A Lament

Five years after starting up, the Florida Marlins won a world championship--and then promptly dismantled what they'd built

With the new baseball season under way, Inc.'s Jerry Useem files this dispatch on last season's disturbing turn of events--and illuminates the great business trend of our time.

So I'm driving in to the Inc. offices one morning last October, bleary-eyed from the previous night's marathon of a World Series finale, and suddenly I'm feeling the unmistakable signs of--yes, I think that's what it is--a paradigm shift.

My car radio is tuned to National Public Radio. The oh-so-earnest announcer is explaining that the Marlins--the Miami-based major-league baseball team that's been around all of five seasons--have won the seventh game of the World Series, triumphing over the Cleveland Indians in a dramatic, 11-inning squeaker. The Marlins are the world champions.

Cut to the sound of raucous celebration in downtown Miami. Then the voice of a breathless Marlins fan. "I couldn't breathe," she crows. "Five years I've been waiting for this night."

Five years!

Wow. Now that's fan loyalty, I think sardonically. Perhaps it hadn't occurred to her that fans in other cities have been waiting, oh, say, 80 years.

I refer here, of course, to my beloved Boston Red Sox, who last won the World Series in 1918, when a scrappy youngster named Babe Ruth hurled the team to victory. Bostonians aren't even the longest-suffering bunch at that. Chicago's two ball clubs, the Cubs and the White Sox, haven't won the Fall Classic since 1908 and 1917, respectively.

But only the Red Sox have so artfully, and repeatedly, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. They came within a hair's breadth of winning the World Series in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986, burdening generations of fans with unspeakable pain. Just outside my car window, as I zoom down Boston's Storrow Drive, looms the Citgo sign--the backdrop to the Bucky Dent homer that snuffed out Boston's 1978 championship hopes. ("C-it-go," the sign seemed to taunt.)

Now along comes a team whose storied past stretches all the way back to...1993. And it wins the World Series. That's nuts! In truth, I shouldn't be surprised. For this is the 1990s, the age of accelerated cycle times, of start-ups that become high-flying public companies after barely a year of existence, of 22-year-old high-tech gazillionaires. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, after taking nearly a century to bust the 3,000-point barrier, bowls over the 4,000, 5,000, 6,000, 7,000, 8,000, and 9,000 marks as if they were so many candlepins. Fresh-faced newcomers (WorldCom, Compaq) are suddenly big enough to buy companies much their senior (MCI, Digital Equipment Corp.).

Thus, in fact, the Florida Marlins are the perfect symbol for the times: young, entrepreneurial, and stomping on the old order without apology. The Marlins are to the Boston Red Sox what Netscape is to Digital.

Whoa. Right there--did you feel it? I think I just felt another paradigm shift.

It's only fitting, furthermore, that the Marlins should be owned by one of the foremost company builders of our day: H. Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster Video and Waste Management fame. Huizenga wanted a baseball team and, astutely enough, decided that waiting fourscore years to win a championship was a dumb idea. So he created a superstart. Nothing organically grown here. Who cares about a farm system to cultivate talent for the long run? No, instead Huizenga cracked open his piggy bank, bought the best free agents $89 million could buy, dressed them up in funky teal clothes, and--presto--secured himself a winner.

Which he then promptly dismantled. Seems Huizenga had grown impatient that the team, like so many New Age ventures, was still nowhere near turning a profit (thanks largely to the outsized payroll he had insisted upon). So, to trim costs, he unloaded a few assets: specifically, his first baseman, his center fielder, his left fielder, his bull-pen closer, and his best starting pitcher. Until recently, even his star right fielder, Gary Sheffield, was up for sale. Having gutted the Marlins with unblinking swiftness--thus guaranteeing them the further distinction of being the shortest-lived championship dynasty on record--Huizenga may yet sell the entire club. These days, it seems, it's drop in, cash out, and move on.

Not that I'm bitter about watching these traditionless upstarts douse themselves in champagne. It's just that, sometimes, innovation can really suck.

Jerry Useem is an associate editor at Inc.