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Loria enemy No. 1 for Marlins fans
Let’s say I’m a baseball fan living in South Florida. Let’s say I went all-in with the 2012 Miami Marlins — season-ticket package, Heath Bell jersey, dashboard figurine of the Red Grooms home run sculpture. And let’s say I consider virtually everything since the first pitch at Marlins Park — the Ozzie Guillen-Fidel Castro controversy, the 93 losses, the July fire sale, the November fire sale — to be my worst experience as a sports fan.
Now I feel deceived. Conflicted, too. I want to watch baseball. I love Marlins Park. But I can’t stand the thought of buying tickets — knowing that my money will end up in the pocket of owner Jeffrey Loria, who has presided over perhaps the largest single-year payroll slash in baseball history.
What should the organization say to me?
“The nine guys on the field are doing nothing but playing their hearts out to win,” Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins’ lone superstar, told me after pausing for a few moments to consider the question. “Yeah, you might not know every guy’s name. We might not be in magazines or TV all the time. But we’re still big-league players. We’re just like everybody else out there on the field.”
The slogan won’t fit neatly on the Marlins’ 2013 ticket brochures. But that is what they have. There is the eccentric ballpark, with the Art Deco flourishes and nightclub in left field. There is the promise of major league competition, however economical. There is Stanton, the 23-year-old phenom who draws opposing players from their dugout to watch his prodigious batting-practice power displays. And that is it.
The Marlins’ modest effort to win back the public trust began Saturday amid little fanfare, with an 8-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Grapefruit League opener drew an announced crowd of 3,504 to Roger Dean Stadium — a decline of nearly 50 percent from the Marlins’ first Saturday home game last spring (also against St. Louis, with whom they share the complex). In Palm Beach County, where the Marlins should have a strong base, a plurality of those on hand wore Cardinals red.
To be fair, the fact that Cardinals fans outnumbered Marlins fans was not breaking news. “It’s always been like that — even after we won the World Series,” observed outfielder Juan Pierre, who has rejoined the Marlins after playing for them from 2003 through 2005. “The Cardinals have got that history. You respect that. Hopefully the Marlins last another 50 years to get that. You have great-great grandparents who were Cardinals fans. It goes back so deep. It doesn’t bother me. You know what it is.”
Even as Marlins fans could feel encouraged by the team’s performance in Saturday’s win — Stanton drove in two runs, and Pierre dropped an impeccable bunt behind a charging David Freese — the day included an ominous sign: Catcher Jeff Mathis was struck by a foul tip during the fourth inning and sustained a broken collarbone. He’s expected to be out for six weeks, likely sidelining him for Opening Day.
Mathis explained that the ball hit his chest protector, a piece of equipment designed specifically to withstand such blows. So this was a freak event on top of rotten luck. Or perhaps it was a cosmic reminder from the baseball gods that the journey back to respectability will be turbulent indeed. “Not the break we needed, that’s for sure,” first-year manager Mike Redmond said.
Loria, of course, is the principal figure in all of this. He scarcely has spoken with the media since the end of last season and wasn’t visible to the public during Saturday’s game. He is about as popular with Marlins fans as Frank McCourt was in L.A. when the Dodgers were in the throes of bankruptcy. The key differences: Dodgers fans have multigenerational passion for their team and are far greater in number.
Loria does plan to meet with a number of local reporters Monday. But it may be too late to win back the most disaffected segments of the fan base. To them, the narrative is damning and fully formed: Loria convinced taxpayers to fund the new ballpark, masqueraded as a big-market owner for a single season, then jettisoned virtually every large contract on the books: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Heath Bell, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Emilio Bonifacio.
Kieran Smyth, a 31-year-old Jupiter resident, watched Saturday’s game from an aisle seat several rows behind the Marlins’ dugout. He actually agreed with some of the offseason moves, aside from trading Reyes and Buehrle. (“People had long-term questions about Josh Johnson’s health,” he reasoned.) Smyth said he will keep supporting the Marlins. He went to at least eight games at Marlins Park last year. He will be back this year.
“Last year, I went with a buddy of mine,” Smyth said. “He refuses to go this year, just because of Loria. He won’t even come to spring training. He lives up in Jensen Beach. He’s going to go to the Mets’ spring training.
“I love baseball, so I’ll go to watch baseball. But I’ll be more selective as to what I’m going to go watch. My other friend is practically ready to switch teams and support the Braves. … I know a lot of people are (upset). I think people are willing to support the Marlins. But they’re not willing to go to games and give (Loria) their money.”
I asked Smyth to estimate what percentage of Marlins fans would attend fewer games in 2013 than they did in 2012.
“I would say probably 100 percent,” he answered. “They don’t like Loria. That’s the biggest thing. They can understand changes had to be made (after last year), but they’d like to see money reinvested in the team rather than tightening the budget and funneling the money out of it.
“If Loria sold the team, it’d be a great thing. But obviously that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. I guess Jeb Bush was interested with a consortium. That would have been awesome. But he (Loria) doesn’t have to sell if he doesn’t want to. … If (the Marlins) win, people are going to support them. But they’re still going to dislike him in the back of their minds. People feel swindled, I think. They feel like they’ve been duped and taken advantage of.”
There’s no way to know — yet — if Smyth represents the average Marlins fan. The collective attitude will be reflected soon enough in the attendance figures. Last year’s home average of 27,401 was lower than the Marlins had hoped and only 12th among the 16 National League franchises. Unless the Marlins have a surprisingly competitive season, crowds are virtually certain to be smaller this year.
The afterglow of last season’s grand opening lasted barely one week, before the tumult surrounding Guillen’s comments about Castro engulfed the organization. And now that ownership’s bond with the fan base has deteriorated, there’s only one thing the Marlins can do to lure fans back.
“If the team would have won (last year), regardless of what Ozzie said, they would have shown up to the stadium,” said Miami resident Fernando Tope, 29, who wore a Marlins jersey — with REYES 7 on the back — to Saturday’s game. “It was more about performance than anything else. Of course, it doesn’t help when the manager is talking about Castro in the middle of a Cuban neighborhood.
“This year, if they win, we’re going to see a better crowd. … Like anything, time fixes everything. Winning fixes it even faster. That’s the difference-maker right there.”
True. So that begs the question: When will this team win? The Marlins have razed their roster before, most notably after the 1997, 2005 and 2007 seasons. As Pierre pointed out, those cycles are much more closely associated with the Marlins’ identity than last year’s large budget.
“From their standpoint, it’s not the first time this happened,” Pierre said. “I’ve been traded. I’ve been on both ends of it. … We’re just going back to the drawing board. We’re going to outwork people. That’s what the Marlins always have been about. I’m not going to say it was out of character, but they never did what they did last year. It’s always been a team they matched together. They developed guys and became good.”
There are particular parallels between the ’06 and ’13 teams: rookie managers (Joe Girardi then, Redmond now); 23-year-old sluggers in their prime (Miguel Cabrera then, Stanton now); nonexistent pressure; youth in every corner of the roster, save a few sagacious veterans. Jeff Conine, the longtime Marlin and current adviser, told me Saturday how much he admires the current players’ attitude and athleticism. He said the Marlins’ energy this spring is the best he’s seen from them “in a long time.”
“It’s a different kind of energy — more genuine,” Conine said. “It’s a youthfulness. Everyone is excited about this season, excited about playing. You can see it.
“The mix we had (last year) didn’t work as a team. I just felt, personally, that team was not going to win. I thought, on paper, at the beginning that it was great. But as I saw the team aspect as we went along, I didn’t think it was playing together as a family. That’s the trademark of teams that win: You play together as a family. I didn’t get that feeling from last year’s team. I thought a change was necessary.”
Apparently, he was not alone.
The Marlins are the fourth- or fifth-best team in their division — which, by the way, is what they were last year, for roughly twice the money. Pierre has set a reasonable expectation for his old/new team, saying, “I really believe if guys bust their butt in here, we’re going to be decent this year.”
That might as well be the Marlins’ new mission statement. After hyping themselves as World Series contenders a year ago, these Marlins guarantee only one thing: effort. And their fans need time before deciding if they will promise to watch.
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