HIGH STANDARDS THE FICKLE, FRONT-RUNNING FANS OF SOUTH FLORIDA DEMAND THAT THEIR TEAMS WIN, AND WIN BIG, OR THEY SIMPLY WON'T SHOW UP FOR THE GAMES

October 27, 1997

This is one of those rare, sweet times in South Florida, a
vacation for America's vacationland. The World Series hit town
for the first time last week, and it instantly papered over even
the most conspicuous cracks in a fractious and divided Miami,
bumped aside news of corrupt city managers and indicted
candidates, allowed the illusion that all are united and all is
well. Tourists were not assaulted. Love--of all things--was in
the air. Even this season's most intriguing standoff took on a
new look. Fans held up signs reading, THANKS, WAYNE, and Florida
Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga kept insisting that he had become a
big fan too. "We're going to sit back," he said the day before
the World Series began, "and we're going to enjoy."

But if you know this place, you know that no problem disappears
for long. You know that Huizenga and the South Florida sports
fan will continue to circle and spar, if only because they can't
escape their basic instincts. As chairman of Republic Industries
and the owner of the NHL Panthers and the NFL Dolphins,
Huizenga, of course, is the owner's owner, a hard-eyed
businessman who once described catching a fly ball as a
"transaction." In June he announced that after projecting losses
of some $30 million this year, he was putting the Marlins on the
block. Observers have since been wondering if winning might
change Huizenga's mind. They should know better. Even as Florida
rolled over the San Francisco Giants in the Division Series and
the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series,
Huizenga kept saying to close associates, "Tell me when I'm
having $15 million worth of fun, will you?"

He is no baseball romantic. He has always prided himself on
being the ultimate bottom-line animal. But it seems he has
finally met his match. Fickle, front-running, distracted and
bored, the Miami sports fan is as mysterious a beast as you'll
find on today's sporting landscape. Local columnists and
talk-show hosts regularly bash its lack of commitment. Humorists
giggle at its flylike attention span. "I've been a raving,
rabid, die-hard, lifelong Marlins fan since I attended Game 5 of
the Atlanta series," quipped The Miami Herald's Dave Barry last
week. Him and what army?

Sure, 67,000-plus showed up for each of the first two games
against the Cleveland Indians, the largest crowds at a World
Series since 1963 in Yankee Stadium. But after Huizenga
committed $89 million in salaries to free agents last winter, he
expected a far bigger return during the regular season. What he
got in 1997 was tepid action at the gates: About 2.3 million
fans--a 600,000 increase from 1996--showed up at Pro Player
Stadium, but that still fell far short of the 3.1 million the
club drew in '93.

Even as late as the playoff series against the Giants, everyone,
including Huizenga, noticed the huge swaths of empty seats at
Pro Player. "When you're in the playoffs and you can't sell out,
that sends a message," Huizenga said last Friday. "But then, I
figured, well, now it's the Braves [in the National League
Championship Series], the Braves are on [television] in every
state in the country." He shrugged. "We got 51,000. Now we're in
the World Series, but what happens in the World Series is that a
bunch of people come from Ohio and from all around the country.
We sold an extra 15,000 seats, but those aren't local people. So
I'm sitting here with a situation that says to me: Wait a
second. The town is lit up, everybody's excited--and a lot of
people are content to watch it at home."

But the Marlins' situation isn't unique in South Florida. Last
year the NBA Heat, potent all winter and headed for the Eastern
Conference finals, had difficulty filling Miami Arena for some
playoff games. As soon as the supposedly rabid fans of the
Dolphins sensed mediocrity, they stayed away in droves; the team
is 5-2 this season and has yet to sell out any of its three home
games. One theory has it that Don Shula spoiled fans with his
perfect 1972 season. It didn't matter that the Dolphins have won
63% of their games since then. They haven't won it all, and in
Miami that's all that matters. Only the Panthers, who made the
Stanley Cup finals in 1996, seem immune to the vicissitudes of
Miami fandom, but the devotion of hockey buffs is unparalleled
everywhere. Remove the hard-core Pantherites from the equation
and you're left with the same old Miami pastime: waiting for the
next bandwagon to hop on.

"This community is starving for a champion," says Marlins
president Don Smiley, who's trying to gather a group of
investors to buy the club for $150 million. "We haven't had a
champion in a long time. When's the last time?" Told the last
area champs were the Miami Hurricanes in '91--and that even
during their reign, they would often kick off in a half-empty
Orange Bowl--Smiley paused and said, "But on the professional
side, it's really starving. This is a demanding market. The
choices are many. And I'll tell you, when you come to a baseball
game 81 times a year, and you're dodging raindrops, that gets a
little old. It's not like sitting out in Coors Field or Jacobs
Field in the summer. It becomes annoying."

That's right: money again. Huizenga and Smiley are sure that the
Marlins' main problem is the stadium, and they think a new,
throwback park with a retractable roof--financed by the
community, naturally--would solve it. Huizenga is selling the
Marlins, he says, mostly because no city will build such a park
for a billionaire. "At Republic, I get judged by how much I put
on the bottom line," Huizenga said. "You ever been to one of our
shareholder meetings? Shareholders applaud because we're making
a lot of money. But in sports? Uh-uh. You make a profit, you're
a bad guy. We're not going to change that. I didn't realize that
at the time."

Strange, what baseball has done to Huizenga. Five years ago he
came in as the sport's new Midas, a wonder boy who'd created
cutthroat empires in trash removal and video rentals and was
determined to run his team as a business first and a sport
second. He would not spend foolishly. He would make a profit.
"Wayne is not going to be a guy like George Steinbrenner who is
going to drive up salaries further," longtime friend Carl
Barger, the Marlins' first president, said in 1991. "That's not
Wayne at all."

No, Huizenga, Barger and general manager Dave Dombrowski were
united in their determination to build the Marlins slowly,
through drafting and player development. If their expansion
rivals, the Colorado Rockies, were taking the flashier
free-agent route, so be it. Long term, the plan seemed to work;
the Marlins built one of baseball's best farm systems and
produced current stars like catcher Charles Johnson and
shortstop Edgar Renteria. But in the short term, the team was
mediocre and dull, and after baseball convulsed and shut down
with labor problems in '94, the fans deserted. Two years later
season-ticket sales dropped by nearly 50%, to 12,500, and the
stadium echoed. "Put 30,000 people in here," Huizenga said, "and
it's like drinking in an empty bar."

Worse, Huizenga found he hated watching his awful team play. "I
can't sit at a game and watch a team not win," he said about
last year's Marlins. "If we're going to have this thing, we're
going to win. We have to decide if baseball is going to work
here. If we cut the payroll, I wouldn't be happy. I want to be a
winner. If you're not going to be happy, you might as well get
out."

So, contrary to his instincts as a businessman, Huizenga began
to gamble. Once, he thought his business smarts and restraint
could serve as a model for the rest of baseball's free spending
owners. "It was naive of me to say that," he said last week. "It
was naive of me even to think it." He signed outfielder Moises
Alou, manager Jim Leyland, third baseman Bobby Bonilla and
righthander Alex Fernandez to lavish contracts. In the end, the
Marlins won and their owner lost. "We had to go out and spend
the money and find out once and for all: Is this going to be a
baseball town? We've got to find out," Huizenga said. "Well, we
did find out, unfortunately. We found out that in this stadium,
with the rain, people still didn't come. More came, but not very
many when you think about it."

An hour after the pennant-clinching game in Atlanta, Huizenga
and his closest business associates gathered for a picture on
the grass at Turner Field. Suddenly someone suggested they run
the bases, and they all took off. There for a moment was an
idealized image of this Marlins season, the line between money
and the game blurring, bottom-liners cut loose on the base
paths. Ask, and Huizenga will gladly show off a few Polaroids of
the moment, with him looking goofy and gleeful in the middle of
the pack. But when asked whether this World Series run has
softened his attitude about selling, Huizenga backs off only
slightly. No, he hasn't changed his mind, but "I am going to
give it some thought as to what else we could do--if anything."

There is, of course, the thought that this World Series has
lured the fan Huizenga has wanted all year. "Maybe we had to
make believers out of them, and now we've done that," says
Fernandez. "We've gone all the way to the big dance. It's going
to help us not only this year but in the future. I think the
fans are pulling in behind us."

But as they came streaming down the ramps of Miami's Pro Player
Stadium after Game 1 last Saturday night, it was impossible to
say. They smoked cigars, blew whistles, waved flags. A man
carried a pumpkin on his head. They looked like any group of
happy fans in any American ballpark, screeching for their team.
Then again, this was the South Florida fan on the move, and who
can predict what he might do next year? Around here, you can't
even be sure about next week.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Pro Player filled to capacity once Craig Counsell (completing a double play over David Justice in Game 2) and the Marlins made it to the Fall Classic. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO With high-priced free agents like Bonilla, Huizenga won more games but still lost millions. [Bobby Bonilla in game] COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Newcomer Alou, connecting on one of his two doubles in Game 2, has been worth the price of admission. [Moises Alou batting]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)