A number of 'what ifs' emerging

4/26/2004 - Florida Marlins

We are gazing into our ESPN.com crystal ball. We are stunned to find a sight we never thought we'd ever see:

It's a team playing major-league baseball games illuminated by the bright lights of Las Vegas.

But here's the real stunner inside that crystal ball:

That team we're seeing in there is not the Expos.

Instead, that team is a club you may have last laid eyes on while it was setting an all-time October record for most champagne sprayed in one clubhouse.

In other words, that team would be the franchise now known as the Florida Marlins.

Granted, our crystal ball has been known to get snowy once in a while, so this vision comes with no guarantees. But it's also a vision that could go from the crystal ball to the drawing board faster than you can say "Juan Pierre." Here's why:

We now stand just days away from the Marlins' May 1 deadline for completing plans to finance a new $325 million ballpark in South Florida. We hear that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has been telling people he never has been more optimistic about the chances of having that actually happen. We hope he's right.

But what if he's not?

What if the Florida legislature continues to balk at approving what appears to be the $60 million last piece in the ballpark puzzle -- a $2 million-a-year sales-tax rebate that would expire after 30 years?

The Marlins never quite say what's next. But you sure don't need to click on Mapquest to connect these dots.

What's next, logically speaking, would be a potential race to beat the Expos into Vegas or Washington, D.C.

Oh, the Marlins never threaten to enter that race. But they won't pretend they're not aware of the concept, either.

"Relocation in baseball was always a fantasy -- but now, because of the Expos' situation, it's a reality," says Marlins president David Samson. "It's not something in the abstract. It's real. ...

"I know that when politicians hear that, they assume you're crying wolf," Samson goes on. "Well, they can continue to assume that. But if they do, eventually somebody is going to get burned."

And by "somebody," it's safe to guess he isn't talking about the residents of Butte, Montana.

We should make it clear we are convinced the Marlins don't want to move. Their season-ticket sales have rocketed from an absurd 250 in 2002 to about 9,200 in 2004. And there is more energy around the franchise now, given their parade last fall and their fabulous start this spring, than there has been in a decade.

So they are finally in position to prove to all the doubters that baseball can succeed in the state of Florida.

They also have more pieces in place to make their new ballpark happen than they have ever had:

  • They have a site in Miami, near the soon-to-be-renovated Orange Bowl, for a 38,000-seat, retractable-dome stadium.

  • They appear to be closing in on completing agreements for all of the funding except the $60-million tax rebate from the state.

  • And the hope is that if the plan they present in Tallahassee is that close to finalization, they can convince the legislature to fill in the only crack.

    But in the new-stadium game, as in baseball itself, "close" just means you're still a big hit away. And detached observers remain skeptical that that big hit will come as easy to the Marlins off the field as they have made it look lately on the field.

    The clock continues to tick. The legislature will adjourn for the summer in about a week. And the Marlins are holding firm on either making this happen by early May or ... well, or what?

    They never exactly say. But Samson insists the team can't wait any longer because "we just don't have that kind of time. ... We've got to open [the new park] by 2007."

    For every year they delay, he says, construction costs go up by between $10 million and $20 million -- which is $10 million to $20 million they don't have. That's the economic reality.

    But then there's the baseball reality. Brad Penny can be a free agent before the 2005 season. A.J. Burnett can be a free agent before the 2006 season. Josh Beckett can be a free agent after the 2007 season. Mike Lowell can opt out of his current contract after this year if there's no ballpark. So the only realistic hope to retain the foundation of a potentially dominant franchise rides on the fate of that ballpark. Or ...

    Or on a move to a ballpark somewhere else in this great land.

    Not that moving is either attractive or easy. To move, the Marlins would have to have the permission of both the commissioner and the other owners. And no one knows if Bud Selig would give that permission -- because the commish isn't saying.

    Selig does say, "It's clear that team can't stay in its present facility. It's just not an economically viable baseball stadium. They need a new stadium, no question about that."

    But what if they don't get that new stadium? "I'm just hopeful I'm not confronted with that issue," Selig says, diplomatically.

    And if he is? We've surveyed a number of baseball people on this question. And there is reason to believe Selig wouldn't stand in the way of this team moving -- not if the alternative meant pumping millions of additional revenue-sharing bucks into a franchise holding the worst lease deal in the National League, with no hope of escaping.

    It's reasonable to assume Selig would give the Expos first choice of destinations. But it's also reasonable to assume Loria would be happy to move to either D.C. or Vegas.

    One source, who is locked in on the relocation soap opera, says Loria has "always had his eyes on Washington." Which is, obviously, an easier commute from his New York home than Miami is.

    But another source tells us the buzz inside the Marlins' little universe is that Loria views Vegas as "a gold mine."

    Both destinations come with all kinds of complications, though. And by now, you probably know those complications by heart.

    It's becoming increasingly clear that the biggest obstacle to a move to Washington is Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is now a member of baseball's powerful executive council. Angelos shows no signs of backing off his never-ending fight to keep another team from plopping down on what he views as his turf.

    And Vegas has all those pesky gambling issues. But beyond that, while it may be the fastest-growing metropolis in America, it's still just the No. 53 TV market (compared to No. 16 in South Florida). And it would have a population base (approximately 1.5 million) about the same size as Milwaukee, the smallest market in the big leagues -- although Vegas, we'd dare say, has more tourists.

    Then there are even peskier practical issues. The only ballpark in Las Vegas, Cashman Field, is an unacceptable minor-league facility with 9,500 seats.

    There has been talk of building a 40,000-seat ballpark right off the fabled Strip to accommodate the Expos. But the soonest you could envision that park opening is 2007.

    So where, exactly, would a big-league team play in the meantime -- the lobby of Caesar's Palace?

    It's tricky, all right. And maybe it will all turn out to be moot, if the Marlins' Orange Bowl stadium dreams come true. But if not, we could be little more than a week away from seeing this story explode into a major extravaganza.

    "I still believe we're going to be fine, and this will all work out [in South Florida]," Samson says. "But politics is a rough business. ...

    "This is it. It has to happen in the next week. And if not," says the Marlins president, "we'll move on."

    But to where? That would be the next chapter in a saga this team hopes it never has to write.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.