Don't blame rich Marlins because we gave them $3 billion
By Michael Lewis
If building a $3 billion stadium and handing it over for 50 years for pennies didn't faze Miami-Dade commissioners when they OK'd the deal with a wink, they're now horrified that their beneficiary was rich.
Shucks, they say, if they'd known the Florida Marlins had operating profit of $49 million over two years they'd have shaved several million off their $3 billion gift that raised the team's market value at least $250 million.
Now some officials are asking to reopen last year's contract. They want a do-over. They were conned, they say, because the Marlins cried they needed our money or they'd leave town.
Go fly a kite, the Marlins reply. A deal is a deal. Of course we're profitable, and we'll bank much more with your gift. And just you try proving fraud!
Well, while this might surprise my best friends, the team ownership is absolutely right, legally if not morally. This wasn't legally fraud on the Marlins' part. And it's no crime to be cheap.
Stinginess, avarice and chutzpah may have abounded, blackmailing of the public was obvious, but the Marlins never committed fraud by showing false financials — they simply refused to show anything at all.
Yet commissioners lapped it up.
The first rule in a deal is to know fully who's on the other side. That includes character and financial status.
The commission violated that rule by a mile. You have to reveal more to get a wireless phone than the Marlins told commissioners, who then gave away the store.
It wasn't just that most commissioners didn't read the contracts and voted, as they often do, to taxpayers' detriment. It's that they didn't really want to know. After all, if they didn't know they can't be blamed — unless you expect commissioners to open their eyes and ears.
As it was, nine of them — just the right number for baseball — played a game of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
The only thing the Marlins' nine asked about the worst county contract in history was "What's in it for me?"
(Okay, so I haven't looked at every county contract. Show me a bigger horror and I'll correct an error. But don't trot out the airport and its billions in overruns. We control our airport, not our ballpark.)
The I-didn't-know excuse won't fly. The issue is not the Marlins' profits but the county's giveaways. Commissioners had written evidence before voting that the deal smelled to high heaven.
It wouldn't get better if the Marlins were in fact as poor as they implied. We'd still be giving them everything for nothing.
Commissioners should have known before voting it was a multi-billion-dollar gift, even though when three commissioners not on the Marlins' team spent six hours asking about costs before a final vote the county manager successfully avoided the word "billion."
And the advance documents had told commissioners that the manager, the chief county negotiator, had handed the Marlins every penny of ticket revenue at every ballgame for 50 years for reasons we may never know.
He also handed the Marlins control of the stadium for every non-baseball event 365 days a year except a few county or City of Miami dates. The Marlins also get all profit from 10 non-baseball events, then 25% from every other event in a stadium the public owns.
The manager also yielded to the Marlins every penny from naming rights, concessions, advertising and luxury boxes.
Did I mention the Marlins got everything?
Oh, the Marlins may someday start to pay the final bit of construction, up to $154 million, though as the stadium rises they haven't yet had to pay a cent. But if they can cut costs as material and labor prices sink, they cut their payments equally. Taxpayers don't share in savings.
Did I mention the Marlins get everything?
The Marlins will pay $35 million spread over decades for rent — using cash the county has already lent them at zero interest and on which they keep all earnings until it's used for construction, if ever. And that rent is double-counted in their $154 million construction share, even if it's never spent for construction.
Did I mention the Marlins get everything?
This and more in the giveaway column is all in documents commissioners got before the vote. They knew they were about to give away billions and didn't want details.
That massive malfeasance got a free pass until headlines revealed the Marlins weren't poor after all. This wasn't really charity, just a giveaway to a very wealthy ownership.
So now officials want a do-over. Let's get concessions from the Marlins. They never said they were scamming Major League Baseball by pocketing league cash meant for hiring better players. They owe us some money back.
Well, guess what? The most vital part of the rule to know who you're contracting with is to know their character. There aren't enough laws to protect you when you cut a deal with a shark — or a Marlin.
The time for answers and decisions, commissioners, was last year. You had abundant warning. You had ample proof of what a god-awful deal you were signing.
Commissioners, this disaster isn't the Marlins' fault. Divide the blame equally between the county manager you trusted and the Marlins' nine who didn't want to examine the giveaway they signed off on.
The mayor and manager leave in two years. Voters get to decide how to deal with the nine of you.
Don't blame the Marlins for your $3 billion gift. It's on your backs.