There is a place no commissioner dares go in the modern world, and that is to pick a fight with an owner’s financial prerogatives.
But Rob Manfred is faced with that very problem now – all because Bruce Sherman has been allowed to gut the Miami Marlins for what by one count is the fifth time in the franchise’s 25-year history.
Clearly the time has come for him to address with his 30 employers the conundrum of the age, namely this:
What is more important to the business, a large market systematically robbed and disregarded, or a billionaire?
Usually, this would be an easy choice – the billionaire. It is how Jeffrey Loria passed muster by waving money in the face of Montreal Expos owner Claude Brochu, then swapped the team out for the one in Florida so that John Henry could get out from under the Marlins and buy into the Boston Red Sox. The money always wins.
But Miami is now all but mined out as a baseball city – never strong in the best of times, which were few enough, but particularly degraded in the last decade and change, first by Loria and now by Sherman. The trades of Dee Gordon, Giancarlo Stanton and, in all likelihood, Marcell Ozuna, all for payroll relief, is a story as familiar as it is craven – the baseball team as ATM.
The argument that the Marlins are just starting over to fix an untenable situation doesn’t fly, of course, because Sherman’s undercapitalized position as owner is something the other 29 owners knew when they raced his approval through the process to be rid of Loria. The idea of MLB taking over the team, as it essentially did when Loria sold them the Expos, was never considered, certainly not at the $1.2 billion price tag.
In other words, they got rid of a problem by assuming the same problem, and the cost is the viability of baseball in southern Florida. Given the minimal relocation options, and the clear bad-faith lawsuit that would await them if they left Miami with a stadium the city paid for, relocation is unlikely, thus leaving the Marlins crippled forever.
Surely the owners must know that this is a strategy that only benefits Sherman when he sells, probably sooner rather than later, and maybe that’s what the owners all want to see – a franchise that can’t fail no matter how comprehensively it fails.
Whatever Manfred may feel about it personally, his job description requires that he bite his tongue. It is not his job to undo what his employers have done -- that's how Fay Vincent got run off.
But, and the owners should have to recognize the danger of their short-term view, this is now the NFL has reached its current crisis – by telling the customers that the entire endeavor is only about the care and feeding of the owners. That doesn’t endure over the long haul.
Or maybe it does. Maybe capitalism has reached its logical extreme in sports, celebrating not the games and its players but saluting one more festival of arbitrage. Maybe all the games should be shown on CNBC, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV rather than the current networks.
In the meantime, Miami maintains its status as the most relentlessly mistreated baseball town in baseball, and given how close we are to Oakland, that’s saying something.