by Jim Riggs
Recalling Marlins' First Fire Sale
The Marlins came into the 2012 season with a new name, a new manager, a new publicly-funded stadium and they had spent $200 million on free agents. For all that, the team finished last in the National League East Division with a 69-93 record. So on Wednesday the Marlins announced they are sending $106 million shortstop Jose Reyes, pitching ace Josh Johnson and $58 million starter Mark Buehrle to the Toronto Blue Jays in a trade involving 12 players.
"We finished in last place. Figure it out," Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said.
Marc Sarnoff, the Miami city commissioner who was an opponent of the team stadium project said, "Everybody in the world wants to talk about the Marlins and the fact they're now a Triple-A team."
And that was also the subject in the fall of 1997 when the Marlins, then called Florida, completed their first fire sale. But it came under a different owner and very different circumstances.
The Marlins had just won the 1997 World Series, but owner Wayne Huizenga claimed financial losses despite the championship. So he dismantled the team and it all began only two days after the team held up the World Series trophy.
Two former Jamestown Expos general managers had to witness it first hand.
Jamestown native Dan Lunetta, who was the Marlins director of minor league operations, and Frank Wren, who was the Marlins vice-president and assistant general manager, suffered through the purge in the fall of 1997 and spring of 1998. In the fall of 1998, Lunetta and Wren were back in Jamestown and discussed it.
"We never dreamed it would end this quick," Wren said 14 years ago. "General manager Dave Dombrowsi and myself knew in the middle of last summer that there was a good chance this would happen, but kept hoping we could convince them otherwise. I think we knew once and for all the Thursday after the World Series was over. On Sunday night, there was a big meeting and that was it. Once the meeting was over, it (the Marlins' success) was over."
He added, "It really didn't hit until early the next week when we traded Moises Alou (the team's MVP). That's when it really hit, when we had to start parting with players."
Others to go were Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jeff Conine, Jim Eisenreich and Bobby Bonilla.
"Even though you knew you had to, you kept thinking somebody would change their mind," Wren said. "But once the players were gone, it didn't matter if they changed their mind; it was over. So when they actually started trading players, that's when it was a reality. When we got to spring training and the reality hit that our players were gone, that's when it got tough for me. Spring training was very difficult."
Lunetta said, "My attitude was so thankful and happy that we won the World Series, this (fire sale) was going to happen anyway."
He added, "When you are given an edict by ownership to slash payroll, you either accommodate his desires or you go look for a job somewhere else. There is still a job to be done. We still have responsibilities, we're still getting paid, so you have to undertake those responsibilities with the same vigor you had before all of this happened. You have to be mentally tough."
And it became very tough to watch the Marlins in 1998, when they finished with a record of 54-108, the worst in the major leagues.
"It was painful; the season was painful," Lunetta recalled in the fall of 1998. "You sometimes felt like you were in a vacuum. As hard as it was, it hit me real hard last night watching the Cubs' (playoff) game. And then when I came to the realization of what had happened to our major league club. We should be there (in the playoffs) right now and that's tough to accept."
Lunetta noted he had an "advantage" because he was not involved with the major league team daily, but instead was involved with its minor league players.
"Dave and Frank had to sit through this and endure this every day," Lunetta said. "They had to see the big league team every day."
Lunetta saw the bright side of a sad situation for the minor leaguers.
"We told the guys you're going to have an opportunity this year that you'd not otherwise have because of our circumstances, so you've got to take advantage of it and capitalize, and some of them did," Lunetta said.
He added 14 or 16 players on the Marlins roster in 1998 should have been playing in Triple A.
A few players on the Marlins' 1998 roster were back and they were presented their 1997 World Series rings at a pregame ceremony, but plenty of the former Marlins were playing elsewhere. So the next day, Wren and Dombrowski began booking flights all over the country so they could present the former players with their World Series rings in person.
"None of us liked the way it ended and we wanted to visit each guy personally," Wren said.
They made those statements 14 years ago and now Lunetta and Wren are far removed from the Marlins. Lunetta is in his eighth year as the Detroit Tigers director of minor league operations and Wren has been the Atlanta Braves general manager for five years. They had plenty of great memories of their years with the Marlins, but the news of this week's fire sale had to bring back some very bad ones.