While baseball slowly escapes the cold grip of the last few months of the offseason, everyone is pretty desperate for any kind of news. That’s only part of the reason a Forbes report seized baseball’s collective consciousness on Thursday:
Two sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Miami Marlins president David Samson has said that there is a $1.6 billion "handshake agreement" for the MLB team. Jeffrey Loria paid $158 million for the baseball team in 2002.
Now, it’s easy to see why baseball got excited about this. Jeffrey Loria is viewed as one of the sport’s foremost villains, and rightly so: he’s demonstrated no real interest in baseball beyond a way to accumulate prestige and make money, he was a major player in the murder of the Expos, and he then leveraged that murder into a league-financed purchase of the Marlins. In his tenure in Miami, he’s threatened to move to San Antonio, coerced Miami-Dade County into footing most of the bill for the Marlins’ new stadium, and engaged in all kinds of other, low-grade chicanery and idiocy, like suing his own season-ticket holders. The Marlins, in the meantime, have been horrible, and not even in a fun way. He’s a terrible owner, and baseball would be better off without him.
There are all kind of practical reasons to contain your excitement at this stage, of course. Loria has been rumored to be looking for a buyer for more than a year now, so an anonymous report that a buyer has met his price by leveraging a ton of debt rather than ponying up the cash shouldn’t be taken to the bank. If the deal actually exists, and isn’t just an attempt by Loria to drum up interest or drive up demand, it seems more likely than not that the league wouldn’t allow it to go through, lest we get a repeat of the Frank McCourt debt catastrophe with the Dodgers.
But! Even if Loria did have a deal finalized to the satisfaction of MLB, there’s no reason to think it would herald a reversal of fortune for the Marlins. The problem is not with Loria specifically, but with owners generally. By nature of who they are — ultra-rich persons, meaning they either inherited a fortune at birth or were cruel and ruthless enough to make their fortune by more traditional means — owners are generally not good people, and even if they were, their incentives are not the same as those of fans of their team and baseball more generally. Owners run teams to make a profit, or because they want to be famous, or because they like being in control of a high-profile enterprise; putting an entertaining product on the field is a desire of theirs only to the extent that it aligns with those more fundamental drives.
It’s possible that Loria would sell to one of the “good” owners, though the debt-laden New York real estate developer the Forbes report describes as the person behind the current offer doesn’t sound like they would fit that mold. But even the “good” owners are that only by the extremely lowered standards of their position, and usually due to factors entirely out of their control. A successful team’s owner is automatically going to look good, especially if they aren’t too stingy with the purse strings, but in all likelihood, they’re still making their decisions to maximize their own goals; they just happen to be lucky enough to do so at the head of an organization with a functioning roster.
And when their goals diverge from their team’s, or the goals of the fans of that team? Forget about it! John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, is quite well-regarded in New England, mostly because the Red Sox have won three championships during his tenure. But Henry, along with Commissioner Bud Selig, made up the other two legs of the stool of evil that killed the Expos. At the time, Henry was owner of the Marlins, but when he couldn’t swing a publicly financed stadium in South Florida, he decided to abandon the team for greener pastures. Despite other, higher bids, MLB rewarded his participation in the Marlins-
Expos-Nationals maneuver by approving the sale of the Red Sox to Henry’s ownership group alone. His good reputation is an accident of circumstance, not the product of a higher character. Owners are not your friends.
So yes, Jeffrey Loria getting the hell out of MLB is a great thing, and well worth celebrating. But given what it means to be an owner of a team, and the sort of people who try to become one, we shouldn’t expect his replacement to be a savior. Until baseball fundamentally changes its management structure, the problem will remain. Loria is just a symptom.