Reporting Tim Kephart
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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Last year at this time, the Miami Marlins were the toast of Major League Baseball and South Florida was abuzz with hope the franchise had finally turned the proverbial corner into a true contender.
Just a year later, despite one of the best stadiums in baseball, the Marlins are operating about as far under the radar as any team in Major League Baseball. Gone is the sell-out crowd from last year’s home opener, likely replaced by thousands of empty seats, even for the first game of the year.
The Marlins are expected to be one of the worst teams in baseball in 2013. The team held a fire sale of talent in the offseason that saw most of the Major League talent on the roster traded away for prospects full of potential, but no actual production.
While the salary dump was underway in the offseason, South Florida realized it had been duped by Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. After promising to invest heavily in the payroll, after just one season Loria dumped the team and dropped the payroll back to one of the lowest in baseball.
Miami and Miami-Dade County both paid for Loria’s new palace at a cost of roughly $2.4 billion and instead of having a competitive team on the field, the Marlins are expected to finish in last place in the National League East for the third year in a row.
The Marlins have fallen off the cliff even as other teams in the National League East are soaring to new levels. The Atlanta Braves invested heavily in the offseason and the Washington Nationals have grown one of the best rosters in baseball. Both the Braves and Nationals are considered NL favorites in 2013.
In Miami, a culture of negativity lingers from the offseason. Many Marlins fans have pledged to simply stay away from the team. Last year, the Marlins sold 12,000 season tickets, but after the offseason of turmoil, the team has seen season ticket sales drop to just 5,000.
The Marlins even resorted to trying to sell tickets to the home opener, typically the hardest ticket of the year to get, using GroupOn.
It hasn’t helped the Marlins’ case the team has started out 1-5 on the season. Miami’s lone win came against the New York Mets and the Fish were the last team in baseball to notch their first win of the season.
“I appreciate and am sorry it has been such a tough offseason,” team president David Samson said Sunday before the Marlins’ game against the Mets in New York. “The people who are coming to the game (Monday) hopefully are there to cheer on the players who deserve to get cheered.”
Samson’s comment illustrates the dilemma facing many fans who will be on hand Monday night. On the one hand, the fans want to constantly boo and show how angry they are with owner Jeffrey Loria, Samson and the rest of the failed Marlins front office.
On the other hand, the players on the field are giving everything they have. It’s just the players on the field are either past their prime, haven’t gotten close to their prime, or never had a prime to begin with in baseball.
“They’re not angry with the players,” he said. “We didn’t lose them, we can’t gain them back from one thing. We’ve just got to play good.”
Last year, the Marlins drew more than 2.2 million fans to Marlins Park for an average of 27,400 per game. This year, the Marlins are hoping to draw 1 million fans to the ballpark that Miami and Miami-Dade County taxpayers built.
If the Marlins draw 1 million fans, it would be the lowest attendance in Major League Baseball by nearly 500,000 fans using last year’s numbers. The attendance goal would translate to roughly 12,346 fans per game, or roughly one-third of the stadium would be full on most nights.
The Marlins occupy an odd spot in South Florida sports where fair weather doesn’t always just refer to the conditions on the beach.
The Miami Heat went all-in and put together the Big Three even with having to pay extra luxury taxes as a result of the high salaries. The Miami Dolphins have gone on a free agent spending spree and have plenty of draft picks to continue improving a team with a fan base dying for a winner.
Even the Florida Panthers have several young players the franchise is building around and has a general manager in Dale Tallon with a proven record of building Stanley Cup Championship teams.
Yet the Marlins have become the afterthought in Miami. Multiple seasons of last place finishes and salary dumps or refusal to pay enough to keep the team’s best free agents in the past have made fans distrusting of the organization.
Miami sports fans are impatient enough to begin with, but not winning on a consistent basis, or at least not trying to win, is a quick way to have empty seats at South Florida stadiums.
If Marlins fans are willing to wait a couple of years, there may be some good talent to work with in the Marlins’ organization. The Fish got a good look at the team’s future ace pitcher Jose Fernandez on Friday when he struck out eight batters against the New York Mets in his major league debut Sunday.
The Marlins have high hopes for catcher Rob Brantly to take over long-term behind the plate. The Marlins also have Jake Marisnick and Marcell Ozuna they want to take over in the outfield alongside of slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
The Fish also have Fernandez and other pitchers they are hoping will develop into quality starters in the next two season.
But while the future may be bright, the present looks murky for a franchise struggling to ever establish itself in the Miami market. Another rough season is on deck for the Marlins and while the team will lose games, the biggest loser is once again going to be South Florida fans hoping one day they will again see a winner playing on the diamond for the Marlins franchise.