Sunny Florida's Marlins Face Cloudy Future As Team Goes for Sale

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

What's tougher to reel in than a leaping marlin? A profit, if you're the owner of a major league baseball franchise trying to win the World Series.

Baseball fever is steadily rising in Florida as a World Series bid becomes more plausible for the Marlins, who last night began a best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves, this after sweeping the San Francisco Giants, 3-0, in first-round play. In their fifth year of existence, Florida compiled the fourth-best record in the majors (its first above .500) and made the playoffs as a wild-card team.

These days even when it's sunny at the Marlins' Pro Player Stadium a dark cloud looms. It's the one that blew into town in June when Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga announced his decision to sell the team, despite the Marlins' on-field shine and an increase in attendance. The billionaire investor also owns the Miami Dolphins football team and the Florida Panthers hockey franchise. Huizenga says he expects to lose more than $30 million on the Marlins this year. So far, no buyers have emerged.

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Players were dismayed by the proposed sale, but not enough to throw them off their game. "I don't think it had anything to do with our focus," says outfielder Gary Sheffield before a recent home game. "It was just more disappointing, because everybody likes Wayne Huizenga, including myself. You can talk to [him] and not feel intimidated."

Sheffield's slugging no doubt brings out badly needed fans. But he may also be one of the main reasons Huizenga is in the hole. Sheffield signed a $61 million, six-year contract in April. Not only that, Huizenga spent an additional $89 million on free agents, bringing such hitting talents as Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, and Jim Eisenreich, as well as pitcher Alex Fernandez, who notched 17 wins this year.

Marlins manager Jim Leyland, also new, says the spending spree has produced the desired results. "Wayne opened up the purse strings and enabled us to add some things that we felt like we really needed," Leyland says. "Bonilla, Alou, Eisenreich, [John] Cangelosi, Alex Fernandez, I can go on and on and talk about guys we picked up."

But why Huizenga would spend millions and then turn around and announce plans to sell has left many perplexed?

Some cite his alleged plans to sell the Florida Panthers during the 1995-96 hockey season, when that team was also heading for the playoffs. (They made it to the Stanley Cup finals). The plan was linked to Huizenga's demand for a new publicly financed arena, which is currently rising near Fort Lauderdale. Huizenga still owns the Panthers, but says he will sell the Marlins even if a new domed stadium, seen as crucial to further attendance gains, is in the offing.

"It seems plausible that this might be some sort of negotiating trick, yet he says he's selling no matter what," says Robert Powell, who's been covering Huizenga and the Marlins for the Miami New Times. "No one knows what he's up to."

The New Times set up an apocryphal Marlins Relocation Search Committee, to call Huizenga's bluff and help him find a new buyer. After sending out letters, the search lured in major league-hungry mayors from Providence, R.I.; Portland, Ore.; Fresno, Calif.; and other cities. But the paper folded the bogus committee after Marlins' lawyers threatened to sue for unauthorized use of the team name.

Huizenga insists he wants the team to stay in Florida, not only to be loyal to fans, but also for financial reasons - he owns the stadium the Marlins play in.

Pro Player Stadium (formerly Joe Robbie Stadium) originally housed only the Miami Dolphins football team and is central to any discussion about whether the Marlins can be a championship contender and profitable. The 70,000-seat stadium, which limits baseball seating to 40,000, is located in an isolated area north of Miami, near Florida's turnpike and not far from Fort Lauderdale.

"A winning team does solve a lot of problems, but a winning team doesn't solve all of our problems," says Jim Ross, the Marlins vice president of sales and marketing. He says research shows that the biggest barrier to increased attendance is Florida's tropical climate, specifically rain. (The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays will play in a domed stadium next year.)

Marlins attendance, which averaged about 29,500 a game during the regular season, increased 36 percent over 1996. Still, it is too low to get the Marlins over the financial hump, according to the front office. For many Marlins fans, any gloom brought on by the weather - or Huizenga's decision to sell the team - has been thoroughly dispelled by the Marlins' glowing play on the field.

"It doesn't really matter to me who owns the team, as long as they keep it here," says fan Steve Casalaspro. Like others, he's beginning to have dreams of the Marlins reaching the World Series. "They've got the pitching, they've got the bats. They could take it," he says.

Even if the Marlins were to make it to the World Series, disappointment could still lie ahead for fans. Some team executives concede privately that, after this season, whoever buys the franchise may have to send at least a couple of very expensive players to another team, if the Marlins are to ever turn a profit.

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