The great ‘trade’ and the view from Miami: No free lunch? Just ask Marlins’ owner

By MAX J. CASTRO, Progresso Weekly

Field of schemes: finance capital, which lent $500 million to Miami Dade County to finance the white elephant, take the people to the cleaners in a deal brokered by Jeffrey Loria – the same ”art dealer” who snookered the Montreal Expos for a song.

MIAMI – “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” So goes the saying once famously mangled by George W. Bush. But what do you say when you are fooled not twice but thrice? Forget it, Jake, this is Miami?

I had to resort to fiddling with a memorable line from Roman Polanski’s classic movie Chinatown because popular adages don’t even cover the level of foolhardiness Miami baseball fans, public officials, and community boosters have displayed over the last fifteen years where the Marlins are concerned.

The third and latest nasty surprise was delivered by current Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria. The Marlins this year accepted delivery of an over $500 million gift from Miami-Dade taxpayers in the form of a brand-new stadium. Loria got his present by lying (pretending the team was losing money when it was making it), and threatening (telling county leaders and fans he may take the team to San Antonio if he didn’t get his ballpark). Key public officials, including former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, went along.

It was a sweet deal – for Jeffrey Loria. The Marlins paid $125 million for a $634 million stadium. The citizens of Miami-Dade County, which has tons of needs more urgent than a stadium, including widespread poverty, homelessness, and a public hospital forever teetering on the edge of financial disaster, will pay the other $509 million. To sweeten further, the county threw in an interest-free $30 million dollar loan to help poor Loria pony up his $125 million.

Do the math. When you include the loan, John Q. Public paid 85 per cent of the up-front costs for the stadium and Loria 15 per cent. Such a deal…Now Loria has repaid us by carrying out a fire sale, trading five of the team’s best players to the Toronto Blue Jays for raw prospects, saving himself $160 million in salary obligations in the bargain.

The public gave the team a sparkling stadium. Loria now has given us the near-certainty of a lousy team for years to come. Miamians are mad. They are also impotent. Baseball is a business, and our so-called free enterprise system favours business over citizens and the public sector nearly every time.

How did county leaders get us screwed so badly? After all, it’s happened before – twice. In 1997, just after the young franchise had improbably delivered a championship and the city had begun to fall in love with its team and with its better players, owner Wayne Huizenga set out to systematically dismember the squad, ridding it of all its stars. He sold the best and most beloved players in order to save money big time by not having to pay the high salaries great players command.

Huizenga, who had made a fortune in the garbage industry, had wanted taxpayers to build him a stadium. The irony is that in the wake of the World Series victory the excitement and pride in South Florida was at such a peak that they might just have granted his wish. Instead, Huizinga argued that despite the great season, the team had attracted too few fans to justify his expensive payroll and he had to cut his losses pronto.

What Huizinga failed to understand is that a city’s relationship with its baseball franchise is a prolonged courtship rather than a one-night stand. The team just wasn’t very good until that magical season and so people did not begin to believe they were for real until the playoffs. New-found faith quickly turned to heartbreak and outrage as Huizenga turned Marlins into sardines and that transformation killed any chance for a publicly-funded stadium.

Then in 2005, just two years after the Marlins had won the World Series, a new owner kicked the fans in the teeth again by conducting another fire sale of top players. He had wanted a stadium too and he didn’t get it either. After that, you would have thought any owner asking government for a stadium would be told to go to hell but you would be wrong.

With the track record of Marlins’ owners, how did public officials get bamboozled this time by Loria? There is an ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation that might throw some light on that. But it’s not as if this lopsided deal is an unusual rip off that could only happen “in a corruption-ridden banana republic like Miami” (although Miami does take the cake by falling for Loria’s scam after being nailed twice before.)

No, these type of one-sided “public-private partnerships” have taken place all over the country. Sports franchises manipulate and strong-arm public officials and fans all the time to get what they want. Right here, the Miami Heat still have not paid a dime for their arena. Unlike the Marlins, they at least deliver a good product, but that’s neither a good excuse nor much consolation.

Most important of all, these kinds of deals are not confined to sports. What happens in sports is a microcosm of what routinely takes place in the economy at large. The best exposition I have found of this fact is “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill),” an excellent 2008 book by journalist David Cay Johnston.

Anybody who reads Johnston – and I would recommend it to everyone – will recognize instantly that the way Republicans, apostles of the “free market system, and various demagogues and charlatans describe the relationship between business and government is totally distorted.

Business and the rich suck at the rich tit of government, then whine about how oppressive and unfair it is to have to pay some taxes and observe certain rules in order to kill fewer workers, keep our food more or less safe, burn the planet and destroy the environment a little more slowly, and maintain the vast empire of which they are the principal beneficiaries.

Loria’s sharp dealings with Miami – government, citizens, and fans – is scandalous. But it has become controversial, unlike some obscure government concession of mining rights or a huge bonanza to a special interest buried deep in the byzantine tax code, because sports are more in the public eye and the nature of the scam is easier to understand. The raw deal Miami-Dade citizens have been handed is spectacular but is no anomaly. It’s only an especially cruel variant of the raw deal all but the Lorias of this world are getting in this free enterprise nation.

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