You Say Hoax, We Say Spirited Public Journalism!

The truth behind the misunderstood (and now sadly defunct) Marlins Relocation Search Committee

The reviews are in, and they are uniformly positive:
"A major league hoax!"
-- Boston Globe

"A major league fish story!"
-- Associated Press

"Yahoos at a weekly newspaper in Miami!"
-- San Diego Union-Tribune

Well, almost all positive. Last week's New Times cover story "Go Marlins!" prompted a spate of news stories around the nation. The articles highlighted our formation of the Marlins Relocation Search Committee, a charitable service for down-on-his-luck billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga.

The committee's hunt for a new home for the baseball team Huizenga wants to unload went very well, to put it mildly. Fresno, Portland, and Kokomo, Indiana, were just a few of the cities that virtually begged for "big league" validation. Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci went so far as to line up a buyer and agree to build a new stadium next to a proposed new mall. "There will be more than 18,000 surface level parking spaces!" Cianci raved.

While we are thrilled that our first foray into "public journalism" generated solid leads for Huizenga, other newspapers inexplicably implied that Cianci had fallen victim to a ruse. "Cianci bites at bait," sneered the Boston Globe. "Hoax letter reels in interest," added the Houston Chronicle. Cracked the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Your average Providence Marlin has three pitches: hook, line, and sinker."

No one was more surprised by the misunderstanding than Cianci himself. In a lively telephone conversation peppered with invective, the diminutive mayor threatened to capitalize on his close relationship with law enforcement officials -- he's a convicted felon -- by unleashing the feds on the committee for alleged wire and mail fraud. "I'll see you in the can!" he snapped at one of our hard-working committee members. "I've got NBC News outside my office right now and I am not going to go out there and tell them that I got duped!"

True to his word, Cianci juked when confronted by a reporter from the Associated Press. Even though he knew better, the mayor suggested that the Relocation Search Committee letter he received may have been authentic after all. "Maybe it's like the guy telling the girlfriend, 'If you don't go to the prom with me I'm going to take somebody else,'" Cianci ventured in a story that was reprinted in more than a dozen newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

The media frenzy irritated Marlins spokesman Ron Colangelo, who complained that the committee's good deeds were distracting from his club's improving play. "We're more concerned about what the team is doing on the field right now," Colangelo told the Associated Press. "That's what the people of Florida are excited about. Hopefully, New Times will come out and write about that."

Okay: The Marlins are doing very well on the field.
They can also be a formidable presence in the courtroom, which prompted us to disband the fledgling committee just as an out-of-state bidding war seemed imminent. Reluctantly we tore down the committee logos, shredded the handsome stationery, and disconnected the very busy telephone line.

But try as we might to flee the high-pressure world of professional sports, the committee's post office box continues to overflow with replies from America's mayors. This past week, along with polite no-thank-yous from the mayors of Shreveport, Tulsa, and Orlando, the committee received a half-dozen serious new offers for the team. Lubbock Mayor Windy Sitton wants to set up a meeting. One city in Kansas invited us to "Experience the Topeka Lifestyle." Fresno remains "very interested."

Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi submitted an outstanding package of full-color catalogues, economic indicators, fact sheets (Syracuse receives an average of 112 inches of snowfall annually!), and a Syracuse/Onondaga County travel guide to smooth any possible move. "Leaders of our community look forward to expanding our area's professional baseball commitment," Bernardi stated, "and I stand ready to meet with you at a mutually convenient time."

The most impressive late entry came from Kokomo Mayor James E. Trobaugh, who followed up on our earlier telephone discussions with his city's development director. "Thank you for inviting me to tell you why Kokomo, Indiana, would be the ideal home of the Marlins," he wrote. "As you probably know, Kokomo has an extraordinary baseball history. It once served as the home of the Kokomo Dodgers semipro team. The fan base resulting from this baseball tradition serves as the foundation for boundless marketing potential."

In an attachment forested with exclamation points, Trobaugh touted the advantages of moving the Marlins to his city of 47,000, located 60 miles north of Indianapolis. "Take advantage of Kokomo's affordable and accessible acreage with few political or regulatory limitations," he pitched. "See what it is like to get where you want to go without traffic congestion!"

The mayor also noted that in Kokomo -- the City of Firsts -- the first commercially built automobile was made, along with the first pneumatic rubber tire and the first all-transistor car radio. To this honor roll Trobaugh added a potential new first, in boldly italicized type: FIRST city of its size to be home to a professional baseball team!!!!!

"Your interest in our community will allow us to add this latest distinction to our imposing list of firsts," the mayor continued. "All that is needed is the Marlins' decision to locate in the center of a growing sports market. Kokomo is a part of baseball history. It can be a part of baseball's future."

Although our ears perked up at the mention of "few political or regulatory limitations," we dutifully forwarded Trobaugh's letter (along with all correspondence we've received) to the offices of Tripp, Scott, the Fort Lauderdale law firm screening viable offers for the team. Marlins president Don Smiley, who says he too would like to buy the team, did not return a phone call seeking his reaction to the nationwide interest. Huizenga spokesman Stan Smith, who called New Times a "less than reputable publication," told the Orlando Sentinel "it was all just a scam and a hoax to conjure up a story that had no meaning."

Back in Providence, Mayor Buddy Cianci continued his roller-coaster week. He received word that the proposed shopping mall he's been boasting about -- the mall that would revitalize his city's urban core, the mall that would be anchored by a Nordstrom department store -- might not open after all. The developers are at each other's throats. The whole deal is in jeopardy.

But on a brighter note, as reporters were clamoring for comment on the Marlins, Cianci's office issued a press release announcing that NBC's Today Show will broadcast a segment about his "renaissance city." A reporter for the television show had even visited the factory where Cianci's "Mayor's Own" marinara sauce is bottled. "Once again," Cianci trumpeted in the release, "Providence beams in the spotlight as we reach a national audience.

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