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Marlins Close Upper Deck: Can Loria Admit Fault?

The Marlins have the worst attendance in baseball. In fact, for the sixth straight year, the Florida Marlins have had the worst-attended home games in the National League. That’s an indignity they share with the last team that Jeffrey Loria owned, the Montreal Expos, who were last in the league in attendance for seven straight years from 1998-2004. (Loria sold the Expos and bought the Marlins in 2002.) The Marlins’ home attendance is so bad that the team recently conceded that they have no hopes of filling their stadium at any point for the rest of the year: they’ve closed the upper deck of Sun Life Stadium, for reasons of cosmetics and pride — it will provide “a better ambience,” said a team spokesman. But the real reason is that they don’t want to have to pay security personnel and support staff to cover a part of the stadium that absolutely no one buys tickets for.

In fact, the upper deck had already been closed on weeknights, and was only held open on Fridays and Saturdays, which the club is finally putting a stop to. Instead, the team will just automatically upgrade their upper deck season ticket holders to lower deck seats, and nuts to anyone who wants nosebleeds.

We all know about the Marlins’ money issues. Other than Hanley Ramirez’s six year, $70 million contract (and, to some extent, Josh Johnson’s four year, $39 million extension, and the rumored extension that Dan Uggla turned down), the team has shown almost no inclination to spend money on players — remember, they actually earned a rebuke from Major League Baseball just last year for too obviously pocketing the proceeds from revenue sharing rather than investing in players. The team has rarely had trouble finding players. But it rarely makes much effort to keep them. And it has no interest in keeping Sun Life Stadium, either, as the team hopes to have its new park in Miami’s Little Havana ready for Opening Day, 2012.

The Marlins’ move to rope off the upper deck makes sense. Since 2006, the team has averaged a hair under 17,000 fans a game, the worst in baseball. And they play in the roomiest stadium in baseball, a football stadium used for baseball that is capable of holding more than 75,000 fans in gridiron season. Even a respectable tally of fans looks microscopic in that coliseum, and their tally of fans is far from respectable. The team hasn’t averaged 30,000 per home game since 1994, the year after the team got founded; it hasn’t averaged as many as 20,000 a game since 2005, two years after the second world championship. You wouldn’t accuse the team of underestimating the Miami public.

Full disclosure: I feel slightly guilty every time I write about Jeffrey Loria as a baseball owner. Several years back, I met Jeffrey Loria. When I was in college, he took a group of Yale students, including me, to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium. And so I feel that I must admit that I feel bad slagging a guy who bought me a free baseball ticket. In my brief interaction with him, I owe him nothing but thanks.

But his ownership has been disastrous for two successive franchises. While they were busy having the worst home attendance in the league, in a related matter, the Marlins had the lowest payroll in baseball from 2006 to 2009. (After their public rebuke, they leapt all the way up to fifth-worst in 2010, ahead of the Athletics, Padres, Pirates, and, amazingly, the Rangers.) The Marlins won a world championship in 2003, in Loria’s first full year as owner — the crazy year when they started 16-22 under Jeff Torborg, a Loria crony who had previously managed for him up in Montreal, and then went 86-55 under a craggy-faced cigar-smoking 72-year old named Jack Aloysius McKeon.

But since that miraculous summer, Loria’s shallow pockets have produced years of treading water: a 609-615 record from 2004 to 2011, as the team has gone through five different managers, including Jack McKeon twice. McKeon retired after 2005 and was replaced by Joe Girardi, who was fired one year in; his replacement, Fredi Gonzalez, was fired midseason in 2010 after three and a half years’ service. Gonzalez’s replacement, Edwin Rodriguez, resigned a month ago amid rumors that he too was on the firing line. Then, Brandon Hyde was only interim manager for a single day before McKeon came back to Miami at the age of 80. Whatever success he achieves, he obviously isn’t a long-term solution. (He wasn’t a long-term solution even as a young man. He has never been in a city for more than three and a half years.)

It’s rather remarkable that the team has done as well as it has, with such a famously stingy and meddling owner, and it is testament to the baseball operations staff assembled under team president Larry Beinfest and GM Michael Hill. Loria kept firing managers because he believed that his teams were underachieving, despite the fact that his teams usually had the lowest payroll in baseball. Now, he’s closing off the upper deck of his football stadium, acknowledging that South Florida fans aren’t likely to have interest in his latest cheaply assembled last-place team. He’s right. But if he wants to know why, he really ought to look in the mirror.