Marlins President David Samson isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind
David Samson has a philosophy that people with informed opinions should speak their minds—which resulted in one of the most entertaining interviews in the history of CEO Connect.
He is celebrating his 15th year as president of the Miami Marlins, including 2003, when they beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. Samson oversees all aspects of the team’s day-to-day business operations and led the completion of Marlins Park.
Samson was born in Milwaukee and raised in New York City. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a law degree from New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Before joining owner Jeffrey Loria’s Montreal Expos in 1999 as executive vice president, Samson worked for Morgan Stanley.
Samson was interviewed by SFBW Chairman and CEO Gary Press in the Ricoh Diamond Club Lounge at Marlins Park. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve been called controversial, outspoken and irreverent. How true are these descriptions, and are they necessarily negatives?
Everyone takes everything so seriously. There are a lot of serious things, but I work in baseball. I’m not curing cancer. All I try to do is entertain. I’m in the entertainment business. The downside of when you are in that business and willing not to be plain vanilla is 50 percent of the time you are going to make someone angry with what you say. I’m totally fine with that.
It helps me do business, because I’m always honest to a fault. So what do I mean by that? I don’t want to waste my time and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. So if I’m doing a deal for the ballpark, I’m not going to talk about the presidential campaign.
I don’t love business lunches or dinners, because I can get something done in 10 minutes. There’s so little time, it’s the only commodity I run out of every day.
I’m a total insomniac, which is great. I’m totally ADD [attention deficit disorder], which is fine. I have great meds, which I never take.
The fact of the matter is, all I do is try to move the ball forward everyday. I try to get something done. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I’m not trying to be overly emotional or esoteric, but this could be it for all of us. Everyone says it, but I act it.
I sometimes act with reckless indifference to tomorrow because I’m very focused on today. That goes for my baseball team and for my personal life. That goes for everything. I’ve been married 25 years, which is shocking for anyone who knows me.
I give interviews and I give speeches, and I want people to truly know it’s OK to speak your mind if you have an informed opinion. There’s nothing worse than reading a bunch of crap. We all have that antenna that goes up.
I learned early on, because my personality was formed as a New Yorker. I was always speaking my mind, because I was always short. I’ve never been punched and I’ve never thrown a punch, but I’ve come so close so many times. I’ve always been able to get out of it with my mouth, which is amazing. Imagine going through high school being small. I wasn’t always this big I was even smaller sometimes—like all through high school. That’s totally not funny.
The answer is, I’m going to say something politically incorrect. I’m totally fine with it.
There has never been anything written about me or that I’ve said publicly that I didn’t plan on saying. Nothing’s off the cuff; it just seems off the cuff. The trick to that is always knowing in advance, even if it’s a quarter-second, what’s coming out and always having a plan. So I’ve never backed off from something I’ve said.
You mentioned you hate business dinners and lunches, that you just want to get down to the point. How do you develop relationships in your world?
My relationships are based on progress and mutual prosperity. I will get right to it. There are certain times we negotiate with players. For example, we were negotiating with Giancarlo Stanton on a 13-year deal. We flew to Beverly Hills and sat in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I said to his agent, “We are about to make history. This is about to be the biggest deal of all time and there are going to be four moves. We are going to move twice and you are going to move twice and then we are going to have a deal. When we are done, you are going to know we’re done because I’m going to tell you we’re done.”
The same thing with Dee Gordon and the ballpark. When you are honest, up front and willing to walk away, you are going to win most negotiations. Winning in negotiation is when you win incrementally more than the other side. But if you win and they lose, you lose because you don’t get to do deal No. 2. If the other guy wins, you are not going to have power from your boss to do deal No. 2. The object is for both sides to win and for you to win a tiny bit more.
How would you describe the dynamics of your relationship with Jeffrey Loria?
Jeffrey Loria is the owner of the Marlins. When I was 8 years old, he married my mother. I was born in Milwaukee and my parents got divorced. When I was 31, I got a call. I was at Morgan Stanley. Jeffrey wanted my help buying the Montreal Expos and I was in banking. So I worked with a lawyer and got the deal done with another lawyer and banker. I was going back to Morgan Stanley. He asked me to stay on for 30 days. Then 30 days became 60 and then 90. Then in 2002, we led a transaction selling the Expos and buying the Marlins. Then, in 2003, he divorced my mother.
The only thing that changed after the divorce is that we “lawyer up” every time I have a new contract. Other than that, it is an honor to work with him. He is very different than I am. He cringes whenever I take the stage. He doesn’t enjoy the public life, but he is incredibly charitable in his own way. He’s incredibly personable in his own way. He is incredibly sensitive in his own way. We really are yin and yang.
What he wants to do is win more than everything, but sports is a tough racket. It’s really hard to win. There are 29 losers in baseball every year. For him, losing the World Series would be losing. Not making the playoffs would be the same thing as losing the World Series. When you have that mentality, it makes it super, super hard.
Our relationship is good. We argue, we love. We have a very personal relationship and a very professional leadership.
Who inspires you as a business leader?
I would say my biggest inspiration was probably my two grandfathers. Let me tell you what I learned from one of them. I learned one of the great lessons of all time in business: Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. He was a straight gambling addict. However, it was a great lesson and I use it every day.
There are only two things your business is doing. You are ether growing or shrinking. If your business is not growing, it’s shrinking. How do you know when to expand? How do you know when to contract? How do you know when is the time to purchase or be purchased?
My other grandfather was a very serious man. He was a lawyer and inventor. He would tell me “no” is an impediment to “yes.” I don’t take “no” from anyone because I believe my way is right. If I can be convinced my way is wrong, I will immediately switch, but it is sure hard to convince me of that, because I don’t come to it off the cuff. I come to my way after thought and calculation because I learned in law school that every decision has consequence and ripple impact. You have to see where the pebble is in the water and what’s next, what’s next and what’s next. If you see all of that, you are going to make good decisions.
When so many stadium projects come in late and over cost, what were the keys to getting Marlins Park completed on time and under budget?
Talk about like when you redo your bathroom in your house. It’s about 200 square feet. It generally comes in two months late and 10 grand over budget. That’s normal. How do we build 928,000 square feet on budget and on time? We started early. We made every decision in advance—where very outlet was going to be, where every chair was going to be and where every piece of carpet was going to be. What was going to be on the wall.
After that we said no to everyone, literally. People come in: “Hey, listen, can I just move my chair and desk? I’d rather have this view. It’s only a $2,500 change.” “I need to add a TV here. What’s the difference? It’s nothing.” No. You say yes to one person and it’s five grand, it becomes 10 grand, 100 grand. It goes up so fast it makes your head spin. We made the plan and stuck to it.
What is the state of baseball now, and where do you see it going?
Our demographics are old and getting older and then they are going to die. We have to figure out a way to get younger. We are trying everything to get young kids to play. We are trying to grow baseball players and baseball fans. We’re trying to figure out a way to get kids off their phones.
We’re trying to find a way to get the 18- to 34-year-old to get engaged. To come out to games and be a part of baseball. It’s a struggle. People find it too slow, to be boring and archaic. It’s not just unique to baseball. High-definition TV has been a very difficult proposition for those who want people to go to games.
Here’s my view of baseball: We are the only place you can go with your friends, family and clients and actually make a memory, have a moment. Not be worried about your own security and not be worried about too many drunk people around you. You actually have a moment to converse and to have a moment to make a connection. We sell connections, which to me are the fiber that makes the world go around. You remember moments during the day. If you go to bed at night and can’t remember moments during the day, it was a terrible day.
The new commissioner, Robert D. Manfred Jr., is on it. He understands young and the importance of diversity. You can’t shut out any demographic and hope to build your business.
How will you make the 2017 All Star Game in Miami a memorable event?
This is the place. We are the event town. We are the party town. We are taking over Miami and Miami Beach. I’m a Broward guy, but we had to choose a place. Do you know why the ballpark is in Miami? [Audience shouts out a bunch of incorrect answers.]
Anybody know who Willie Sutton is? Why did Willie Sutton rob the banks? Because that’s where the money is. All Broward had to do was do what Miami did and we would have had a decision to make, but it didn’t. Miami did a public-private partnership; that’s why we are here. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here.
The All Star Game is going to be good. We only have 37,000 seats, so the only way to get to the All Star game is to buy season tickets. You are going to see Giancarlo Stanton knocking home runs. It will be fun.
How do you think Don Mattingly is doing in managing the team this year?
Don Mattingly has been great. We are leaving him alone and trying to let him do his job. It’s super hard not to want to get involved and think what you know is not right.
Let’s talk about movies. You are a movie buff. What are your top five movies?
I watch a movie every single day. Yesterday I watched a movie called “Accepted” with Jonah Hill. If I’m in a bad mood, I watch “Fletch.” I don’t always watch a new movie, but I watch a movie every day. My No. 1 movie recently is called “Fearless” with Jeff Bridges. It’s about a plane crash and what happens afterwards. It is macabre, delicious and well-written. “Grand Canyon,” written by Lawrence Kasdan, with Danny Glover and Kevin Kline, is a phenomenal movie.
I’m a sucker for rom-coms [romantic comedies]. I do not watch horror movies. I’m scared enough. I’m a Jewish boy. I’m petrified of my own shadow. There are many layers to my onion, and sometimes they smell.
“Let it Ride” is my favorite comedy. It was filmed here in Hialeah behind the racetrack.
“Shawshank Redemption” is in my top 20. I carry in my briefcase a list of my top 100 movies, and every time I see a new movie, I decide whether it goes in my top 100.
When do you watch movies?
I watch very late at night. I’ll get home from a game between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. and I watch a movie immediately. On weekends, I get up very early—before 5—and watch a movie before I work out.
What was your favorite deal?
You talking baseball? You talking life? My favorite deal, for sure, is that my wife was engaged when I met her. She was engaged to a guy who was out of school and working for Arthur Andersen, and I had not even started college. My favorite deal was watching my girlfriend, who became my wife, remove the engagement ring and give it back to a guy who was making way more money than I was. I said to her, “You have two choices. You could marry ordinary and get the white-picket fence and station wagon, or give me one shot and have an extraordinary life.” I was so stupid, but it was really a great deal.
What was it like being on “Survivor”?
They brought me to L.A. They asked me if I was willing to do it. I said yes, and then they dressed me like Thurston Howell and that was the end of that—including the ascot. It was a great experience. I saw behind the curtain. That was a mutual relationship with “Survivor” and CBS. They completely used me and I completely used them and that was fine. I’m into that. You want to use me, tell me and I’m going to tell you when I want to use you and that’s the win and the win.
Question from the audience: Can we see your ring?
This is a World Series ring. I wear it on special occasions. It’s super hard to get.
We have the Yankees logo on here because we beat the Yankees. George Steinbrenner, when he was alive, was going to sue us for putting his logo on the ring because we beat him and he was super pissed. We were celebrating in the clubhouse and he turned the lights out. I kid you not. So we kept partying.
I called him up and said, “Are you serious? Because we’re doing it. If you want to sue us, you are going to relive this loss again and again, because you aren’t going to win.” He didn’t, and I stare at the logo every day.