Go Marlins!

Wayne Huizenga can't seem to dispose of his baseball team -- so New Times stepped up to the plate

To the reporters gathered before him, Wayne Huizenga appeared to be not so much a billionaire sports mogul as a man shouldering an enormous burden. Head bowed, palms upturned in a sort of half-shrug, Huizenga announced that his Florida Marlins were for sale. The ball club will lose $30 million this year, Huizenga asserted, and in good conscience he couldn't continue to subsidize the team. "When it comes to the Marlins," he added in a meek mea culpa, "we have not been good businessmen."

Perhaps shaky math skills are to blame. Huizenga apparently forgot to factor into his calculations the lucrative benefits of broadcasting Marlins games on SportsChannel Florida, of which he owns 70 percent. And even though the team pays two million dollars in rent each year, Huizenga himself receives those dollars as the owner of Pro Player Stadium.

Sort of like robbing Wayne to pay, well, Wayne.
Those who've heard Huizenga's sob stories before -- remember the one about his Florida Panthers hockey team losing a million dollars a month? -- can't help but wonder if this is just another feint. After all, the Panthers ploy won Huizenga a new ice palace in swingin' Sunrise. Might he now be dome-shopping? Does he have visions of Pro Player Stadium as the world's largest no-haggle used-car lot? Or does he simply refuse to own a team that no longer wears those cool teal caps?

Whatever the motive, Huizenga announced at his June press conference that he wants the team to stay in South Florida. But his civic-mindedness is not shared by his monied local brethren, who have shown a decided reluctance to buy a team that's purportedly venting $30 million a year. The only homey to voice ownership interest is Marlins president Don Smiley, a man privy to the team's supposedly crimson bottom line. With Smiley reportedly many, many dollars shy of the team's estimated $135 million purchase price, it seems that if Wayne really wants to sell, he's going to have to find an outsider. Huizenga's platitudes to the contrary, that will most likely mean moving the Marlins to a new locale.

As Wayne has said he wants no part of any municipal matchmaking games, we at New Times decided to play for him. Unsolicited -- and at absolutely no expense to his impoverished team -- we formed a group called the Marlins Relocation Search Committee with the sole aim of hooking up a team desperate for competent ownership with a city burning to erect a Jumbotron.

On official Search Committee stationery (with matching envelopes!), we sent letters to the mayors of 100 cities across North America. Cities such as Joliet, Illinois; Spokane, Washington; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Wilmington, Delaware; even Waco, Texas.

When the mayors opened their certified letters, this is what they saw: "The Florida Marlins baseball team is for sale. We have been empowered to gauge interest in the team's relocation. Preliminary demographic data indicates that [your city] can support a Major League Baseball franchise. Obviously, further research is necessary. And we need your help. Please tell us why your city and/or region would be the ideal home for the Marlins. Written responses are preferred, and promptness is requested. Due to the sensitive nature of this search, please do not alert your local media at this time."

We braced ourselves for the inevitable rejection letters -- after all, if Huizenga can't turn a profit, who can? But luckily for us, a major league sports team is what well-dressed cities are wearing these days. In the past three years, a half-dozen major pro franchises have moved to fashionable new towns. Bidding for these clubs, which carry with them the all-important "big league" label, has become a sport unto itself.

A mere two days after we sent out the letters, our answering machine lit up with a message. "Hello, this is Mayor Cianci, C-I-A-N-C-I, from Providence," a voice announced. "I'd like to talk to someone from the Relocation Search Committee."

Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., is the kind of politician South Floridians would not only appreciate but probably vote for as well. Although the chain-smoking and toupeed mayor stands only five feet seven inches tall, he is a charismatic titan. First elected in 1974, his administration has been racked by political scandals and allegations of corruption. Cianci himself was indicted, convicted, and forced to resign from office for extinguishing a lighted cigarette in the eye of a man he believed was sleeping with his estranged wife.

After his five-year suspended prison sentence expired, a humbled Cianci won back the mayor's office in 1991. One reason for his popularity is his tireless push to raise Providence's image, especially as it compares to Boston, which lies less than an hour's drive away. Our letter evidently probed a deep-seated inferiority nerve: When we returned Cianci's phone messages (he called twice), he did everything but offer to purchase the Marlins himself.

MAYOR CIANCI: Basically, we are interested. Very interested. Would you like us to come down there and make a presentation in person, or do you want us to send you a packet with all the good news about Providence? However you want to do this, that's fine with me.

COMMITTEE: We're still in the preliminary stages, so it would be too soon for an in-person visit -- why don't you just send the packet?

CIANCI: Let me ask you, are you just shopping the idea, trying to use us for leverage?

COMMITTEE: Buddy, let me assure you that we are serious in our desire to find the best possible alternatives for the Marlins should local ownership not be found.

CIANCI: If you have a few minutes, let me tell you a little something about Providence. It's a great place. It is a city that has really taken off.

Here Cianci launched into a well-rehearsed spiel about the glories of Providence -- how the city is the home of prestigious Brown University, how it's working hard to preserve its historic buildings, revitalize industry, et cetera. A giant new mall recently opened, Cianci added, to be anchored by a Nordstrom. "All roads lead to Providence," he said, and proceeded to list every one of them.

Providence, Cianci noted, is looking to build a new football stadium to woo New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft away from nearby Foxboro, Massachusetts. The synergy of acquiring football and baseball at the same time would be ideal, he said, which was why he had to call right away. They'd build us our own open-air baseball park, he added quickly; the Marlins wouldn't have to play in the new football stadium. "We could build it over by the new mall -- there'll be more than 18,000 surface-level parking spaces!"

CIANCI: Let me ask you, are you troubled at all by the fact that Boston is only an hour away? Because let me tell you, I'm not.

COMMITTEE: Me either! Do you think there are any local groups that would be interested in buying the team?

CIANCI: How about Bob Kraft? Would you like him to buy the team? He's a friend of mine. I could give him a call right now.

COMMITTEE: That may be premature. Why don't we just stick to discussing the merits of Providence?

CIANCI: How are you guys doing in the standings?
COMMITTEE: Let me make something clear, Mr. Mayor. Officially we are not connected to the Marlins organization. Officially the Florida Marlins organization has publicly stated that they are committed to keeping the franchise in South Florida. All we are doing is gathering information so that in the event no local buyers can be found, we are able to offer some possible alternatives. We are an independent group and we are keeping an arm's-length distance from the Marlins organization.

CIANCI: Arm's length.
COMMITTEE: Do you understand what I am saying? Officially we are not part of the Marlins organization.

CIANCI: It's arm's length. I hear what you're saying. I got you. That's perfect. Hey, how's the attendance been for games?

COMMITTEE: Somewhat disappointing.
CIANCI: That's Florida. Those people are not interested in baseball like New Englanders. Providence is ideal for baseball. Baseball in Florida might be great in January or February, but not in July and August. How hot is it there now?

COMMITTEE: 95 degrees.
CIANCI: That's hot. Where do they play?
COMMITTEE: Pro Player Stadium.
CIANCI: Who owns that?
COMMITTEE: Wayne Huizenga.

CIANCI: He owns the stadium and he can't make his baseball team work? How much are they looking to sell the team for?

COMMITTEE: The price that's been reported has been between $130 million and $140 million.

CIANCI: So if I get you a check for $135 million, the team is ours?
COMMITTEE: Buddy, remember: Officially we're not part of the team.
CIANCI: I got you.

Not everyone who contacted us was an actual mayor. Some were mayoral lackeys, as was the case with Biloxi, Mississippi. After checking the standings to see where the Marlins were in the pennant race, Mayor A.J. Holloway ordered his public affairs manager, Vincent Creel, to call the relocation search committee.

CREEL: It says in your letter that preliminary census data indicates that Biloxi could support a major league baseball franchise, and we were just wondering why you would think that. We don't even have a stadium.

COMMITTEE: Well, that census data can be a tricky thing.
CREEL: How many people go to a baseball game?
COMMITTEE: Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people.
CREEL: We don't have anything in Biloxi that would fit that many people.

Still, despite Biloxi's acknowledged shortcomings, Creel couldn't help but make a pitch for the town as a viable site for Major League Baseball.

CREEL: We are a city of 53,000, but I want to tell you, we are equidistant between Mobile and New Orleans. Six million people each year come into the Biloxi area for casino gambling. We feel we are one of the great undiscovered cities in America.

COMMITTEE: Really?!
CREEL: When Mayor Holloway first received your letter, the mayor was excited right away. And we've respected your press blackout and have not alerted the local media.

COMMITTEE: Thank you, that's very important to us.
CREEL: How many letters did you guys send out? Hundreds?
COMMITTEE: Not hundreds. Dozens.

CREEL: So the mayor shouldn't go out and buy a whole lot of Marlins paraphernalia just yet.

COMMITTEE: Probably not.

Remember the Beach Boys' 1988 hit "Kokomo"? Oooh ... I wanna take you down to Kokomo/We'll get there fast/And then we'll take it slow/That's where we wanna go/Way down to Kokomo....

If Greg Aaron, the development director for the city of Kokomo (population 47,000), has his way, Gary Sheffield and the boys will be singing that tune all the way to the team's new home in central Indiana.

AARON: We certainly think Kokomo is a good place for baseball, especially when you look at the area.

COMMITTEE: Uh-huh.
AARON: We are right in the center of Chicago, Toledo, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Cincinnati. They are all within a 300-mile radius. We think we've got a great market for baseball here.

COMMITTEE: Uh-huh.

This steel town in the northwest corner of the Hoosier State is the birthplace of Michael Jackson and family. It's also the home of Mayor Scott King, who called us personally.

KING: I'm putting together my response, but I was wondering: Are you aware of our proximity to Chicago?

COMMITTEE: Ahhh, sure.
KING: Good. We were trying to get a professional football franchise and ran into trouble with the NFL regarding their rules against new franchises within 60 miles of existing teams. So baseball doesn't have that rule?

COMMITTEE: Not to my knowledge. [Actually, baseball has precisely such a rule.]

KING: Good!
COMMITTEE: How do you think baseball would go over in Gary?
KING: It would go well. I'm a lifelong Cubs fan. How's the Marlins' attendance been?

COMMITTEE: Just okay.
KING: The Cubs and the Sox draw very well.

King then noted that owing to the city's failed bid to lure the NFL's Chicago Bears to make the 30-mile move to Gary, they already have a lot of information about building a new sports facility. He also touted Gary's newly redeveloped waterfront along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. (A ballpark would be the perfect complement.) And then the mayor dangled the biggest carrot of all: the possibility of state financing for a new ballpark.

KING: The timing would be right for a new facility!

While the daydream of a Marlins move swelled the egos of more than a few civic leaders, our letter also exposed some budding inferiority complexes, as was the case in Providence and also in Beaumont, Texas. We received a call from David Louvier, manager of economic development for the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, who had gotten word from Beaumont Mayor David W. Moore.

LOUVIER: I doubt we'll be high up on the list. We're just outside of Houston, which I must say, your team was all busy beating up on our poor Astros last night.

COMMITTEE: I'm sure it was nothing personal.
LOUVIER: Houston is rather close, about 100 miles east. That said, you've got teams in San Diego and Los Angeles, and multiple teams in both Chicago and New York. Houston, certainly, is the fourth-largest market in the United States, so I guess that's the next logical step in the progression.

COMMITTEE: Do you have a minor league team?
LOUVIER: We did recently, but they underwent some ownership changes -- as you are now familiar with! [Laughs.] The new owner wanted them to move to another town, and basically he took them. That was three, four years ago. But we've had 'em in the past, so it's something we're familiar with. That's why when we saw the letter we said, "Well, that's certainly interesting. But we'd hate to send you a bunch of crap that goes right down the toilet."

COMMITTEE: Don't eliminate yourself, David! We're not going to discount any city that shows interest.

LOUVIER: Well, it's a good sports community here. There's a strong affinity here for Lamar University. And high school football here is real big -- for a good game we can get 20,000 fans. It's like college football is in other areas.

COMMITTEE: What about baseball?
LOUVIER: Baseball is similar. We don't get quite the crowds, but we have a lot of big-time fans. And right now we'll make many, many trips over to Houston to see the Astros. I'm sure the community leaders will see if there is interest to make an effort at something like this.

We had always considered Fresno an attractive option for the Marlins, though for purely economic reasons: The team could keep the same hats! (You know, the big F.) This fact, however, was not one of the selling points that Mark Bayhi, Fresno's economic development manager, or Rod Webster, the city's economic development analyst, used when they tag-teamed the committee.

WEBSTER: You know, Fresno is located in central California, and this is a big baseball area. Baseball is really strong here. Professional baseball would be welcome here.

BAYHI: We were playing with the idea of building a stadium anyway, to try and bring a Triple A franchise to Fresno. It wouldn't take too much to change the designs to accommodate a major league team.

COMMITTEE: Well, if you had your hearts set on a Triple A franchise, maybe we should look somewhere else.

BAYHI: Obviously we'd rather have the Marlins.
COMMITTEE: Are you sure?
BAYHI: Yes.
WEBSTER: Definitely.

As close as we were to actually drafting a deal, and as optimistic as we were that we could draw Providence into a bidding war with Biloxi, Fresno, or perhaps another town that had yet to respond -- Anchorage? Regina, Saskatchewan? -- a series of unsolicited phone calls from one Edward L. Ristaino, who identified himself as counsel for the Florida Marlins, took the wind out of our civic-minded sails. The reason for his lawyerly attentions? It seems that Nashville Mayor Philip Bredesen had called not Relocation Committee headquarters but the Marlins' Pro Player Stadium front office.

When Ristaino's phone messages went unanswered by the committee, the attorney penned a terse note and mailed it to our post office box. "We are writing to demand your immediate cessation of your unauthorized use of the name 'Marlins,'" he commanded. Among other saber-rattling, he demanded that we destroy all letterhead, signs, and other material displaying the Marlins name, though what seemed to give him the biggest fit was our use of the phrase empowered to gauge interest.

Since we're kind of attached to the letterhead (it features a teal silhouette of Lou Gehrig, and it cost us a bundle), we finally called Ristaino and came clean.

MARLINS' ATTORNEY: Why didn't you say in the letter that you were with New Times?

COMMITTEE: Well, people might not have called us back.
ATTORNEY: Why did you say you were authorized by the Florida Marlins to gauge interest in the team relocating?

COMMITTEE: We never said we were authorized. We said we were empowered.
ATTORNEY: All right, empowered. Why did you say that you were empowered by the Florida Marlins to gauge interest?

COMMITTEE: We didn't say we were empowered by the Florida Marlins. We just said we were empowered.

ATTORNEY: Now you sound like an attorney. So who empowered you?
COMMITTEE: We've always believed that empowerment starts with the self. So in that sense, we empowered ourselves to gauge interest.

ATTORNEY: Are you serious?
COMMITTEE: Of course.

It was at this point that Ristaino began mentioning lawsuits and injunctions. The term tortious interference was also thrown in, as was talk of a restraining order.

After huddling with our own legal counsel, we decided not to send out any more letters: Another fan-based, grassroots initiative right down the toilet, as they say in Beaumont.

One thing we made abundantly clear to the mayors was the need for a total press blackout -- media scrutiny would only complicate an already complex and delicate process. Just one mayor violated our request: the indomitable Buddy Cianci. During an interview with the Boston Globe last week, the Providence mayor couldn't resist bragging that his city was a leading contender for the Marlins and that our inquiry was further proof that Providence is a "renaissance city." When the Globe called Don Smiley for comment, the Marlins president harshly repudiated the search committee's efforts and actually had the audacity to ridicule Providence. With a condescending laugh, Smiley asked, "How big is Providence?"

Although our work here is done, Mayor Cianci deserves recognition for hitting a home run for his town. And he should know there's nothing preventing him from going right over Smiley's head and continuing his dialogue directly with Wayne Huizenga. In its last official act, the Relocation Committee sent Cianci a gift pack of Marlins merchandise, including a seat cushion, a bobbing-head doll, a Robb Nen paper fan, and two tickets (mezzanine reserved!) for the September 21 game against the Mets.

It's fan appreciation day.

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