Nobody Cares and Everybody Hurts: The Story of the Miami Marlins

The Marlins have a brand new ballpark, and no one in Miami seems to care. (via Eric Kilby)

The story of the Miami Marlins could be considered a tragedy, defined by the pitfalls and failures of the people at the center. Not the failures of the players, but the people pulling the strings, the ones behind the scenes. Or maybe, it is a comedy, though one of errors, in which nothing the owners ever do will be right or good enough, a story in which the team seems destined to fail despite its best efforts.

But really, the story of the Miami Marlins is, at its core, the story of South Florida. It is the story of people with power — developers, government officials, baseball team owners — acting in their own interests and for their own profits without regard for how those actions will affect the people around them — the Marlins players, the Marlins fans, and the South Florida community at-large. It is the story of people eroding something that could have been very good to make it something that is, well, not.

The Marlins will enter their 25th season with new ownership for the fourth time in their short history. This time, the new owners — who are fronted by venture capitalist Bruce Sherman — made a big splash, as included in the group that bought the team was recently retired baseball legend Derek Jeter. They take over from Jeffrey Loria, perhaps one of the worst owners in baseball history, an owner who can be credited with running not one, but two major league teams into the ground.

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The new owners have purchased a franchise that is struggling to win games — the Marlins are coming off their eighth consecutive losing season. Unsurprisingly, the team is struggling to draw fans, despite promises that the fancy new ballpark was going to change that and despite the fact that this young team has two World Series championships under its belt.

As Jeter et al. attempt to turn the ship around, it’s worth asking how the Marlins got here in the first place.

The franchise began as the Florida Marlins, an expansion team approved by MLB in 1991 that began major league play in 1993, along with the Colorado Rockies. Owner Wayne Huizenga, CEO of the Blockbuster Video franchise, bought the team with a $95 million check in 1991 and described his reasons for doing so as “a diversification of [his] portfolio.” He was not particularly interested in baseball.

Huizinga hired Carl Barger from the Pittsburgh Pirates to be the Marlins’ first president. Getting the team off the ground was a passion for Barger, and some suspect that it ultimately killed him. After two years of working 16-hour days, Barger died before the team ever played a game, four months before the start of the Marlins’ inaugural season.

Also joining the new franchise were manager Rene Lachemann, hired away from the Oakland Athletics where he had served as third base coach, and general manager Dave Dombrowski, who came from the Montreal Expos. Lachemann and Dombrowski were polar opposites who did not agree on much, except for the fact that they cared about this team. Lachemann, a baseball lifer from a family of baseball lifers, sometimes gave interviews to the press in his underwear.

The Marlins have never been a traditional baseball team. They joined an already established league and faced the difficult task of distinguishing themselves from the teams whose identities had been cemented long ago, while also drawing in a fan base in a brand new market. South Florida was assumed to be a flush market for the sport based on its large Latino — predominantly Cuban — population and the fact that minor league teams had been popular in the area when they existed. Reflecting the diverse and flamboyant culture of South Florida, many of the players who have made the franchise their home over the years have also been quirky. For other cities, their personalities may have been too big, too abrasive. But in Miami, they worked.

On Nov. 17, 1992, the Marlins chose 36 players from other teams in the Major League Expansion Draft, and the first Florida Marlins team became a reality.

It was a mix of veterans and fresh faces. Pitcher Charlie Hough was their Opening Day starter. A Hialeah, Fla., native who made his major league debut 23 years earlier, Hough was so excited to play for his hometown that he didn’t even know what his salary was going to be until a week after he signed his contract.

The team also included Chuck Carr, who led the National League in stolen bases that year with 58 and called himself “the best center fielder in the world.” Second baseman Bret Barberie, shortstop Walt Weiss, catcher Benito Santiago, All-Star third baseman Gary Sheffield, closer Bryan Harvey, and another Miami native, first baseman Orestes Destrade were also on the team. And rookie left fielder Jeff Conine burst onto the scene, batting .292 on the year.

The team played at Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins; Huizenga owned 50 percent of the former and 15 percent of the latter. The stadium was located in Miami Gardens, a suburb north of Miami and close to the Dade-Broward County line. The Marlins won their first game and lost their last. They lost plenty more in between, finishing 64-98, but on the last day of their inaugural season, Huizenga announced, “I have become a baseball fan.” They had won over their owner; winning over the city would be another task altogether.

Over the next three seasons, the Marlins continued to lose. They finished last in their division during the 1994 season, which was shortened by a players’ strike, and fourth in 1995. Midway through the 1996 season, Lachemann was replaced by John Boles, who had been director of player development, a role he would return to upon the hiring of Jim Leyland for the 1997 season. Leyland’s hiring was the first step in attempting to turn the team around.

Despite the promise of a booming baseball market and the support of the community in its opening season, getting butts in the seats at the ballpark — by then named Pro Player Stadium — had been difficult. It may have been because the stadium was built for football games and was awkward for watching baseball. It may have been because it lacked a retractable roof to keep out the sweltering heat and heavy rains that characterize South Florida summers. But it was also very likely due to the fact that the team was losing. No matter the reasons, attendance was decreasing each season despite the team’s win total increasing each year. In 1996, the team lost $20.1 million.

Ownership was convinced that if the Marlins could win games, the fans would flock to the stadium, and if fans flocked to the stadium, perhaps someone would pay for a new one that was better suited to baseball in South Florida. In If They Don’t Win It’s A Shame: The Year The Marlins Bought The World Series, Marlins president Don Smiley summed up the team’s thought process thusly: “The idea was to put together the best team we could, get the best manager we could get, win as many games as we can, and see if we can get the fans involved. And at the end of the year, we’ll add it up and evaluate.”

The Marlins spent $89 million on free agents — more than any team had ever spent — in attempt to bring home a World Series championship in just their fourth year in existence. It was an experiment of sorts, to see if South Florida really did have an interest in baseball. If not, Huizenga was threatening to take that team away.

The only two starters who remained from the inaugural season were All-Stars Sheffield and Conine, who had moved to left field and first base, respectively. They acquired starting pitcher Alex Fernandez, a Cuban-American from Miami, and outfielder Moises Alou, who said the Marlins made him “feel wanted,” something he’d never felt playing in Montreal.

The lineup also included third baseman Bobby Bonilla, second baseman Luis Castillo, shortstop Edgar Renteria, catcher Charles Johnson and center fielder Devon White. At the trade deadline, the Marlins made the moves that would cement their championship team, acquiring Darren Daulton from the Phillies and Craig Counsell from the Rockies.

The 1997 Marlins did what they set out to do. They had their first winning season, finishing 92-70 and second in the NL East. They swept the San Francisco Giants in the Division Series, beat the Atlanta Braves — the team that loomed the largest — in the League Championship Series, and prevailed over Cleveland in the World Series in perhaps one of the best Game Sevens of all time, a game that went 11 innings. It was just the fourth Game 7 to need extra innings.

For the first time, South Florida had a winning baseball team. And while attendance was up — averaging 29,190 people per game in 1997, compared to 21,565 in 1996 — it was not up enough to satisfy Huizenga. He had asked South Floridians to fall in love with this sport and with this team, and they did. When a team goes on a championship run, bandwagon fans get swept up in the excitement and begin to care. But those new fans need more than just one year to become invested in a franchise; after a single season, what’s been built up is attachment to a specific team of players, not loyalty to a franchise itself.

Those fans were never given the chance to form that attachment. Just 11 days after the end of the 1997 season, Huizenga announced his intention to sell the team and the Marlins began one of the most complete — and devastating — fire sales in baseball history. They dismantled their World Series team, just as the city was getting used to them. Alou, who had once said the team made him feel wanted, told the Miami Herald, “Everybody got used. I feel dirty.” The Marlins broke South Florida’s hearts, something that would become one of the few constants over the course of their existence.

In response, the fans who had jumped on the bandwagon in ‘97 promptly hopped right back off. Leyland begged fans not to “bury [the] ballclub just yet,” but the ballclub had buried itself. The team tanked badly in 1998, having the distinction of being the only team to lose 100 games the year following a World Series championship and finishing last in the majors. Leyland resigned following the season, to be replaced by John Boles, in his second stint as the Marlins manager. Huizenga sold the team to John Henry, officially giving up on baseball and on the Marlins. In doing so, Huizenga proved that his previous announcement that he’d become a fan of the game rang quite hollow. In 1999, they also finished last in the major leagues, at 64-98.

In the years that followed, the team would continue to lose, but began drafting young prospects who would eventually pay off for the team. In 1999, they drafted a high school pitcher from Texas named Josh Beckett with the second pick in the draft. Over the next few years, they also acquired Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo, Adrian Gonzalez, A. J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Mike Lowell. By 2000, the team was still losing, but got fairly close to .500 and finished third in the NL East.

The John Henry era ended almost as soon as it began, with Henry selling the team to Loria in 2002 so Henry could purchase the Boston Red Sox. When the team changed hands, Dombrowski went to Detroit to become GM of the Tigers.

Loria was coming off a badly-handled ownership of the Montreal Expos, which would turn out to be a preview of the problems that would plague him in Florida. He had tried to seek public funding for a new ballpark in Montreal — a trick he’d try again in Florida, though eventually with different results — something that did not go over well with the province of Québec. Loria was responsible for the team moving to Washington, D.C. and beginning a new life as the Nationals, for which many people in Montreal have still not forgiven him. He brought the entire Expos front office and on-field staff to Florida to begin his new stint as the owner of the Marlins. He so completely left a trail of fire behind him that he took the office and computer equipment, too.

The beginning of the Loria era looked like it might be a good one. In 2003, the Marlins acquired veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez was the experienced leader, the anchor, on a team of young players who were just starting to come into their own. The Puerto Rican native known as “Pudge” also very quickly became a fan favorite. Behind Rodriguez, the unlikely Marlins made the second championship run of their very short life. But, unlike 1997, when they were accused of buying a championship team, 2003’s team came as a result of the smart trades and young talent that the team had developed under Dombrowski.

Dombrowski is damn good at developing winning baseball teams. He won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997 and he would go on to help the Tigers win two American League pennants in six years. The trades he made while with the Marlins are the reason the team was as good as it was in 2003, though Loria and his GM Larry Beinfest are the names that will forever be linked to the championship. But in reality, it was Dombrowski’s World Series win.

In May of that year, Jack McKeon came on as manager and the team caught fire. Conine returned to the team from Baltimore. They were anchored by their dominant pitching rotation, with Burnett, Beckett, and Dontrelle Willis holding court. During June, 20-year-old rookie Miguel Cabrera joined the team and broke out. The club finished 91-71, 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, but winning the NL Wild Card. They would go on to beat the Yankees to win their second World Series championship in five years, with a completely different team. However, despite having a fun, young team that was winning games, fan attendance remained dismal, averaging just 16,089 per game.

With management trying to learn from the earlier mistake of immediately dismantling a championship team, the Marlins remained mostly intact the next year, though Rodriguez chose not to return. Ownership’s hope was that if the Marlins held onto most of their players, maybe attendance would improve and maybe they could make another run. And while 2004 was a winning season for the team, attendance was still abysmal.

Following the 2005 season, the Marlins would have the second major fire sale in their history. Mirroring 1997, the owner again blamed the city for the need to slash payroll. Whereas Huizenga had threatened to move the team if fans didn’t show up and then, when they came, essentially told them they hadn’t shown up enough, Loria blamed the dismantling of the team on the lack of a stadium, eerily reminiscent of his time in Montreal.

“If we got our stadium deal, we’d go right back the other way. Period,” said Loria. “A signed stadium deal. You guys know I’m not out here to lose games. I want to win. I’ve said that.” His words and demeanor were the same ones that made him unpopular in his previous home.

Loria’s frustration was understandable; he’d lost tens of millions of dollars in years since he’d bought the club. He was convinced the loss of revenue and lack of attendance was because the Marlins lacked a ballpark with a retractable roof, despite the fact that time and again, teams have built new ballparks and watched as attendance remained the same after the initial interest wore off (see: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Washington, D.C.).

What the Marlins needed was an owner to invest in and believe in them. What they got was Jeffrey Loria, someone who gaslit and threatened the fans, the players, and the city. This manipulation, however, was nothing compared to what he would do in the future to get his stadium.

Despite the chaos of the 2005 offseason, 2006 was a really fun year for the club. Joe Girardi, who had been the Yankees’ bench coach, came on as manager. It was shortstop Hanley Ramirez’s rookie season, and fans got a peek at the man and his personality that would bring both joy and frustration over his five years with the team. He would go on to win NL Rookie of the Year. Second baseman Dan Uggla was another young rookie who had a breakout season. Another rookie, Aníbal Sánchez, threw a no-hitter.

The Marlins finished close to .500 after being predicted to lose 100 games. Their entire team payroll was significantly lower than Yankees star Alex Rodriguez’s entire salary for the season. Girardi would win NL Manager of the Year, only to then be fired. Three seasons later, he’d lead the Yankees to a World Series triumph.

The next several years of the Marlins’ life must be viewed under the shadow of The Stadium Deal. Despite the team developing major stars like Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez and having a few good seasons, the cloud that hangs over all of it is ownership’s quest for a new home. Loria and his step-son, team president David Samson, were not going to stop pushing for a new, taxpayer-funded ballpark in Miami, even if they had to lie, cheat, and steal to get it — and they liberally did all three. It didn’t work in Montreal, but they were determined to make it work in South Florida. Talking about stadium deals is boring; I’d rather write about the players and the excitement on the field. But to truly understand how the Marlins became the franchise they are today, you must talk about The Stadium Deal.

It is a festering boil on the team’s history and on Loria’s time as owner. For a team that was already failing to draw in fans, screwing them over with perhaps the worst stadium deal in history was not the way to win hearts and minds. Together, Marlins executives and Miami-Dade County officials swindled the residents of Miami and sold them a big fat lie when they sold them Marlins Park.

So, how did they do it? It’s not that building the team a new ballpark was a bad idea. When the team played in what is now called Hard Rock Stadium, conditions were not ideal. It looked like a football stadium, which it was. When seasons overlapped, other teams’ logos were still visible on the diamond. Most of the seats were pointed toward center field — where the 50 yard line would be during a football game. The angles were weird, the seats were far away, and there was still the issue of it lacking a roof.

After the team won the World Series in 2003, the City of Miami proposed building a baseball stadium at the site of the Miami Orange Bowl. That’s when Loria and Samson began to pressure the city for public funding, something the city fathers — like Montreal’s — were reluctant to pursue. However, Miami-Dade County was not opposed to using public money for the stadium and, in 2005, city officials unveiled a financial plan to build a baseball park in Miami.

But then, things got ugly. Despite the team being fresh off a recent championship and retaining most of the talent, fans still weren’t coming to the park. Loria slashed payroll, essentially ensuring that fans would continue to stay away. And then he got permission from Commissioner Bud Selig to look at other locations for the team, with San Antonio, Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., discussed as possible locations. Loria threw the equivalent of a temper tantrum when he didn’t get the stadium deal he wanted, when he wanted it.

With Samson by Loria’s side, they continued to threaten fans. The stadium deal became Samson’s baby. He pulled on the heartstrings of fans who were afraid they’d lose the team if this deal didn’t go through, like Loria’s previous city had.

Over the next several years, the process was slowed down by disagreements, lawsuits and red tape. The process also led to the ejection of several local politicians and an SEC investigation. Construction finally began in 2009 on what would ultimately end up costing $661 million of taxpayer dollars — and what the Miami New Times called “a festering, silver-plated pustule, a grotesquely huge can opener, or just an obscene ode to wasted cash.” It was built in Little Havana, with officials promising a “revitalization” of the area, though it was already a thriving, close-knit, Cuban community.

But the promise of economic improvements to the area was also not based on facts. Like the similar claims made by cities to try to sell their constituents on hosting an Olympics, all evidence points to the fact that new stadiums do not actually have much of an impact on the surrounding neighborhood because the point is to have all the food and attractions inside the park so fans spend their money there, as Neil deMause wrote in his book, Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit. Nevertheless, Miami-Dade residents were spoonfed the deceit.

The Miami New Times called it the worst stadium deal in baseball history: Loria and the Marlins paid less than 30 percent of the cost of building the stadium. For comparison’s sake, in St. Louis, the Cardinals and private investors paid 88 percent of financing for the new Busch Stadium, and in San Diego 43 percent of the costs were privately financed.

Meanwhile, the city of Miami and the county of Miami-Dade receive almost none of the revenue from the ballpark. In D.C., while the district completely paid for the construction of National Park, it also receives millions of dollars in rent from the team and shares revenue generated at the park, which equaled almost $17 million in the first year alone. On top of all of that, Loria and Co. kept almost all of the money from naming rights. And local leaders negotiated such a bad deal that taxpayers are left paying an enormously high interest rate that will result in $2.4 billion of public money spent by the time everything is paid off.

By the time Marlins Park opened for the 2012 season, with the team being renamed the Miami Marlins to correspond with their move to the south, fans seemed willing to put the hard feelings behind them and the team had the highest attendance in its history. But, as predicted by people familiar with how building new ballparks works, the next season attendance rates dropped right back to where they had been. In 2017, the Marlins set a low attendance record at a day game in May: 1,590. It was the least-attended major league game since 1989.

In 2013, the team welcomed a rookie pitcher named Jose Fernandez. In his three-and-a-half seasons with the team, the Cuban-American with the megawatt smile that lit up not just the mound but the whole park was NL Rookie of the Year and a two time All-Star. He was viewed as the future of the club, the man who would lead the team to dominance and a fresh start in the new home that had been such a fight to build. But just before the end of the 2016 season, Fernandez drove his boat into a jetty, killing himself and his two friends. It was a shock to both the baseball world and the Marlins franchise and fans, a cloud that still hangs over the fancy new retractable roof at Marlins Park.

It feels like the team has continued being the team it’s always been — full of scrappy, fun, often underrated players who are plugging away and playing their hearts out despite the odds being stacked against them. But every time it seems like they make some positive forward momentum, another hurdle is placed in their way. This pattern feels built into the franchise’s DNA.

The new ownership group had a chance to change that DNA. Though 2017 continued the team’s almost decade-long trend of losing, the club showed signs of life. Giancarlo Stanton had a season for the history books and became the first-ever NL MVP in Marlins history. Dee Gordon became only the seventh player in history to hit .300, rack up 200 hits, score 100 runs and steal 60 bases in a single season, as he finished the season with a .308 batting average, 201 hits, 60 stolen bases and 114 runs scored. Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Stanton were arguably the best outfield in baseball, catcher JT Realmuto showed maturity and leadership, and first baseman Justin Baur made his first All-Star Game appearance.

Unfortunately, the new owners chose once again to tear it down. In a naked attempt to cut payroll, the team traded Stanton, Gordon and Ozuna. In the aftermath, both Realmuto and Yelich have requested trades. Yelich’s agent called his relationship with the team “irretrievably broken.” The worst part is that the trades tilted more toward salary relief than they did talent acquisition, giving the team great potential to be both bad now and later. They’ll certainly be bad now — according to FanGraphs’ projections as of Jan. 17, the Marlins were projected to have baseball’s fourth-worst (and the NL’s second-worst) record in 2018.

The Marlins have always seemed to have great, young players. They often trade away their stars for young prospects. When those prospects mature and begin to come into their own, just as fans begin to love them and root for them, they’re usually disposed of, sent away to be heroic for another team. In this way, the Marlins are like the farm system for the rest of major league baseball. Many of the league’s great players have started their career in the Sunshine State. This trend initially has continued under the new ownership team, which has brazenly broken Miami’s hearts all over again.

The team has been around for a quarter of a century and the only consistent things you can say are that ownership has never really seemed to treat the franchise with care, and that no one shows up to the games. It’s very likely that the latter has a lot to do with the former.

References & References

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, and VICE Sports, among others. She is a recovered alcoholic, and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.