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For opening night of the 2002 Major League Baseball season, 34,351 fans showed up in Montreal to watch the team’s last home opening game.

By then the Expos were a lame-duck team destined for Washington and owned by the league.

The highlight of that opening night, according to an account in Time magazine, came when a fan holding a “LORIA SUCKS” sign jumped up on the Florida Marlins dugout to dance and temporarily evade security personnel.

By then, as part of the agreement to sell the Expos, Jeffrey Loria had acquired those Marlins. In 2003, the team won its second World Series. Then, two years later, with no public financing for a new ballpark, Loria dismantled the team, creating one of the lowest-paid franchises in baseball.

Sure, the team was competitive last season. But as has been mentioned on this blog before, think what this team could have done had Loria even pretended to budget enough for payroll to compete with teams willing to pay Major League salaries for Major League players.

Loria hasn’t even had to dig into his own pockets for payroll – for the last couple years he’s accepted more in revenue sharing than the cost of his players.

This is not to curse revenue sharing. It’s one of the few moves predicated under the Bud Selig era that I think has actually helped the game. But it’s not my understanding that revenue sharing was ever meant to result in Major League owners lining their pockets with cash.

While the owner reportedly committed to a $40 million budget for the 2009 season he’s continued his cheapskate ways this offseason. Free agency hasn’t even started and he’s made three trades that amount to nothing – nothing – more than a salary dump.

Loria and his front office staff moved 30-homer, but arbitration-eligible first baseman Mike Jacobs to Kansas City for a middle reliever who threw 45 solid-but-unspectacular innings last year for the Royals.

He followed up by moving pitcher-on-the-rise Scott Olsen and solid veteran outfielder Josh Willingham to Washington for Emilio Bonifactio and two minor leaguers.

Now, on Thursday, his Marlins dealt closer Kevin Gregg to the Chicago Cubs and in return received another minor leaguer, right-handed pitcher Jose Ceda.

Now, Gregg is no future hall of famer by any stretch. He converted 29 saves but blew nine. But his batting average against was .203 and his ERA was a solid 3.41 – who knows how many more of those games he might have saved with a surrounding cast of guys deserving of being paid at the Major League level?

Jeffrey Loria certainly isn’t the only owner who gets villified for pinching pennies. The Oakland Athletics are sellers more frequently than they are buyers. But they often get in return Major League ready and stud prospects in return and are generally perennial playoff contenders. And the Minnesota Twins have been criticized for chasing down second-rate free agents and not going after the “one bat” or “one arm” that would put them over the top.

But last offseason they also opened their wallets to re-sign Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer. And even with a $20 million-or so decrease in salary after losing Torii Hunter to Anaheim and trading Johan Santana, the team came within a one-game playoff with the Chicago White Sox of winning the American League Central.

AND with the $20 million decrease, the Twins’ payroll was still $30 million larger than Florida’s and nowhere near a point where Carl Pohlad could start pocketing his revenue sharing dollars.

And sure, is it possible the Marlins could go on a free agent frenzy, signing a couple of big-name guys and getting their payroll up to the $40 million Loria reportedly promised? Sure it is. But what’s the point. I can see it now – when those vets team with a bunch of should-be-Triple A players to be 20 games under .500 at the All-Star Break, Loria will say he made an effort. He’ll trade off his free agent signees for yet another collection of mid-level minor leaguers and go back to sucking off of the teat of the league’s large market teams.

Loria’s shenanigans have gotten ridiculous. Short of banning Loria from the game – a move I think Marlins’ fans would find defensible if not desirable at this point – Major League Baseball needs to take action to prevent revenue sharing from becoming just another bad league joke (joining decisions like having the All-Star game determine who gets homefield advantage in the World Series). Whether it’s setting a salary floor or mandating that revenue sharing funds be doled out only in the amount of 50 percent or 75 percent of total salaries and that remaining amounts will be forfeited if not spent, the league MUST act.

The Marlins and their $22 million salary, in this day and age, are a bigger hindrance to the competitiveness of the league than the $200 million-plus salaries spent by the “large-market” teams on the east coast. And it’s not close.

By allowing this to go on Major League Baseball is complicit with Loria in perpetrating one of the great professional sports frauds of our day. It’s almost as though Major League Baseball is looking to shut down the Marlins much like it did the Expos a few years ago. When that happens, I wonder which team the league will hand Loria to dismantle next.

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