Fish Bait

Who will be remembered as the Grim Reaper of baseball in South Florida?

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who insists on making a vast fortune off the backs of the taxpayers?

Or Senate President Tom Lee, who withheld much-needed state subsidies that doomed the bid to put a new stadium in Miami?

How about Joe Arriola, the Miami city manager who became locked in a weird hate match with Marlins executives?

Could it be H. Wayne Huizenga, the billionaire sports mogul who bled the team dry in his classic civic vampire form?

Before you even try to answer, let me make it a lot easier. I just put Lee and Arriola in there as decoys, so you can throw them out. Lee, a Republican from the Tampa area, was acting as a good public steward when he withheld that handout. And Arriola... well, blaming it on Arriola is like blaming it on the alignment of the planets. Arriola happens.

So it's down to either Loria or Huizenga.

It's hard to put the blame on Loria's shoulders. He seems to be a pretty average Major League owner, in that he's a greedhead millionaire who wants to make a vast fortune off taxpayers. Loria's far from a hero, but he's not quite a villain either.

And so the answer is: Huizenga. Which is pretty ironic when you consider that H. gave birth to the Marlins 12 years ago. It goes to show that Huizenga giveth, and — if he doesn't maketh an obscene profit on it — he taketh away.

Since siring the team in 1993, he's been a horribly abusive father. Maybe we ought to call in DCF to save the Marlins. He hovers behind the scene like some invisible plague that can deliver a terrible wrath at any moment. Huizenga fever: We've already caught it.

Trying to figure out how much money he made from the Marlins before he sold the team in 1999 is hard to tell. But we can start with the $60 million subsidy — $2 million a year for 30 years — he's still getting from the state to renovate Dolphins Stadium for baseball. Ask his lobbyist, Ron Book, who engineered the giveaway, and he'll tell you that Huizenga has already sunk all of that money into the stadium.

"He spent substantially more than that," Book says. "Tens of millions of dollars more."

Maybe so, but it didn't all go for baseball renovations. In fact, the cost for baseball renovations was only $10 million, according to a state analysis. But Huizenga got the law changed to broaden how he could spend our money.

To this day, Huizenga — who has given millions of dollars to local and state politicians over the years — refuses to reveal what improvements he made. But he'll keep reaping the benefits of the subsidy long after the Marlins leave the stadium for good. And he'll be picking up that $2 million a year until 2023. How else can he afford his fleet of mansions along the New River?

But the subsidy wasn't enough corporate welfare for Huizenga. He whined and complained about losing all kinds of money while he was building the Marlins into a contender. After his team won the 1998 World Series, he claimed that the team lost a whopping $34 million, which seemed absurd. How can a team win a World Series and still lose money?

The answer was difficult to know because H. hid his finances from the public — even as he was demanding that the same public finance him a new ballpark. Noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist looked at the evidence and discovered that Huizenga was playing a version of the old hidden-ball trick. The owner wasn't counting most of the stadium revenues, including luxury boxes and advertising. The team, it's true, wasn't collecting that profit. But Huizenga was, since he owned the stadium under another company. Zimbalist found that the Hizzy actually made $13 million.

But if Huizenga wanted to make chump change like that, he would have stayed in the garbage hauling business. Wayne's world was dependent upon the new stadium, which he wanted Broward County to finance. That would mean another, fresh, $60 million subsidy and, more important, double the price of the club and increased revenues across the board.

When it became clear that there was no public will to build him one, Huizenga threw a fit and dismantled the championship team, making a mockery of baseball.

You see, he's a football guy. He never cared about baseball, just the idea of increasing his sports empire. When he couldn't get it, he spit on the game and disgraced South Florida.

All in a day's work.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman