SBJ/January 30 - February 5, 2006/Facilities

Samson steers Marlins toward a new home

The long-term future of the Florida Marlins, unstable for nearly every day of their 13-year existence, will likely be known by the end of the 2006 MLB season, according to team president David Samson.

Samson, in a wide-ranging interview at the MLB owners meetings earlier this month, said the Marlins’ impending departure from Dolphins Stadium no later than after the 2010 season necessitates the club making a stadium deal in either South Florida or one of eight relocation candidates sometime in the next nine months.

Florida Marlins President David Samson has
fought to get the club out of Dolphins Stadium.
Considering Samson and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, Samson’s stepfather, have spent the last six years trying and failing to close a stadium deal, first in Montreal and then in South Florida, the timetable will provide a dramatic test of their oft-debated negotiating skills.

“In order to have something set for after 2010, we’re going to need to know something by the end of the season,” Samson said. “We are truly up against it.”

The Marlins are committed to Dolphins Stadium through 2007 and have one-year options to stay through 2010. The Dolphins in late 2004 eliminated the prospect of any stay beyond 2010, a notion the Marlins do not challenge.

To that end, Samson and Loria since November have engaged in a high-stakes, dual-track mission of trying to find the Marlins a new stadium and new home. Negotiations with the city of Miami are now dead, in part the result of a bitter conflict between Samson and city manager Joe Arriola. But the team is still talking to Miami-Dade County as well as a pack of relocation suitors that includes Portland, Las Vegas, San Antonio and Norfolk, Va.

Even with that full plate of apparent choices, the dealmaking won’t be easy. The Marlins are offering $200 million toward the construction of a $425 million, 38,000-seat retractable-dome stadium, as well as payment of cost overruns. But Samson said the club will not pay for land and infrastructure costs in any stadium deal anywhere.

And in Florida, the county negotiations are happening as the club gutted its roster for the second time in eight years. Payroll was drastically cut to less than $20 million, by far the lowest sum in MLB.

The move left a bitter taste for purchasers of 2006 season tickets, some of whom signed up during the height of the Marlins’ ultimately unsuccessful run for the 2005 playoffs. Dozens of refund requests were received; none was granted.

More directly, the troubled trail of prior stadium negotiations has found Samson and Loria being branded by fans and local politicians as “terrorists,” “liars” and “carpetbaggers.” A town hall meeting in December didn’t go much better, with Samson verbally sparring with angry Marlins fans.

“Either they don’t want to make a deal or David’s too arrogant to make a deal,” said Arriola, who accuses of Samson of reneging on a pledge to cover overruns for a new ballpark on the much-coveted site of the current Orange Bowl. “We’re not willing to have any further negotiations with someone who won’t keep their word.”

Samson and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria (above)
have spent six years trying to land stadium
deals in both Montreal and Florida.
Samson, however, is not without his supporters. Drew Mahalic, president of the Oregon Stadium Authority, said he found Samson in a visit earlier this month to be “very professional and personally charming. He handled himself extraordinarily well and answered difficult questions with humor and tact. My respect for him grew during the day.”

Said Scott Becher, a sports marketing executive who has consulted for the Marlins, “I think it’s a cop-out to blame David and Jeff for what’s happened. They’re in a no-win situation. David at once is charged with slashing payroll, keeping hope alive for South Florida and preparing for a future that may not include South Florida.”

Major League Baseball, for its part, is maintaining an involved, if low-profile, stance on the Marlins. MLB President Bob DuPuy has made several trips to Florida to lobby lawmakers and was involved in last year’s unsuccessful effort to use a state sales tax rebate to help fund a new ballpark.

While baseball does not want to lose the South Florida market, the Marlins are taking a back seat to somewhat similar stadium problems in Washington, D.C. Once that dispute is resolved, DuPuy is pledging “to turn my full attention to their stadium.”

Ironically, Samson has spent the last several months talking to former team owner and Dolphins boss Wayne Huizenga — widely seen as the original catalyst to the Marlins’ current woes — about building a ballpark adjacent to Dolphins Stadium.

It was Huizenga’s 1998 fire-sale of the defending world champion Marlins that initially heightened political skepticism for public funding for a new Marlins stadium.

Samson now characterizes a deal there as “highly improbable,” and while he refused to discuss the issues hindering a deal, he acknowledged they go beyond a funding gap recently pegged at $75 million.

Other ballpark site possibilities in Miami-Dade County include Hialeah, Fla. The talks with county officials, though far from serene, have not devolved into the personal attacks that poisoned negotiations with the city and state.

“[County manager] George Burgess and I have had many hard-fought, intense meetings. Any business deal is going to be intense. But it’s never personal,” Samson said. “We can still have a beer at the end of it. That sort of thing unfortunately was absent as we dealt with the city of Miami.”

In recent weeks, Samson has taken a decidedly more measured posture in his public comments and appearances. It’s a departure from Samson’s time in Montreal with the Expos, where the 5-foot-5 executive frequently squabbled with the club’s then-limited partners and was branded with the office nickname of “Little Napoleon.”

Samson acknowledged the process has him swimming upstream. About to start his seventh season in baseball after a career in investment banking, he has yet to acclimate fully to the intense public scrutiny of the sports industry.

“It seems like everything we do is all or nothing,” Samson said. “An ordinary company goes through what we’re going through, and it’s two paragraphs on page 4 of the business section. But for us, it’s front-page headlines.”

As the Marlins continue the stadium pursuit, the headlines promise further turbulence. Team attendance, 1.85 million in 2005 and fourth worst in baseball, is expected to fall below 1.5 million in 2006. The two-time champions are one of baseball’s largest recipients of revenue-sharing funds — a source of great embarrassment for both the Marlins and MLB — and the unfavorable Dolphins Stadium lease promises to make the final years there filled with low payrolls and on-field losses.

“This franchise has gone through so much more in the last 13 years than any team should have to endure,” Samson said. “It’s sort of unreal when you think about it.”

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