On Jeffrey Loria And Ownership

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was in the news this week and, as usual, there was a decidedly unctuous odor to it. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported on Monday night of a power struggle between Loria and Larry Beinfest, the team’s president of baseball operations. Lining up with Loria is Dan Jennings, the vice president of player personnel. Lining up with Beinfest is Mike Hill, the general manager. David Samson, Marlin’s president and Loria’s stepson, is nowhere to be found.

In essence, Loria reportedly has pushed aside or overruled Beinfest on a series of baseball decisions, for less than rational baseball reasons. Although the feud between the two dates back many years — Beinfest has been with the Marlins for 13 years — it escalated recently in the wake of allegations that hitting coach Tito Martinez had verbally abused several players. Beinfest conducted an investigation and promised the players confidentiality. Loria was furious when Martinez resigned because he had hand-selected Martinez in the first place. Loria took that anger out on the players who complained: Beinfest was preparing to promote Chris Valaika from Triple-A but Loria interceded because Valaika had been one of the complainants against Martinez. Valaika lost the opportunity he’d earned for a major-league paycheck.

Beinfest wants to know where he stands. Loria refuses to tell him, perhaps preferring to let Beinfest twist in the wind long enough to get fed up and resign. Beinfest is under contract until 2015. If Loria fires him, Beinfest gets paid for two more years. If he resigns, he doesn’t. Given his history, it’s no surprise that Loria would choose the less costly route — to him.

Marlins beat writer Clark Spencer followed up on Rosenthal’s story on Tuesday in the Miami Herald. Spencer reiterated much the same information but he also talked to former GM Jim Bowden, now with ESPN. Bowden kinda, sorta defended Loria:

In general, [Bowden said], it’s the owner’s team and they “can and should do whatever they think is best for the organization, because they own it.”

“I think people tend to believe that an owner should hire a GM and not be involved, and that’s really old-school thinking,” Bowden said. “There are very few situations left in baseball where the GM has full autonomy in making the call. I’ve never had a situation my entire career where I got to make the call, ever.”

That said, Bowden added that “the most important thing is to be on the same page.”

Bowden’s words stuck with me because, well, he’s right. The person or people who put their money on the line for a baseball team — or any other sports team, for that matter — should have final decision-making authority, even if those decisions don’t make baseball sense or are counter-productive or will ultimately cost the owner money down the road.

There are restrictions, of course. Baseball owners must act consistent with MLB’s constitution and the collective bargaining agreement with the players. But those documents provide fairly wide latitude. The Commissioner’s Office has stepped in on occasion, when an owner acted so outside the bounds. Frank McCourt is the most recent example, but there are others, including the several times the commissioner punished Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner.

Loria’s been mildly chastened by the commissioner a few times, at the urging of the players’ association, who’ve loudly complained that Loria pockets his revenue-sharing money and doesn’t spend nearly enough on payroll. Mostly Loria’s come in for public condemnation, from reporters and columnists like Ken Rosenthal and Clark Spencer, and from fans. I may not like what Loria says or does. You may not like what Loria says or does. But there’s not much we can do about it.

Other baseball owners also have been in the news lately, in part because of their effort to own the news. John Henry, the Red Sox’ principal owner, bought the Boston Globe in August. Henry was quick to dispel the notion that he would take any steps to affect the paper’s news coverage, whether of his team or otherwise. Pete Abraham, the Globe writer who covers the Red Sox beat, tweeted shortly after Henry’s purchase was announced that he didn’t expect his coverage of the team to change in anyway. Three weeks after Henry’s purchase, Bill Shaikin reported that Mark Walter, one of the new Dodgers’ owners, is considering making an offer to buy the Los Angeles Times from Tribune Company.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about a baseball owner also owning a newspaper in the same town. For years, the Tribune Company owned the Cubs and the Chicago Tribune. That relationship came to an end, not because of any impropriety, but because the newspaper business is suffering financially, and Tribune went into bankruptcy, opening the door for the Ricketts family to buy the Cubs in 2009.

And yet, when we hear about John Henry’s purchase or Mark Walter’s potential offer, we stop and wonder: how could that dual ownership not affect the newspaper’s coverage of the team? Would a John Henry-owned Boston Globe have investigated and published “Inside the Collapse,” the fried-chicken-and-beer expose on the 2011 Red Sox team that collapsed down the stretch?

Look at what just went down between the NFL and ESPN. The World Wide Leader doesn’t own the NFL, and the NFL doesn’t own the network, but the very substantial financial relationship between the two led ESPN to withdraw from its partnership with PBS’ Frontline, which is producing a documentary on concussions in the NFL. ESPN came in for tremendous criticism, but it stuck with the decision, at the behest of the NFL.

Which brings me back to Jeffrey Loria and his front office mess. As far as I can see, there won’t be a happy ending where Loria is forced to sell the Marlins to a “better owner” or to run the team in a logical and humane manner. Nor is there any great moral we can discern about Loria, John Henry or Mark Walter. I was simply struck by Jim Bowden’s honest, if not stark comments on the power of team owners.


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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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