This was where the damage control was to take root, where the image makeover of Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was to find its shape. We were in the posh Diamond Club lounge inside the team’s year-old ballpark, a select group of media invited Monday evening to Loria’s first public availability in more than three months, since he last gutted his team’s roster in a massive cost-cutting. Again.
A bartender waited to serve from a gratis bar, but he had no business. Waiters carried around food, but the trays stayed full.
Nobody was buying what Loria was selling. He couldn’t even give it away. Not his drinks or hors d’oeuvres, and not his explanation for why the club’s latest fire sale had to happen even with the state-of-the-art new stadium that was supposed to ensure bigger, competitive player payrolls.
Loria keeps wanting to talk business.
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He doesn’t understand all anyone hears is betrayal.
“We lost tens of millions last year,” he said.
Fans lost something, too. Their faith and trust.
This is where our baseball club is today. Marlins Park is a barely used jewel, but most fans won’t recognize the team in it, and the man in charge of it, Loria, would need a pickax and miner’s helmet to find his subterranean approval rating.
One year ago, Miami was creating the most buzz in baseball, star of Showtime’s The Franchise series. One chaotic season and a roster dismantling later, I asked club president David Samson if the team would even sell out Opening Day.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Loria and Co. decided one failed season with a high payroll offered the perfect excuse to slash costs. Fans have spoken. Season-ticket sales have plunged from just more than 12,000 to just less than 5,000.
Loria hired a new public relations firm, a sign of awareness that his image has fallen to squalid disrepair and dragged the team’s brand with him. I pity the PR firm’s Herculean challenge.
I can only hope the planned reimaging of Loria did not mean to commence with that “Letter To Our Fans” that appeared Sunday in The Miami Herald and elsewhere — a letter that begged a tone of conciliation but was combative. It was a spectacularly misguided shirking of responsibility that left Marlins fans shaking heads at this man who evidently doesn’t get it or just doesn’t give a [bleep].
Here is an open letter to Loria, and I’ll keep mine brief:
Dear Mr. Loria:
You do not suffer from unfair media coverage or fan misconceptions; you suffer from your own actions. Get that straight. You have been a meddling, impatient, erratic, under-spending owner whose stunning personal unpopularity has ruined much of the goodwill of the new ballpark and gutted support for the team.
You said and implied the new park would mean bigger payrolls, an assurance and de facto promise that generated the political and public support for the stadium. Now, after one season, you have betrayed public trust by reverting to your penurious ways.
The roster moves you called “bold” devastated and infuriated so many fans turned to ex-fans. That full-page ad would not have been necessary had you kept your word by keeping the players worth having (such as Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson) and added, not subtracted, other talent. Your actions always speak far more accurately than your own words.
The only franchise-caliber player who remains is slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but his long-term future here is in great doubt.
I’m not sure Loria has any idea (or concern) how unpopular he is. In my latest blog poll, I asked readers if they wished Loria would sell the Marlins. “Yes” was running about 98 percent as of Monday night.
I asked Loria at his reception if he cared about that number. “Of course I care,” he said. “It means people are disappointed.” A moment later he said, “I don’t pay any attention to it.”
The sense is Loria is simply on a different wavelength. He does not seem to understand the disbelieving reaction he would get from most customers, for example, if he told them what he tried to feed the media in the Diamond Club lounge.
“We have energized this franchise,” he said.
Loria has so alienated fans the mending won’t start with a “Letter To Our Fans,” or with an “informal cocktail reception” for the very media he scolded in his letter.
The mending must start with an extraordinary effort to re-sign Stanton long-term. It must start with Loria returning the payroll to credible major-league standards. It must start with keeping the promises on which all that public money built his new palace.
If not, the only thing guaranteed to be lower than the Marlins payroll and attendance will be the public regard for the owner from hell, Jeffrey Loria.