Jeffrey Loria Is The Real-Life Rachel Phelps

The Miami Marlins have made a splash (get it?!?) this offseason, signing closer Heath Bell to a 3 year, $27 million contract, shortstop Jose Reyes to a 6 year, $102 million contract, and lefty starter Mark Buerle to a 4 year, $58 million contract. That $102 million they’re giving to Reyes is more than the entire Marlins team has made the last two years combined. And, as if all that weren’t enough, the team isn’t done yet, with huge contract offers to Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, and Prince Fielder still being mulled over by the players.

The question everyone is asking is, how do the Marlins, who have perennially had the lowest salary in all of baseball, suddenly have so much money to throw around? The answer is simple: They’ve always had it. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who made his fortune as an art dealer, isn’t the richest owner in baseball, but he’s still ridiculously rich. Despite his wealth, he’s chosen not to spend much money on the team. In 2006 the Marlins’ team payroll was just under $15 million, which is less than several other Major League players made that season, including Alex Rodriguez who was paid $25 million that season. So, why has Loria suddenly decided his team was worth spending money on? Because Jeffrey Loria is the real-life embodiment of Rachel Phelps, the fictional Cleveland Indians owner from the movie Major League.

For those of you who don’t remember the movie, and if you don’t, seriously?, Rachel Phelps, a former Las Vegas showgirl, inherits ownership of the Indians when her husband dies, and she purposely fields a weak team as part of a scheme to drive attendance low enough to trigger an escape clause in the team’s stadium lease that would allow her to move the Indians to Miami. Frankly, the fact that she wanted to move the team to Miami is one of the least relevant similarities between Rachel Phelps and Jeffrey Loria.

Like Phelps, Loria has a bit of a questionable past. When he sold his first Major League team, the Montreal Expos, his ownership partners sued him for racketeering, arguing he bought the team with the intent to move it and then, failing that, devalued it to the point that the MLB was forced to by it as a last resort, while Loria absconded to Miami with the Marlins. The Marlins won the World Series in Loria’s first year as owner, which was something of a fluke since they were such a young team, but since then the team has been mired in mediocrity, in no small part due to their low payroll. As part of the MLB’s revenue sharing plan, teams with higher payrolls, like the Yankees and Red Sox, are forced to pay a tax which is then turned over to teams with lower payrolls, like the Marlins. The money is supposed to be spent to better the team, improving competitive balance around the league, but Loria has been accused of pocketing the vast majority of the considerable sums he’s been given over the years. Most recently, Loria and the Marlins are under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, who believe there were some underhanded dealings involved in making the Marlins’ new $634 million stadium a reality.

The new stadium is where the real similarities between Phelps and Loria take hold. Immediately after buying the Expos, Loria began to talk publicly about how the team couldn’t viably operate without a new stadium. He certainly had a point, as the team did eventually move to Washington, DC, but, after buying the Marlins, Loria started singing the same tune. Again, he had a point, the Marlins’ attendance has been consistently well below the league average and their nearly empty, cavernous stadium is repeatedly the brunt of jokes about ill-attended events.

It took him two teams and two countries, but Loria has finally gotten his wish, a state of the art stadium, replete with a fish tank behind home plate.

It’s been argued that Loria is suddenly willing to open the purse strings and sign premium players like Bell, Reyes, and Buerle because he’s suddenly going to be rolling in cash from the new stadium, which is sure to draw crowds, not just because of its newness, but also because of its more convenient proximity to downtown Miami. In reality, Loria’s Phelps-like scheme to produce a team so bad that it would be forced to find a new home finally came to fruition.

Loria had money to spend on his team’s payroll, and he was getting money from other teams to spend on his team’s payroll, yet his team consistently had one of the league’s lowest payroll. They also had some of the worst attendance figures in the league, so it would make sense that they didn’t have a ton of money coming in to spend on their payroll. And that connection, low attendance equals low payroll, is exactly what Loria was banking on, except he was working it from the opposite end, i.e., if you consistently put a team with a low payroll on the field, they’ll likely perform poorly, and fans don’t often come out in droves to see poor teams, meaning attendance will be poor, which will prove his point that the team can’t survive in their current stadium.

Essentially, Loria wanted a new stadium, and the only way to make that happen was to have a team that was so bad nobody would come see it. He purposefully limited his payroll, not signing free agents, trading away players when they started to earn real money, in an effort to keep the team bad. Not convinced? Then let’s talk about Joe Girardi.

Girardi, a longtime Major League catcher who won a number of World Series rings with the Yankees, manged the Marlins in 2006, the year their payroll was less than the $17 million a year the team is about to pay Jose Reyes each of the next 6 years.

Despite the laughably low salary, Girardi kept his team in contention for the Wild Card right to the end of the season and won the National League Manager of the Year award. How did Loria reward his good work? By firing him. That’s right, instead of being happy about Girardi performing a miracle, he fired him right after the season was over. Fortunately for Loria, he and Girardi got into a very public fight that August, which meant he could fire Girardi and only look like an egomaniac and not like an evil genius with an intricate plan to extort a new stadium out of the good folks of Miami. Loria’s firing of Girardi after his surprising success if reminiscent of Phelp’s claim that if the players she got weren’t bad enough, she’d get rid of them and get ones who were.

The man who replaced Girardi, Fredi Gonzalez, led the team to winning seasons in 2008 and 2009, when the Marlins had the lowest payroll in baseball, and in 2010 became the Marlins’ all-time winningest manager. For that effort, he too was fired.

Loria’s efforts over his time as the Marlins owner have been focused toward getting a new stadium, purposefully sabotaging his team with pathetically low payrolls while firing successful managers, and it’s only now that his nefarious end have met their means that he’s willing to open his considerable pocketbook and financially improve his team. There’s little doubt that the people of Miami will flock to the Marlins’ new stadium, not only because it will be a gorgeous place to watch a game, but also because with the bevvy of new players the team will be highly competitive, but, with Loria, who went out of his way to make life as a baseball fan in Southern Florida miserable, poised to gain a windfall from the increased attendance, they’d be better served to hold fast to the disinterest and apathy Loria has cultivated over the years.

And, if you still need proof that Jeffrey Loria is a bad guy, these are the Marlins’ new uniforms:

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