If they ever win, will Miami care? Why the Marlins’ biggest rival is apathy

If they ever win, will Miami care? Why the Marlins’ biggest rival is apathy post thumbnail image

MIAMI — NEW T-SHIRTS waited atop the black, reclining lounge chairs in front of every locker in the Miami Marlins‘ home clubhouse — bright yellow, adorned in blue and pink, with the phrase “Un Verano Con Sandy” emblazoned on the front, a nod to Bad Bunny’s hit album. It was early last Wednesday afternoon, roughly four hours before first pitch, and four inflatable palm trees had already sprouted behind one of the lower sections of the third-base side at loanDepot Park.

The Marlins call it “Sandy’s Beach.”

It’s the team’s attempt to make Sandy Alcantara‘s home starts an event, to re-create the excitement of “King’s Court” in Seattle, when thousands of yellow-clad Mariners fans crowded the left-field corner during Felix Hernandez‘s outings. But by the midway point of a midweek game against the Cincinnati Reds, a seating section with a capacity of 162 included under 20 fans wearing those giveaway shirts and few others scattered throughout. When Alcantara came back out for the seventh inning of what would become the first complete-game shutout of a Cy Young Award-worthy season, the loudest roars from this section came from the people employed by the team — one dressed as a lifeguard, two others outfitted in Hawaiian shirts and another enveloped in a polyester shark costume.

It encapsulated everything you need to know about the Marlins and their perpetual quest to resonate within the most unique city in America: They’re trying, but it just isn’t happening yet. And so the big question — Will it ever? — still lingers.

THE MARLINS RETURNED home on July 11 after splitting a four-game road series against the National League East-rival New York Mets. They had fought their way back into relevance after a brutal month of May, sitting only two games below .500 heading into their final homestand before the All-Star break. The players believed they needed to get on a run if they wanted to keep the team together beyond the upcoming trade deadline. Veteran infielder Miguel Rojas was hoping for a good showing from the fans to spur them on. Instead, less than 10,000 showed up for each of the first three games. Rojas, the longest-tenured Marlin and now a leader in their clubhouse, was disappointed.

“But I understand,” Rojas said. “Because the thing is that the fans in Miami, they haven’t gotten what they wanted for a long time. I understand we haven’t really won, so it’s really hard for us to ask for more, even when we expect a little bit more from the fans. We haven’t done anything to make them feel like they should be coming out.”

The Marlins arrived in South Florida in 1993 and won two World Series titles in their first 10 years of existence, but their history is composed of failing — voluntarily or otherwise — to capitalize on momentum.

The starkest example came early, when a star-laden, championship-winning roster was immediately torn apart. The Marlins went from World Series glory in 1997 to 108 losses in 1998, a historic downfall that caused an immeasurable number of fans to turn away from the franchise for good. Just five years later, the 2003 season produced another championship with a plucky underdog team that was ultimately beloved, but the luster quickly faded thereafter.

Miguel Cabrera was sent away in 2007, when he was still only 24. The payroll shot up with the arrival of household names leading up to the opening of a new ballpark in 2012, only for most of those players to be dealt the ensuing offseason. Four years later, Jose Fernandez, a Cuban prodigy on his way to superstardom, died in a boating accident, a devastating blow to the community at large. When Bruce Sherman was approved as the franchise’s fourth owner in September 2017, the Marlins were on their way to an eighth consecutive losing season. Sherman and then-CEO Derek Jeter responded with another aggressive rebuild, trading away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and, later, J.T. Realmuto for prospects and savings.

It triggered the worst type of emotion from locals: apathy.

In response to the new ballpark, the Marlins averaged 27,401 fans in 2012, the fourth-largest sum in their history. But the numbers fell below 22,000 over each of the next five years. At the start of the latest rebuild, attendance cratered — to 10,014 in 2018 and 10,016 in 2019, by far the lowest in the sport. The Marlins have come off back-to-back seasons impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with a 16% increase in 2022, but their season average of 11,633 still puts them in 29th place, ahead of only an Oakland Athletics team vying for relocation.

It’s a circumstance that has made many wonder if the people of their city will ever care, even if the Marlins start to win.

“I think we have to put that sustained winner out there to be able to answer that question,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said, “and that’s what we really haven’t been able to do yet.”

MONEY, AS ALWAYS, is their greatest obstacle.

The Marlins’ payroll this year stands at $83 million — 26th in the majors, but the fourth largest in their history. The three prior times the team exceeded that number, the franchise unloaded significant amounts of money. It’s a sign that the Marlins can’t operate at those levels — or, at least, that they are unwilling to — if the team is not legitimately contending.

Asked how they can sustain themselves long term under those circumstances, Marlins general manager Kim Ng put it simply: “I think we have to scout and develop players better. Period.”

Ng was hired by Jeter, the iconic New York Yankees shortstop, in November 2020, on the heels of a surprising postseason berth in a coronavirus-shortened season. Fifteen months later, in February 2022, Jeter stepped aside as the Marlins’ CEO and one of its shareholders leading up to the fifth and final season of his contract, a departure that was billed as a mutual parting of ways. Gary Denbo, described by many as Jeter’s right-hand man, was let go as vice president of player development in June, an outcome people throughout baseball had long considered an inevitability.

The Marlins have moved forward with Ng, the first female GM in MLB history, and Caroline O’Connor, who runs the business side, as their core leaders. Mattingly admitted that Jeter’s departure caused a lot of uncertainty over how the franchise would move forward, given his overarching influence, but added that “it seems like things have settled down.” Mattingly’s own future, however, is uncertain. His contract is expiring, and there’s no telling whether a new one will materialize.

“That was really my reason for coming here in the beginning was really to try to be a voice in putting a sustained winner on the field in Miami,” said Mattingly, winding down his seventh season with the Marlins. “For me, it hasn’t gone the way I wanted. I didn’t realize there was gonna be an ownership change and go through a build and all that. I just want the organization to do well.”

The Marlins, 11 games below .500 and 22 games out of first place, are pacing toward their 12th losing season in 13 years. But there is legitimate reason for optimism.

It’s rooted in their pitching.

Through a combination of savvy trades, shrewd international signings and successful drafts — both by this front-office group and the one before it — the Marlins have built a stable of organizational pitching that is the envy of many throughout the industry. Alcantara, signed to a five-year, $56 million extension in the offseason, is already one of the best pitchers in the sport. But Pablo Lopez has performed like one of the game’s most reliable No. 2 starters. Behind them are Jesus Luzardo, Braxton Garrett, Sixto Sanchez and Edward Cabrera, none of whom has reached his arbitration years. Max Meyer, a promising 24-year-old right-hander who tore his ulnar collateral ligament during his second major league start, should be part of the 2024 rotation. By then, highly touted prospects like Eury Perez and Jake Eder could be ready to matriculate from the minor leagues.

“It’s special,” Marlins first baseman Garrett Cooper said. “If I’m here in the next few years, I’d love to see where it leads them.”

Emboldened by their stockpile of young arms, the Marlins legitimately eyed contention in 2022. They committed a combined $89 million to Jorge Soler and Avisail Garcia but watched them struggle mightily to adjust within a spacious ballpark without much carry. They traded for the versatile, highly regarded Joey Wendle, envisioning an infield that could match up against the tough pitching in the NL East, but midseason injuries to Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Jon Berti, the two biggest speed threats in their lineup, made their offense noticeably one-dimensional.

A 12-8 April was followed by a 1-9 start to May. A 27-game stretch of 17 victories from June 7 to July 5 was followed by a two-week stretch from July 15 to 29 that saw 10 different players head to the injured list. The Marlins finished July getting swept by the Mets in a three-game series in which they were outscored by a combined 12 runs. Mattingly said they were “manhandled.” He called it “eye-opening.”

At this point, there seems to be as much encouragement about the Marlins’ pitching as there is concern about their hitting.

Soler, Garcia and Jacob Stallings, another offseason acquisition, have struggled. But aside from Chisholm, ascending in his age-24 season before back issues materialized, none of their hitting prospects has yet to pan out. Scouts question whether Lewin Diaz will hit, whether Jesus Sanchez will command the strike zone, whether JJ Bleday will become more than a backup.

The upcoming free-agent class features a star-studded class of shortstops, including Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson and potentially Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts. Any one of them would be an ideal fit in Miami, but the Marlins probably won’t compete for those players. Instead, they’ll likely use their organizational pitching to access high-impact position players via trade.

The Marlins were hoping to use Lopez as a means to acquire a young hitter with star potential before the trade deadline — ideally to plug into center field or the left side of their infield — but came away underwhelmed by the offers. The expectation is that they’ll try again in the offseason, when Lopez will still have two years of control remaining. They have the flexibility to trade other arms too.

It’s their best option.

“I’ve played baseball long enough to know that pitching gets it done, and we definitely have enough pitching,” Marlins reliever Richard Bleier said. “When you have a foundation like that, you’re extremely close.”

ENCOURAGEMENT COMES IN subtle ways. O’Connor, the COO tasked, in part, with outreach, sees it in the packed little league fields she takes her sons to on Saturdays, a sign of the widespread love of baseball within a city of deep-rooted Caribbean influence. She sees it every time a child shows up to a game in a Marlins cap (even if the parent is wearing the logo of another team), an indication that they might be reaching the next generation.

“I know there’s baseball fans in Miami,” said Bleier, who grew up in Broward County when the Marlins shared a stadium with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in the area. “When we play other teams — Yankees, Mets — people come out. So there are people who are willing to watch games. They come out.”

Led by O’Connor, who arrived in the fall of 2017 after more than a decade at investment firms, the Marlins have been courting that audience with what amounts to a three-pronged approach:

By targeting children, largely by pumping resources into the T-ball circuit. Through local philanthropy, which included providing more than 800,000 meals at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and donating funds to aid in the mental wellness of those impacted by the Surfside condominium collapse in 2021. And by embracing the diverse, distinctive culture of the Marlins’ surroundings, which seemed to generate the most local buzz.

The Marlins introduced a new, vibrant uniform concept and colorway in November 2018 and paid homage to the Havana Sugar Kings with bold City Connect uniforms in May 2021. They outfitted the concession stands of their ballpark with local restaurant favorites (PINCHO, Miami’s Best Pizza, SuViche), offered cheap ticket packages ($1 entrance for kids on Mondays, four-for-$44 packs on Wednesdays) and opened a new left-center-field lounge that offers bottomless mimosa brunch before Sunday matinee games.

Forbes valued the Marlins at $990 million this year, dead last in the majors. A new TV contract and a recent ballpark naming rights deal have injected the franchise with additional cash, but the amounts are modest when compared to most major league teams. The Marlins’ only path to the higher revenues that will give them a fighting chance within a division composed of high spenders is increased interest from a fan base that has kept them at an arm’s distance for the better part of three decades.

“I don’t think we’re ever gonna be like Philly or L.A. or any of those teams,” Mattingly said. “We’re gonna have to be developing our own players. I feel like the new ownership has done a really good job of making a connection with the community. You do feel the difference. You see a lot more kids at the games, you see kids in Marlins gear that are at games that are excited. I think we did a good job of reaching out at the grassroots level to those fans.”

O’Connor and the rest of the Miami front office see a blueprint — if perhaps an exaggerated one — of how fan interest can turn some 2,500 miles west, in San Diego. The Padres spent most of their history as something of an afterthought within a bustling city of limitless options. But their new ownership group, capitalizing on the local NFL team leaving for Los Angeles, invested heavily in the roster and watched the fan base grow with it.

The Padres’ attendance growth since last season is rivaled only by the Atlanta Braves, even though the Braves won a championship and the Padres missed the postseason entirely. Under chairman Peter Seidler’s guidance and with general manager A.J. Preller’s aggressiveness, the Padres tripled their payroll from 2017 to 2022, adding the likes of Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove — among several others — while locking in Fernando Tatis Jr. with a massive extension. Now they’re reaping the rewards, demonstrated by the crowds that lined up at Petco Park the day after the team stole headlines by trading for Juan Soto.

It’s an example of how a fan base can blossom if the investment is substantive and genuine. It’s something the Marlins might learn from, even if their payrolls can’t venture into the $200 million range.

“I think they started engaging with that community well before this year or last year and the changes to their roster,” O’Connor said of the Padres. “I think it’s forming that base. And I think it’s, whether it’s a group outing or we connect a lot with schools and we do our heritage nights, I think we can have that strong base all the time. And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking to build something that’s sustainable, where people are coming out to have a great time at the ballpark and the experience that we offer and see a great baseball game, as well.”

LoanDepot Park is nestled within the heart of Little Havana, a working-class, lower-income Cuban enclave that exploded with heavy migration from the island in the 1960s. It is in many ways a microcosm of Miami as a whole — disparate, lively, heavily Hispanic and, it seems, changing rapidly. Florida’s controversial “stay open” policies during the pandemic prompted a sizable population growth throughout the state and saw an influx of tech companies migrate to Miami, the effects of which are already being felt.

Brickell, Little Havana’s neighboring upscale neighborhood, continues to expand west, slowly creeping up along the Miami River near the ballpark, where two massive apartment buildings have emerged next door.

The area is growing.

The Marlins believe their team will too.

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