Why does Loria want to own Marlins?Posted: Saturday February 16, 2002 8:15 PM
MIAMI (AP) -- To Florida Marlins fans, the pledge Jeffrey Loria wrote in a preseason publication may sound familiar.
"I will do everything in my power to ensure that baseball regains the popularity it once enjoyed in this city," Loria wrote. "I am confident that it will."
That was two years ago in Montreal, shortly after Loria purchased the Expos. When his stewardship left them on the verge of contraction, he sold the team and bought another troubled franchise -- the Marlins. Now, as his new club begins spring training, Loria expresses the same optimism about Florida's future.
"I'm desirous of the challenge of making this successful," he says. "There's a history of a championship here in the few years they've been in existence. My plan is to build this team back to the championship level."
Pardon those who wonder why the New York art dealer thinks he can succeed in Miami after failing in Montreal. He confronts many of the same obstacles, including an inadequate stadium, fan apathy and -- aside from a World Series title in 1997 -- a history of losing. Previous owners Wayne Huizenga and John Henry were much wealthier and had ties to the area, and both failed in their pursuit of a taxpayer-financed ballpark.
So why would Loria, 61, take on another floundering franchise?
"I love the game," he says.
If that were enough to ensure succeed, the Marlins would be in good shape. Loria, a New York City native, inherited an affection for baseball from his dad, who pitched against Lou Gehrig in high school.
"My father threw two pitches to Gehrig, and the ball was never found on either occasion," Loria once said.
As a youngster, Loria was an all-city infielder and Yankees season-ticket holder. When a knee injury at Yale ended his playing career, he began to focus on another passion: art.
Loria started an art dealership in Manhattan in 1965, and it made him rich. He arranged two $20 million sales in the 1980s and brokered a $50 million purchase of a Henry Moore collection. He specializes in 20th century paintings and sculptures, and his private collection includes works by Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein.
In 1989 he ventured into baseball ownership, buying the Triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers. He sold the team four years later and in 1994 fell just $1 million shy in a bid to purchase the Baltimore Orioles.
Loria broke into the majors in December 1999, when he bought 24 percent of the Expos and became managing general partner. His share eventually rose to 92 percent, but he failed to reverse the franchise's decline.
Branded by some a carpetbagger seeking to move the Expos, he fell into disfavor in Montreal for a series of decisions:
• He kept Expos games off English radio and TV in 2000 because he believed bids for the broadcast rights were too low.
• He hired as the team's top executive his stepson, David Samson, who had no background in baseball.
• He fired popular manager Felipe Alou and replaced him with Jeff Torborg, a longtime friend.
Samson and Torborg joined the Marlins this week.
In Loria's defense, he tried to strengthen the team via trades and doubled player payroll to more than $30 million, but Montreal still ranked last in the majors in attendance in 2001 at less than 7,500 per game. (Florida ranked next to last.) The Expos will likely move or fold after this season.
"We enjoyed the people of Canada," Loria says. "Unfortunately the market just didn't seem to be there."
Marlins radio announcer Dave Van Horne, who was with the Expos from 1969 to 2000, says Loria wanted to win.
"The failure of the Montreal franchise cannot be laid at the feet of Jeffrey Loria," Van Horne says. "The problems in Montreal began 10 to 15 years ago. Sometimes when you're the one holding the keys when the building goes up in flames, you take the heat for the fire, and that's what happened to Jeffrey Loria."
If the Montreal situation was beyond repair when Loria took over, the same might be said of the Marlins' plight.
As baseball salaries soar, revenue at Pro Player Stadium makes it virtually impossible to turn a profit on a competitive team, and Henry and Huizenga lost tens of millions of dollars. With the economic slump and public apathy toward the Marlins, prospects for a new taxpayer-financed ballpark have never been more bleak, and new Mayor Manny Diaz opposes such a project.
"The kinds of losses the two previous owners took on a yearly basis are not sustainable," Henry says. "Jeffrey Loria faces the same reality. South Florida and its leaders have to decide if having a major league team is important to the community."
Loria is unlikely to use much of his own money toward a ballpark. His net worth is estimated at less than $400 million, modest by major-league ownership standards, and he needed a $38.5 million loan from baseball to buy the Marlins for $158.5 million.
But Commissioner Bud Selig was willing to give another owner another try in Miami.
"Jeff Loria and David Samson and all their people believe they can make this work," Selig says. "I believe they can make this work."
And if Loria fails, the former all-city infielder will be 0-for-2 in the big leagues.