The Miami Marlins’ ballpark sat mostly empty Monday, which will likely be the case all year, and team owner Jeffrey Loria leaned his back against the bar in a hospitality area, sipping water in circumstances that warranted stronger stuff.
Happy hour, it was not. As part of a three-day public relations blitz, Loria met with a dozen writers and tried to put a positive spin on his widely mocked offseason decisions.
After the Marlins’ dismal first season in their new home, Loria said, the roster dismantling he ordered was the right move because they were headed in the wrong direction. He said a return to payroll austerity was needed because the Marlins lost tens of millions of dollars in 2012 after an unprecedented spending spree.
The Marlins will eventually spend again, and they want to sign precocious slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a multiyear contract, Loria said. He said he understands why fans are upset but hopes they will embrace this year’s young, unproven team, which many expect to lose 100 games.
”We had to turn back the clock for the moment and push the restart button,” Loria said, ”and get these young players in here and get them together and look where we are in another year or so.”
His 30-minute session with reporters was part of an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the Marlins and their owner.
Angry fans have complained they expected the new ballpark to mean competitive payrolls for more than just one season. Instead they endured the latest in a series of payroll purges, which made the franchise the butt of jokes around the country.
Loria is widely viewed as the culprit.
”It’s a constant, sometimes personal pounding,” Marlins president David Samson said after Loria had left the room. ”It’s hard for anyone. On top of that, you’re writing checks. It’s hard. But I understand every side.”
Loria remained silent through the offseason but hired a national public relations firm, and his attempt at damage control began Sunday with an open letter to fans published in several media outlets. He plans to make his spring-training debut Tuesday and face TV cameras, hoping to change the subject.
”Maybe we could take a little timeout here,” he said, a PR aide at his side.
Loria expressed sympathy for fans and his departed players, and saved his harshest words for the Miami Dolphins, who are seeking tax money to help upgrade their stadium. The Dolphins have stressed that their plan is much different from the widely criticized financing agreement for the Marlins’ ballpark, built mostly with public money.
”That smear campaign?” Loria said. ”I’m sure it’s just their effort in order to get their deal done. Listen, I hope the Dolphins get their deal. But it has nothing to do with us.”
Loria conceded the 2012 season was awful. He went on a spending binge and added All-Stars Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, along with manager Ozzie Guillen, but Miami finished last in the NL East.
All are now gone, with Reyes and Buehrle going to Toronto via a blockbuster trade.
”We didn’t break up the 1927 Yankees,” Loria said. ”We broke up a losing ballclub that was going nowhere.”
Last week, Reyes said Loria encouraged him to buy a house in South Florida, then traded him two days later.
”What you were told is inaccurate,” Loria said. ”I haven’t told him to buy a house.”
Stanton was among those upset by the trade, and there’s speculation he’ll soon join the long list of Marlins stars to depart over the years. Loria said he’d like to sign Stanton to a long-term deal, but not this season.
”We’re absolutely hoping that moment will come,” Loria said. ”We will cross that bridge at the appropriate moment, absolutely.”
The projected payroll for this year is less than $45 million, which would likely be the smallest in the majors. Loria said he expects it to begin rising again, but it may be a long time before the Marlins return to last year’s $90 million level.
”We’re never going to get to $100 million,” Loria said. ”We don’t have the TV contract to do that.”
The Marlins’ local TV revenue is the lowest in the majors under a deal that runs until 2020, Loria said.
Attendance is another problem. The turnstile count in the new ballpark last year was 1.4 million, 1 million below expectations, Samson said. He said season ticket sales were barely 12,000, and for this year they’re below 5,000, with most of that drop-off projected even before the Toronto trade that so angered fans.
Many of them want Loria out, but he said the team’s not for sale.
”I’m interested in making this successful,” he said. And then he took another sip of water.