the process, that implication is obvious,” Samson said.
Samson made clear no rule prevents Loria from owning the ballclub while also serving as ambassador. The conflict of that offer was the excuse the Kushner family gave for withdrawing from negotiations to buy the club for a reported $1.6 billion — which caught the Marlins by surprise.
“A statement by the Kushner family tied that together, and I don’t view that. It’s two separate processes,” said Samson of the sale negotiations and the ambassadorship matter.
Samson said he does not consider the Kushners a potential buyer any longer (although I believe that could change), but insisted, “Talks are ongoing with other groups who are interested in purchasing the team. To the extent Josh Kushner has stopped talking, I guess it will be one of the other groups that will prevail. The difference now is, those other offers are being looked at very seriously.”
The team president left little doubt he thinks the club will be sold sometime this year.
“Given all the activity going on right now, that is something that is certainly possible,” he said.
In some strange way, perhaps dealing with the tragic turmoil of Fernandez’s death late last season has better prepared the Marlins to now handle all the stuff about the club being for sale. The Marlins also have the right manager to fend off distractions, considering Don Mattingly played for the Yankees and managed the Dodgers — both markets prone to circus environments.
“One of the benefits of playing in New York and managing in L.A., you know there are all kind of ways to get sideways with things,” Mattingly said. “The best players and best teams move forward. All this stuff is here. It’s real. But it’s just stuff you deal with.”
As rising star outfielder Christian Yelich put it: “Listen, I just gotta go play. It doesn’t really matter who’s in the owner’s suite.”
Who’ll be the Marlins’ new owner we’ll know in time. We’ll also learn by degrees how good these Marlins will be — whether against odds it might be a playoff team for only the third time in franchise history.
Meantime, we can only imagine the effect of Jeffrey Loria as U.S. ambassador to France.
Next Marlins’ spring training in Paris, perhaps?