The Miami Marlins emphasize all that’s new in their radio advertising for the baseball season at hand. They trumpet a new attitude, new players, new energy and new excitement. They don’t, but could mention a still-new ballpark that begins its fourth season. They don’t — but should — not only mention but emphasize the most important “new” of all:
The new owner.
Jeffrey Loria flared on to South Florida’s radar in 2002 and this is his 14th season as franchise owner, but in all but the literal sense he is new — new and improved, seemingly a changed man.
During what he calls “a wonderful offseason,” Loria stunned baseball and Marlins fans by transmogrifying from a vilified owner notorious for underspending and cost cutting into a man suddenly throwing money in the air and buying drinks for everyone.
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The record-setting 13-year, $325 million contract extension for star Giancarlo Stanton. The seven-year, $49.5 million expenditure to keep rising star Christian Yelich. A retooled roster that gives the Fish a national buzz as a playoff contender. A clubhouse chef. Oh, and a private team jet with 85 oversized seats allowing even the 6-6 Stanton to stretch out, with in-flight accoutrements including a traveling masseur.
The Marlins seem to have finally found stability and charted a steady, prudent course. Michael Hill and Dan Jennings have proved to be an upgraded, capable front office. Mike Redmond seems a keeper at manager. The 2017 MLB All-Star Game is headed here, a reward both tangible and symbolic for a club past its turbulence and trending upward.
“Things absolutely are heading in the right direction,” as Loria put it.
The owner downplays that he has changed, though, because to do so would be to admit past faults that made him arguably the most disliked team owner in Miami history. Not even Wayne Huizenga, once loudly booed by Dolphins fans at a stadium farewell party for retiring Dan Marino, rivaled Loria for negative public image.
Much of that has been earned.
Some of it has been unfair.
Loria deciphered the hardscrabble Miami politics to see a state-of-the-art stadium built, but instead of credit he became the lightning rod for a backlash over taxpayers bearing too much burden. Loria was the businessman whose job was to strike the best deal; it was the politicians whose job was to protect the public interest. Yet the arrows aimed at Loria.
Later came new heat over the 2012 “fire-sale” trade with Toronto that began to disassemble, before that disappointing first season even ended, the star-laden team put into the new park. “Patience has never been my best virtue,” Loria said, looking back. In retrospect, that trade worked out far better for the Marlins, yet no such reconsideration seems to have been credited to Loria.
Maybe the recent offseason, centered on re-signing Stanton, will continue to mend his public image, though that too is questionable. Trust, once lost, is not easily regained.
Loria again downplays but does not deny the negativity many in the community still feel.
“I honestly don’t think much about my own image,” he said. “You don’t get to where I am without developing thick skin. I’m not here to win a popularity contest. But I care about the game and our city.”
The difference in the unjustified optimism of the ’12 team and the feeling three years later is clear.
“These are our guys,” Loria said. “We had to get into the right situation [to invest in the future]. The right team, right young players, right leadership. I needed to create stability and an environment where things were heading in a great direction. Those guys here before [in 2012] were rushed to the organization. There were lots of problems in the clubhouse and elsewhere. I needed to do what a good leader does.”
Expectations for this season are high — “I would say great expectations,” Loria said. If the Marlins are at least .500 when ace Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery by early July, they will have a shot.
Certainly Loria does not downplay what he thinks his ball club has assembled.
“We’ve done a magnificent job putting together the team,” the not-shy owner said. “We have glorious, hand-picked baseball leadership in a beautiful stadium. We have Giancarlo, who is one of best in our sport — unparalleled in the game. We have a spectacularly strong group. We like everything we’ve done in an historic offseason. This is the best clubhouse I’ve had. The energy level is sky high.”
IS CREDIT DUE?
Loria admitted attendance in the new ballpark has been “less than I had hoped for,” but thinks that will change this season with a better team augmented by visits from the big-drawing Yankees and Red Sox.
I asked Loria if he thinks he has not gotten the credit he deserves as Marlins owner.
“Yeah, from time to time,” he said after a pause.
He celebrated the 2003 World Series championship in his second year here. The new ballpark will ensure the franchise’s future for generations. The Stanton contract is a landmark.
He has been far from perfect, with years of underspending and a personality that can be off-putting to some. But neither is he the scourge his critics paint.
Loria talked about his impatience. Being 74 can bring that out in a man.
“I didn’t want be like some other teams where it took 20 years to have a winning season,” he said.
The owner dreams of cheering another World Series winner in Miami, and this new team, built to last, could give him a chance. Maybe another championship parade would be enough to finally make Loria well-liked.