Linda Robertson

Miami Marlins are Jeffrey Loria’s team, for better or (mostly) worse

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is gaining a reputation as the reincarnation of George “The Boss” Steinbrenner — a meddling, micro-managing multi-millionaire who imposes his impulsive will on those who run the team even though he has never played, managed, scouted or coached professional baseball.

It was only after Steinbrenner ceased second-guessing that the New York Yankees became six-time World Series champions under his reign. After a dreadfully disappointing season, Marlins personnel and fans are wondering if Loria will follow the example of Steinbrenner, whom he admired.

Not only did Loria, a New York art dealer, choose the team’s colors and logo for their Miami makeover and select artwork for their new stadium, but he also spearheaded the signing of key free agents and has been known to insist on the demotion of certain players.

Loria has Steinbrenner’s penchant for firing managers. If Ozzie Guillen is terminated after one season, the Marlins will have their fourth Opening Day manager in four years come April.

Blame game

After the team’s dysfunctional debut season in Marlins Park, part of the blame is being placed on Loria, whose decisions and the manner in which he made them has strained the nerves of his front office executives. The atmosphere inside the clubhouse and dugout wasn’t much better in the waning weeks of the 69-93 season that began with Guillen’s incendiary comments about his admiration of Fidel Castro and ended with the lowest opening year attendance recorded for any brand-new baseball stadium.

As Major League Baseball’s playoffs commenced for the ninth straight year without the Marlins, frustrated local fans couldn’t help but note the presence of the expansion Washington Nationals, bursting with young talent; the canny stratagems of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who was fired by Loria, the clutch hitting of Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown five years after the Marlins traded him to save money, and the promising play of Oakland rookie Yoenis Céspedes, who wanted to come to Miami after he defected from Cuba, but didn’t after negotiations broke down over a few million dollars of a multi-year contract.

Guillen now awaits his fate, which is solely in the hands of Loria, according to front office employees. President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest is also on the hook.

“We bad team? Yes. We stunk? Yes we are,” Guillen said. “I blame myself. That front office should look itself in the mirror because we are here together and we fail together.”Loria, 71, has gone through six managers since he bought the team in 2002.

“There’s not a manager dead or alive that Jeffrey thinks is good enough,” Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez, who was fired by Loria, said last month. “Not Connie Mack [the longtime baseball manager not the U.S. Senate candidate], not anyone.”

Loria blasted Gonzalez as a “colossal failure,” although Gonzalez managed the last two winning Marlins teams, in 2008 and 2009.

Loria was not available for comment. Nor was David Samson, the team president who is also the son of Loria’s former wife. But P.J. Loyello, vice president of communications and broadcasting for the team, said in an email: “I’ve been working with Jeffrey since 1999 and the notion that he micromanages is simply not true.”

Jack McKeon, who was hired by Loria in 2003 to replace Jeff Torborg and again in 2011 to replace Edwin Rodriguez, said he had no complaints about Loria. The most difficult owners cross the line and believe they know more than baseball experts, he said.

“I know Jeffrey gets a lot of static but in four years he never ordered me to do anything,” McKeon, 81, said from his home in Elon, N.C. “He has a passion to win. He was probably the best owner I worked for in terms of staying out the way, and I’ve worked for some dandies.”

McKeon worked for the Oakland A’s eccentric Charlie Finley, who called him each morning at 6 a.m. to critique the previous night’s game.

“He kept arguing until I’d say, ‘You know, Charlie, you’re right,’ ” McKeon said. “I saved a lot of players from getting released.”

McKeon also worked for Reds owner Marge Schott, who did not interfere except for asking players to pet her St. Bernards Schotzie 1 and Schotzie 2 at batting practice for good luck. She also gave McKeon envelopes stuffed with the deceased Schotzie 1’s hair for luck “and the funny thing is it worked,” he said. “She talked like a dockworker but she was a good gal who loved the Reds. She was, I won’t say cheap but definitely frugal.”

McKeon was general manager for Ray and Joan Kroc in San Diego, where he got the nickname “Trader Jack” and wheeled and dealed the woeful Padres to the 1984 World Series in four years, after which he received a congratulatory telegram from Steinbrenner who said, “You picked my pocket many times.”

“We had a $13 million payroll and today payrolls are $100 million and that’s not enough,” McKeon said. “It’s tougher now to be GM or manager. More owners are involved because they are spending a helluva lot more money. And then you have a result like the Marlins, who were good on paper but the players didn’t perform.”

A promise kept

Loria, who required budgets among the lowest in baseball for years as a renter at the Dolphins’ stadium, kept his promise when he said a baseball-only stadium would enable him to spend more on players. He spent $190 million on free-agent contracts to raise the Marlins’ roster payroll to a franchise-record $95 million. His plan backfired. The Marlins lost more games in 2012 than they did in 2011 and finished last again.

His infatuation with Padres closer Heath Bell proved to be a huge blunder as Bell’s ERA ballooned along with his waistline and he blew save after save, then angered his teammates, who considered him a pouty prima donna. Loria was cautioned that Bell, a star in San Diego, might be unfit and past his prime, but Loria paid Bell a whopping $27 million for three years.

The signing of catcher John Buck, a bust with the bat, was Loria’s call. Loria coveted Mark Buerhle and paid dearly for the reliable pitcher. To pry Guillen away from the White Sox, where he had won a World Series, Loria overpaid again, giving Guillen a $10 million deal and the White Sox two prospects.

Loria is proud of his personal wooing of Jose Reyes, ex-Met shortstop. At 12:01 a.m. on the first day of free agency last year, Loria met Reyes at a Manhattan restaurant and opened his trenchcoat to reveal a Marlins jersey with Reyes’ name on it. After a slow start, Reyes was productive, but by then the Marlins were out of contention.

Marlins management counted too heavily on returning core players Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, Ricky Nolasco and Emilio Bonifacio.

Things got so bad by July that the Marlins traded six players, including Ramirez, the disgruntled third baseman. When Ramirez was a rookie, he was touted as the cornerstone of the franchise and projected to be a perennial All-Star. Loria gave him a necklace with the numbers of his .342 batting average arrayed in jewels after Ramirez won the NL batting title. But Ramirez was no Derek Jeter. He was chastised for loafing, disliked by teammates and unproductive at the plate the past two seasons.

“They misjudged Hanley,” Rodriguez said. “They wanted him to be a take-charge leader. They wanted him to be somebody else.”

Rodriguez, promoted from the minors in 2010 and replaced by McKeon in 2011, said Loria was “very involved in every decision and there were good decisions and bad decisions like everywhere.

“I can’t recall one decision he made without input from me and the front office. He is the type to express his opinion and he’d bring in stats and say, ‘We have to make this move,’ but there was always discussion and analysis.”

High expectations have not been fulfilled through the draft or the Marlins’ farm system and management has been criticized for not developing players.

“It’s got to start with sniffing around, nurturing your own talent,” said MLB Network analyst Kevin Millar, who played first base under four Marlins managers. “It takes time to build a team, not just a wallet — and you’re not going to solve the Marlins’ problems next season.”

Millar said he was surprised when Loria fired Gonzalez, who Millar described as “the perfect fit” for the Marlins.

“He was a very hands-on owner but I didn’t have a problem with it,” Millar said. “You don’t want an owner sticking his head in the dugout because he’s not a baseball guy, but you do want him to care about winning.”

Fired, unfired, fired

Loria cared so much that he once yelled at an umpire from his box seat. The exact details of the 2006 incident have never been confirmed, but when coach Gary Tuck told Loria to shut up, and Girardi defended Tuck, Girardi was fired after the game. Then he was unfired — and named Manager of the Year — only to be fired at season’s end.

Loria is loathed in Montreal, where he strong-armed his way to control of the Expos, then hastened their demise by not brokering a local TV or radio deal his first year, unloading a downtown site for a new stadium, and alienating Montreal businessmen, sponsors, government officials and his partners, who sued him for racketeering after Major League Baseball bought the Expos for $120 million (and floated him an interest-free $38 million loan) so he could buy the Marlins from John Henry, who bought the Red Sox. Loria exasperated his fellow owners and Commissioner Bud Selig with his handling of the Expos affair, yet he has emerged with a 900 percent return on his initial investment. Loria infuriated fans by firing beloved manager Felipe Alou. He directed some key trades, including the one for Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu, and the hiring and firing of scouts and front office managers.

Loria eventually needed bodyguards when he attended Expos games. His right-hand man and stepson, Samson, doesn’t tend to smooth feathers ruffled by Loria with his often abrasive personality. At Expos offices, the 5-5 Samson was known as “Little Napoleon.” When they left, they took computers, scouting files, signed baseballs, even a life-size cutout of Vladimir Guerrero.

“People here believe Loria and Samson hijacked baseball from Montreal,” said Mitch Melnick, radio host on TSN 690 and a Montreal broadcaster for 35 years.

But Melnick said Loria was handcuffed at the start by a deteriorating franchise with local revenue lower than that of some triple A clubs. He wanted to abandon awful Olympic Stadium and build downtown, but government leaders rebuffed his calls for public financing.

“People call them liars and crooks but I think initially they wanted to make it work here,” Melnick said. “Nobody wanted to pay for it, including his partners. So Loria said, ‘We’re going to have to strip this thing.’”

“At least Miami got a stadium,” added Melnick, referring to Marlins Park. After years of lobbying and threats of departure, and despite local opposition, Loria won public financing for three-fourths the cost of the $525 million retractable-roof ballpark. He contributed $120 million.

The art dealer

In the art world, Loria deals primarily in 20th century masters such as Henry Moore and Joan Miro in the secondary market, buying and selling works for collectors, working out of a discrete Upper East Side office.

Loria has said he prefers to keep his art business private.

“I’ve never met him, never seen him at shows,” said Wynwood gallery owner Fredric Snitzer, who is on the Art Basel Miami Beach selection committee. “We’ve got a pretty lively arts scene down here but he is not involved in it.”

Loria could argue he isn’t trying to win a popularity contest. He’s trying to win championships, and the Marlins did win the 2003 World Series. Loria believes the hiring of the 72-year-old McKeon 40 games into the season was a stroke of genius.

Loria, an all-city second baseman at New York’s Stuyvesant High, used to attend Yankees games with his father. He still buys season tickets. He lived out a fantasy when his Marlins clinched the Series in Yankees Stadium and he ran the bases in celebration, crossing home plate with tears in his eyes.

He bought huge World Series rings for players and staff. Sparing no expense, ignoring no detail, he specified that each ring have a rare teal diamond as the eye of the leaping marlin.

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