2002-11-23 / Sports

Fishy Trade Leaves Florida Marlins Belly-Up

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

So let’s get this three-way Mike Hampton trade straight: the Marlins give up star outfielder Preston Wilson, veteran catcher Charles Johnson, promising prospect Pablo Ozuna and serviceable reliever Vic Darensbourg.

After accepting Hampton and what’s left of his ridiculous eight-year, $121 million contract with open arms, Florida turns around and pulls off an agreement with the Braves, accepting back in return (drumroll, please)… slap-hitting outfielder Juan Pierre and relief pitcher Tim Spooneybarger.

One wonders exactly how elated Pierre and Spooneybarger are about traveling down Interstate 95 to their new home turf in Miami, because clearly no one else involved in this deal wanted to play there.

Johnson took some unveiled parting shots at Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and a group of his underlings, including manager Jeff Torborg, and Hampton wouldn’t raise a champagne glass to his Rocky Mountain escape until it was clear he’d be toiling at Turner Field with the perennially-contending Braves and not on the tip of Florida.

And why should they want to? The Marlins’ 1997 world championship is but a faint and distant memory, with one total dismantling taking place under Wayne Huizenga’s ownership and another nearly complete now under Loria.

Florida has surpassed Montreal in terms of being baseball’s ultimate barren wasteland, with nothing but thousands upon thousands of revolting orange seats to show for their franchise each night. That’s no small accomplishment, considering the Expos were given up for dead by nearly everyone – including Loria himself, who bolted to the Sunshine State from the Big O.

But accomplished it was, with Loria ordering that any frivolous player that even smelled like part of a competitive team be jettisoned. Since the dawn of the 2002 season, the Marlins have unloaded Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster, promising righty Matt Clement, closer Antonio Alfonseca, slugger Cliff Floyd and now last Saturday’s quartet that included Wilson.

And there’s word that the Marlins may trim even more before this is all said and done.

The Marlins are far from the only team in baseball history to undergo a rebuilding effort, but the manner in which they’ve been forced to do so – two times in five years – is pathetic. What reason could a faithful follower of this team have to possibly think that the Marlins have even one iota’s chance of competing in the stacked National League East?

The only saving grace of Florida’s blatant payroll reduction is that it did just that, slicing their expenditures by $47.2 million over the next three years. Wilson alone was due $27.5 million of that change over the next three years of his contract, with 2005 set up to be a $12 million payday, and Johnson was in line to collect $25 million in what can only be described an ill-advised deal given to a catcher past his prime.

It’s Colorado’s problem now – all Florida has to worry about is sending a ‘Thank You’ check to the Braves’ front office for greasing the wheels and accepting the gift of Hampton, who’s a relatively safe bet to re-approach his Astros and Mets form under the tutelage of pitching coach Leo Mazzone and the safety of relatively pitcher-friendly Turner Field.

For all of the Marlins’ struggles, their baseball grave isn’t stamped and packed just yet. If the Marlins have their collective heads in the game, this is their chance to turn around the game in South Florida, an area which some are already saying can’t support Major League Baseball. Funny, it did a pretty good job in ’97.

Like most pro teams, the Marlins have developed a solid fan base, but they need a reason to come out to the ballpark and blow their hard-earned cash on box seats and hot dogs.

If the Marlins’ braintrust can use their newfound cash windfall for some much-needed player upgrades, wooing a few decent free agents and swinging some interesting trades (Pittsburgh’s Brian Giles has been mentioned as a possible target), they might pump some life back into South Florida’s comatose baseball existence.

If they don’t, there’s no reason to think that the fans will come back to Pro Player. They’ve sat through this song and dance before.

Bryan Hoch appears regularly in the Wave. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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