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Marlins may resort to catch and release

Wayne Huizenga bought a World Series champion. Now the question is whether he is going to sell one.

Huizenga's Florida Marlins won the World Series in dramatic fashion Sunday night with a 3-2, 11-inning thriller over Cleveland in a splendid Game 7.

The accomplishment was amazing for a team in its fifth season, and the feat is sure to create hope and raise expectations for expansion teams everywhere, especially in Tampa Bay.

And the finale was good enough to redeem a Series that was bashed for its lack of big-city appeal and near-record low television ratings.

But was it enough to keep the Marlins intact?

After spending $175-million during the winter on free agents, contract extensions and manager Jim Leyland with the idea of transforming the team into a winner, Huizenga made the confounding announcement in midsummer he was going to sell it. He cited losses he claimed will approach $35-million.

Speculation has been that team president Don Smiley was going to assemble a group of investors, perhaps including Huizenga. Then over the weekend, Huizenga hinted he might keep the team after all, especially if a publicly financed stadium can be built.

But in either case, the payroll, which topped $53-million this season, is expected to be cut drastically. The Marlins have more than $47-million guaranteed to players, but according to one report, Huizenga said the payroll will be reduced to $18- to $20-million, "and we're not going to be competitive."

Does that make the Marlins one-year wonders?

"That depends on who buys the club and what they do with it," Leyland said. "So I guess it's kind of a wait and see."

General manager Dave Dombrowski, architect of the team's rapid reconstruction, said he is waiting as well.

"I would very much love to see Wayne retain ownership and keep this club together," he said. "If that doesn't happen, then we'll have to react from there."

The Marlins have a rich farm system and a promising long-term future. But maintaining fan enthusiasm would be difficult if the marquee players are traded before the Marlins play their first game in defense of their title.

Adding to the intrigue is Leyland's status. He has a clause allowing him to break his five-year contract if the team is sold, and supposedly he doesn't want to suffer through a rebuilding driven by finances.

But before anyone starts imagining Leyland in a White Sox _ or Devil Rays _ uniform, he said Sunday his uniform next year would be the Marlins' or his son's Little League team.

"I'm like everyone else, I don't know what might happen," Leyland said. "But I will guarantee you one thing _ if I'm managing next year, it will be with the Florida Marlins."

Amid the raucous celebration Sunday night, nobody really wanted to talk about the future. At least not past the three victory celebrations planned for today.

Huizenga said he will meet with South Florida politicians in the next three weeks to get a better sense of how realistic it is to expect a new stadium. There has been some talk of a retractable-dome stadium built on the Miami waterfront, but Huizenga is known to prefer Broward County for a stadium.

Teams playing the stadium game usually have the support of their major-league brethren. But Huizenga's open-checkbook policy rankled more than a few executives.

"You don't do the game a favor going to the post-season when you lose $30-million and feel like you have to sell the team," Cubs president Andy MacPhail said last week. "There's something very _ what's the word? _ wrong about that.

"There will be people in South Florida who are enjoying this post-season who'd think my opinion is nonsense. Huizenga is someone who has been really successful financially as a businessman, but all the emotional satisfaction he is getting now can't alter the fact he is still selling the team because of financial pain."

Even Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, who spent a bit of change to get the Rockies into the playoffs in 1995, is critical.

"I don't see the benefits of spending $89-million on free agents and then putting the team up for sale," McMorris said. "It would be hard to say that this is the beginning of a dynasty."

He may be right. But that might be the case even if the lofty payroll is maintained.

"I don't care if you keep this team together or you disband the team totally, for everyone in here it could be our last chance," original Marlin Jeff Conine said. "There are no guarantees that just because this team stays together for next year that we're going back to the post-season."