SBJ/19980525/This Week's Issue

Cleaning these fish was bloody affair

The scissors rest.

Six months of hacking, sawing, snipping and clipping finally have put the Florida Marlins in the position they've been angling toward — the lower echelons of baseball's payroll ranks.

The Marlins' blockbusting trade of Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich and relief prospect Manuel Barrios to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile rid the club of Sheffield's no-trade clause, which had become the largest roadblock on the way to a payroll of $12 million-$16 million.

That was the goal set by team president and owner-in-waiting Don Smiley, who is trying to attract investors with a scorched-earth plan that promises a cash flow of $7.8 million in 1999 from the same ballclub that, according to owner-in-retreat H. Wayne Huizenga, lost $34 million last year on the way to winning the World Series.

The Marlins unloaded about $20.8 million and took back $11.2 million, clearing a net of $9.6 million from a payroll that was $33.3 million when the season began. Moving another $8 million when they trade Piazza will get the payroll to $15.7 million, and there's still Zeile's $3.2 million salary that can be shipped off.

Also, 75 percent of pitcher Alex Fernandez's $7 million salary is covered by insurance if he can't pitch this season.

"From a public perception standpoint, we've gotten about as low as you can get," said Marlins GM David Dombrowski. "The good news is that it's over. This finishes off the trades of all the guys from last year's club. Now, it really comes back to how the organization builds back. That's something that will be determined in the coming months."

All this comes at a time when — and, in fact, because — Smiley is trying to secure the financial backing to seal his purchase of the Marlins. He will present his ownership group for approval by baseball's executive committee when it meets in Seattle early in June.

Smiley says he won't publicly discuss that effort, the resulting trades, the future of the ballclub, or the quest for a new ballpark again until he's made his pitch to the executive committee. But the group's hope is that, with Huizenga's deep pockets out of the picture, South Florida's politicos and voters will be willing to finance about 80 percent of a new, retractable-roofed ballpark that would get the Marlins fiscally fit.

Owners will have a difficult decision to ponder in June. Embracing Smiley means endorsing a sell-off that has been a public relations nightmare for the sport — and certifying an ownership group that, at least by appearance, lacks the capital to operate a stable team.

Turning him down means putting another club up for auction. Sources close to Smiley said he and Huizenga are likely to turn to other markets if the South Florida group doesn't get approval.

"You don't see anybody else out there coming forward to buy the club, do you?" one Marlins insider asked rhetorically. "The fact is, this is the way to go if you don't want to lose baseball in South Florida. It's far from perfect, but there aren't a lot of options."

In South Florida, the news keeps getting worse. Two season-ticket holders filed class-action lawsuits against the Marlins on May 18, accusing the team of false advertising and claiming breach of contract.

One of them, Octavio Fernandez, 33, of Coral Gables, has something in common with Huizenga.

He says he wants his money back.

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