Q&A with David Samson
Marlins president discusses future of team in South Florida
ARLINGTON -- When the Marlins take the field Monday at Minute Maid Park, it will mark the franchise's 14th Opening Day.
In the club's comparatively brief history, the Marlins have won two World Series titles, and the team is riding a franchise-best string of three straight winning seasons.
But this year's opener comes with a cloud of uncertainty. Unable to secure a retractable-roof stadium in Miami-Dade County, the Marlins now find themselves exploring all options for a home. Last November, the league granted the team permission to seek relocation.
Without the security of a stadium to help raise revenues, the Marlins streamlined their player payroll, dramatically overhauling the roster. Going with primarily young players, Florida went from paying about $65 million for players in 2005 to the league's lowest payroll now, roughly $15 million.
In the meantime, the Marlins have continued talking with Miami-Dade County officials regarding a new stadium. Perhaps the strongest local option is the city of Hialeah.
The most serious out-of-state interest is coming from San Antonio, so much so that when the Marlins open at Houston on Monday, San Antonio officials will be on hand as invited guests of Florida owner Jeffrey Loria.
Among those expected to meet with Loria are Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger.
Marlins president David Samson maintains it is the hopes of the franchise, and Major League Baseball, to keep the team in South Florida.
With a critical season about to begin, Samson sat down with MLB.com to address some key issues facing the franchise.
MLB.com: For people who say you are a new team, you're young and you can't win, what do you tell them?
Samson: It's never been shown that a team with new players, young players, can't win baseball games. We were young in '03, and two of our most important players were 21-years-old that year. [Actually, Dontrelle Willis was 21, and Miguel Cabrera was 20]. More importantly, Joe Girardi is our manager, and his focus isn't on building toward the future, it's winning now. He expects this team to perform, and he is managing to win. So we go into this season with hopes of competing and winning games and being in the pennant race. If the reality is different, then that's the same reality that many teams, with higher payrolls, will share.
MLB.com: Jeffrey Loria has been very competitive and he has stretched his limits on payroll the past few seasons. What's Jeffrey's mood about this new team?
Samson: He's excited about the players, but he also recognizes what a difficult offseason it was. Because any time you go from the franchise's record-highest payroll to the franchise's lowest payroll, it comes with the realization that we didn't get a stadium deal done, and that our future in South Florida is unclear. That's what is more upsetting to him this offseason ... is the announcement that had to be made in November. Our goal from Day 1 has been to open a new stadium, and it was supposed to open this year.
MLB.com: What can you say in regards to local efforts for a retractable-roof stadium in South Florida?
Samson: Jeffrey has had us exploring other options in other cities, but at the same time, we've continued talks in Florida and Miami-Dade County. We continue to try to find a way to get a deal done. There is no way to handicap where the team will be in three years right now, but it continues to be a desire for us to get a deal done in South Florida. But there have been other cities who have stepped up, and we've had very serious conversations about the possibility of relocation.
MLB.com: On Monday, San Antonio officials will be joining you and Mr. Loria for Opening Day at Minute Maid Park. What should be made of that meeting?
Samson: I've been involved in conversations with the mayor of San Antonio and County Judge Nelson Wolff for quite a while now. And it was important for Jeffrey to meet them. So we're going to sit with them during the game, and sit with some commissioners from San Antonio and get to know them, because that's how you start relationships and that's how you continue business relationships -- by developing personal relationships. As far as what does it mean? We already know the local politicians in Miami-Dade. We're just starting to get to know those in San Antonio.
MLB.com: When the Marlins have their home opener on April 11, will any local politicians be on hand?
Samson: In previous years we've entertained a number of local politicians as we've gotten to know them. We now have those local relationships. We know them. Everyone knows what has to be done in South Florida. There doesn't need to be discussions over a hot dog in Miami-Dade. There needs to be substantive conversations in a board room, not a playing field.
MLB.com: What message should Marlins fans in South Florida be paying attention to right now?
Samson: People need to understand that this is a very important year for us. What we have to do is show people around Major League Baseball that South Florida deserves to be a Major League market with a Major League Baseball team. We and Commissioner Bud Selig have repeatedly said we believe South Florida is a good market for baseball. It just hasn't shown it. Now is the time to start. People can be upset that the payroll is lower or upset that we're looking at other cities to possibly relocate the team, but the truth is, a lot of the destiny of the franchise could be in our fans' hands. Reacting positively to our team, even if you are concerned about the future, is something that can be very important this year.
MLB.com: Do you feel the Marlins will present an entertaining product this year?
Samson: Very. This has been my favorite Spring Training in seven years of baseball. Because these kids are working very hard. I've never seen Miguel Cabrera happier. Dontrelle Willis is a consummate professional with a smile on his face. Just because you haven't heard of the players, doesn't mean anything. I remind people that when we signed Pudge Rodriguez in 2003, some in the media ridiculed the move. As it turned out, that signing led to a second World Series victory for the Florida Marlins. So you never know. This team is built to compete now. We'll see what happens.
MLB.com: If you get a new stadium in South Florida, can we expect to see the payroll rise again?
Samson: It depends what the deal looks like. In cities where the public has fully built the stadium, I can understand the expectations for the payroll to be high. In a community where right now we've offered the fourth-largest contribution in the history of new stadiums, there is certainly a correlation between that contribution and what the payroll can be. So if we have to go even higher to get a deal done here, it will impact our payroll. We have to make sure we save the franchise first. Over the long run, that is far more important than an individual year's payroll.
MLB.com: When will the stadium issue resolve itself?
Samson: Our lease runs out in 2010 -- that's our last season in Dolphins Stadium. So we need to have a new stadium by 2011. In order to open a new stadium in 2010, we need to start building very soon. Previously, we had hoped to open in 2006, and that would have given us a cushion for many years [under the Dolphins Stadium lease agreement]. That would have helped the team tremendously. Now we don't have that cushion. It's not a matter of wanting a new stadium, it's a matter of survival.
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.