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Miami Marlins following Pirates' failed blueprint

| Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011

Early on the second day of last week's winter meetings in Dallas, Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria traversed the long, crowded lobby of the Hilton Anatole. Loria's gait was brisk, but not so quick that he would outrace the flock of minicams on his trail.

Loria smiled as he walked. He could have crossed the hotel on one of the upper floors and avoided the crush of the lobby, packed with reporters and front office executives from every major league team. But he didn't want to do that. Loria wanted to put on a show.

Why wouldn't he• Next season, the Marlins will christen their new, $515 million stadium with a flashier lineup. Barely two years after being rebuked by MLB and the players' union for having a minuscule payroll, the Marlins splurged in Dallas.

Expecting huge revenues from the still-unnamed domed stadium, Loria laid out $191 million to sign free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. He also tried to lure Albert Pujols with an offer in excess of $200 million, though the slugger ultimately wound up signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

"It's almost like we have a new expansion franchise," superagent Scott Boras said. "The minnow has become a Marlin."

A decade ago, the Pirates followed a similar path in the run-up to their first season at PNC Park. It turned out to be a spectacular flop.

The Pirates nearly doubled their payroll to $57.7 million, which still stands as the biggest salary outlay in franchise history, and drew record crowds in 2001. Yet, they finished with a 62-100 record.

"That shows that spending doesn't always equate to wins," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "The Pirates are not the only example of that; you see it throughout professional sports. And when (winning) doesn't happen, revenues don't match the expenses, and you have to make adjustments."

By 2004, the Pirates' payroll was pared to $32.2 million, the losing continued, and the team was entrenched in another "rebuilding" process.

The Pirates were busy last week at the winter meetings but were more frugal and far less conspicuous than the Marlins. Pittsburgh added five players -- three major leaguers, a minor leaguer and a Rule 5 pickup -- for a total of less than $8 million.

This year's payroll is expected to be around $50 million, which would be the Pirates' highest Opening-Day mark since 2003. The Marlins' 2012 payroll is projected at $103 million.

"Whether or not it works in Florida, time will tell," Coonelly said. "It didn't work here."

It is important to note that the Marlins have pursued and signed higher caliber players than the Pirates did a decade ago. Reyes, Buehrle and Bell are premier players at their positions. Pujols is a future Hall of Famer. The 2001 Pirates imported Derek Bell and Terry Mulholland, whose best days already were behind them when they came to Pittsburgh.

The Pirates' payroll in 2001 was huge by the team's standards, but it ranked 10th among the 16 National League clubs that year. This season, the Marlins figure to have the sixth-highest total in the NL; signing Pujols would have put them in second place.

"I want our team to be important," Loria said. "I want our team to be recognized for its players. It's all about the players. A few years ago, I got a sense of how spectacular things could get once we got our new stadium. We're working toward that now."

When asked if the Marlins can afford to keep spending at such a frantic pace, Loria indicated attendance, which last year was the lowest in the NL, is a big part of the equation.

"It all depends on how our fans respond," Loria said.

The Pirates drew 1.94 million last season at PNC Park. Coonelly said new sales of season tickets are "way up" and the renewal rate also is up compared to this time a year ago, though he declined to divulge specific numbers. By the end of last season, season-ticket sales had grown by about 7 percent. Coonelly is expecting similar results in 2012.

"We are budgeting aggressive growth in ticket sales, for both season tickets and individual (game) sales," Coonelly said. "Our fans have supported the team. So we're going to take every resource that's generated by the club and continue to plow it back into improving the club."

Additional Information:

Through the years

The Pirates' Opening Day payroll has not consistenly risen since the team moved into PNC Park:

x-2000: $29.6 million

2001: $57.7 million

2002: $42.3 million

2003: $54.8 million

2004: $32.2 million

2005: $38.1 million

2006: $46.7 million

2007: $38.5 million

2008: $48.6 million

2009: $48.6 million

2010: $39.1 million

2011: $45.1 million

y-2012: $50 million

x-Final season at Three Rivers Stadium

y-Projected figure

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