Even after two world championships, the Marlins had trouble building a following in South Florida. But now they have the payroll (Jose Reyes got how much?), the park (goodbye, rain delays) and the personality (Ozzie said what?) to build a powerhouse franchise. It's either a brilliant plan—or a crazy gamble
This is an article from the March 5, 2012 issue
To help make good on one of the biggest gambles in baseball history, the Miami (né Florida) Marlins have established their ticket sales headquarters above a small medical center on a corner lot in Little Havana, abutting a fenced-in yard of squawking chickens. Catty-corner to the two-story building, as if it had recently come to rest after an interstellar mission, is soon-to-open Marlins Park, a sleek, Kubrickian vision of white stucco, metal and glass that cost $515 million, seats 37,442 and has a retractable roof that closes in 13 minutes.
On Feb. 13, 51 days before the stadium's Opening Day unveiling against the Cardinals, the ticket office was bustling: The Marlins hosted an evening reception for potential suite owners, offering free burgers and the chance to shake hands with the beloved Jack McKeon, who led the franchise to a world championship in 2003 during the first of his two stints as manager. Some 50 people attended. "They let me smoke anywhere," the 81-year-old McKeon said, waggling a long Padron cigar. "I'm like Tommy Lasorda. You know, the goodwill guy."
Goodwill hasn't gotten the Marlins too far in South Florida. They've managed to draw 2 million fans just twice in their history—in 1993, their debut season, and in '97, the year they won their first World Series. In 2003, when they won that second title, they pulled in a mere 1.3 million fans, the second-lowest total in the National League, and they've finished last in the league in attendance the past six years. Which is why, three summers ago, as ground was being broken on the site of the old Orange Bowl, the franchise plotted a cultural makeover that didn't end with a new ballpark. The plan included a geographical rebranding, redesigned uniforms and a sudden burst of free-agent spending by one of baseball's most notoriously penny-pinching ownerships. "You didn't know if they were just trying to throw their name out there to try to make a splash, of if they were going to make a splash," says righthander Josh Johnson, the team's ace. "I was like, I'll believe it when I see it. All of a sudden, I was seeing it."
Over four days in December the Marlins signed All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes (six years, $106 million), All-Star closer Heath Bell (three years, $27 million) and lefthanded starter Mark Buehrle (four years, $58 million). They also offered Albert Pujols a 10-year, $201 million contract, though the Angels topped that offer by $49 million. In all Miami committed $194 million to free agents this winter—more than 10 times the expenditure of the Yankees—and nearly doubled its payroll, to just shy of $100 million, the highest in franchise history.
The Marlins, whose $56.9 million payroll was the majors' seventh-lowest in 2011, are not the first moribund team to attempt to use a new stadium to change its fortunes. But given their history of fan indifference and the sums involved, the scope of their wager is unprecedented. Energetic team president David Samson does not like to view what the Marlins are doing as a gamble, but he can't help resorting to poker terminology to describe their strategy. "We are all in," he says.
The best case over the next decade, says Samson: "We're one of the top seven powerhouses in major league baseball. Consistently running a top-third payroll. Making smart decisions, competing for division titles every year and winning one World Series at a minimum, but making the playoffs at least 60, 70 percent of the time."
And in the worst case? "We lose 90 games, draw 1.3 million and people need umbrellas because the roof leaks."
Two days after McKeon wooed suite buyers in his haze of cigar smoke, the ticket office was largely empty save for a man the Marlins are counting on to become far more of a drawing card than Trader Jack. He sat on a high chair in a mocked-up stadium suite, rubbing his head. Jose Reyes's dreadlocks, which he grew in the final three of his nine years with the Mets, had been shaved off 12 days earlier on the MLB Network, and he was still getting used to feeling air on his scalp. The dreads sold for charity for $10,200. "I thought they were going to go for $15,000 or $20,000," he said. "But it's not too bad, $10,000. That's a lot of money!"
The 28-year-old Reyes—last year's NL batting champ, a premier stolen-base threat and, when healthy, one of the game's most dynamic players—then explained how he had come to earn a lot of money. He was vacationing in Bora Bora with his wife, Katherine, when his agent called and said Miami had requested a meeting with him in New York City a few days later, at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 3, the first minute that teams were allowed to negotiate with free agents. Reyes's flight from the South Pacific landed around 9 p.m. on Nov. 2, and after a quick shower at his Long Island home he rushed to the bar of the Carlyle hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He was greeted by a quartet of Marlins executives, including owner Jeffrey Loria, who removed his jacket to unveil the team's redesigned jersey with Reyes's name and number 7 on the back. They presented him a deal that looked very much like the one he signed a month later, after the financially struggling Mets had declined to make an offer. Reyes was floored—but also exhausted. "It had been like a 20-hour trip for me," he recalled.
Then an accented voice boomed from the doorway of the room: "Hey, for f------ $100 million, I'd f------ fly from the moon!" It was Ozzie Guillen, who after eight brash, generally winning and invariably profane seasons as the White Sox manager, replaced the re-retiring McKeon last September. Guillen, who received a four-year, $10 million contract, wasn't brought in merely to be a manager. He is expected, with his honest energy and loose-cannon quotability, to give the franchise a dose of personality and help invigorate the Marlins' fan base.
For their first 19 years, the Florida Marlins toiled as tenants in the charmless and oft-renamed (Joe Robbie, Pro Player, Dolphins, Dolphin, Land Shark, Sun Life) football stadium in Miami Gardens that the Dolphins call home. With traffic, it can take 80 minutes to drive the 15 miles north from downtown to the stadium, which has no roof to shield fans from the storms and heat of Florida summers. Inside the Marlins' front office, the belief is that the team's dour attendance figures were due in large measure to the lack of a decent ballpark—and not an indicator of baseball apathy in South Florida. "I spent every day saying, don't tell me about fans," Loria says. "The fans are here, but who wants to sit in the rain every night?"
The new park is visible from downtown—it's a mere two miles away—and will be chilled to a dry 75¬∫ most nights. (The Marlins expect to play with the roof open just 10 times a season.) It features amenities both expected (fine food, good sightlines, comfortable seats) and otherwise, such as the pair of 450-gallon saltwater aquariums built into the backstop and the outpost of a South Beach club behind the leftfield fence, which will stay open until 3 a.m. Loria & Co. are certain that fans will flock to Marlins Park. One encouraging sign: By spring training Miami had already sold around 15,000 season tickets, surpassing the team's record of 10,000 in 2004, and only four of the park's 40 luxury suites were still available.
The payroll hike is based on the expectation that, since the Marlins built it, the fans will come—and then continue to do so beyond 2012. But a new ballpark is not necessarily a franchise panacea. Since '01, 10 clubs have opened new homes, and the long-term results have been mixed. The Pirates, for example, had sustained eight straight losing seasons when they moved into PNC Park and bumped their payroll from $26.6 million to $57.8 million in '01. Ten more losing seasons have followed, their payroll hasn't increased beyond its '01 level and they have had seven seasons with attendance no higher than it was in their last year in Three Rivers Stadium.
While the Phillies have thrived since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, the Padres, Brewers, Nationals and Mets have also discovered that a new stadium does not instantly make a healthy franchise. The key is also to win. Guillen understands this. "I don't want people to say, let's land in Miami, take a look at a nice place, and leave," he says. "They want to do that, go to Aventura Mall. I want people to say, I want to come back to watch these guys play again."
The good news for the Marlins is that, despite their winter cash outlay, they didn't necessarily overspend. "The Reyes deal looks excellent, in light of the Pujols and [Prince] Fielder money," says a rival team executive, referring to Pujols's $240 million and the nine-year, $214 million deal the slugging Fielder got from the Tigers. "Buehrle's solid, and Heath Bell at $9 million a year, that's not the end of the world."
What's more, Reyes, Bell and Buehrle—and righthander Carlos Zambrano, the one-time Cubs ace whose tempestuous clubhouse presence in Chicago allowed Miami to acquired him for a song in January—aren't just All-Star Band-Aids covering an otherwise flawed roster. As one NL executive says, "I don't think there's anyone who's not scared of playing this team." That's because the Marlins, despite missing the playoffs for eight straight years and going 72--90 last season, have been quietly building a young nucleus. Outfielders Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton and first baseman Gaby Sanchez are all 28 or younger, and they combined to hit 76 homers in 2011. Most important, Miami's roster also includes a pair of 28-year-old All-Stars: Johnson and three-time All-Star Hanley Ramirez.
The 6'7'' Johnson won the NL ERA crown in 2010, his fifth full big league season. Although his profile in South Florida has been so low that he has occasionally been accused of being Lakers forward Luke Walton in supermarkets, he was also a contender for the title of the league's best pitcher entering '11. Last spring he added a slow curveball to his 94-mph fastball and slider, and batters were staggered. Johnson took no-hitters into at least the fifth inning in three of his first four starts, and through nine outings he had an ERA of 1.64 and a batting average against of .185. But then he developed scapular dyskinesis—an abnormal movement of the shoulder blade—and he didn't pitch again after May 16. After nearly eight months of rest, though, Johnson is throwing freely and on track to start Opening Day in a climate-controlled environment that the Marlins believe will help keep him healthy. No longer will Johnson regularly pitch in extreme weather, and no longer will his pregame routines be frequently disrupted by rain.
Then there is the mercurial Ramirez, who struggled with a left-shoulder injury last season and had his worst year as a pro (he hit a career-low .243). Ramirez, the NL batting champion in 2009, must now move from short to third base to make room for Reyes, his good friend and fellow Dominican. Reyes and Ramirez text regularly and hung out at the house of former Mets second baseman Luis Castillo in the Dominican Republic in December. In recent weeks Ramirez has tweeted several pictures of himself socializing with Reyes (see Hanley and Jose playing the MLB 2K12 video game; see Hanley and Jose having dinner), images that seem to contradict off-season reports that Ramirez was unhappy about his involuntary position change. Ramirez arrived at the club's spring training complex in Jupiter on Feb. 20, six days before the first mandatory position-player workout. "Why not?" he said when asked if he thought he could return to the All-Star Game as a third baseman after three trips as a shortstop. "I know what kind of player I am, and I know what kind of player I'm going to be this year because I feel good."
Still, Guillen says that he does not expect Ramirez, who was anointed the unofficial Mr. Marlin when he was given a six-year, $70 million contract during the 2008 season, to be entirely pleased about having to leave the game's preeminent position. "I would never be happy, if they moved me," says Guillen, a former slap-hitting shortstop. "But Hanley's got to understand, this is his ball club. We built this ball club around him. You know, if Hanley Ramirez was replaced by Ozzie Guillen, I would be pissed. But Hanley Ramirez is being replaced by a pretty good [shortstop]. I expect Hanley to be fine."
As Guillen and Reyes posed for a photo shoot inside Marlins Park in mid-February, a week before pitchers and catchers reported, it was easy to feel good about the franchise's great gamble. The stadium's so-called "home run feature"—a $2.5 million, 73-foot tall, technicolor sculpture by the noted pop artist Red Grooms, complete with diving marlins and flamingoes and seagulls that will spring to life in centerfield whenever a Miami batter hits a ball over the wall—seemed not an eyesore, but full of potential. So did the unusually vibrant new uniforms Guillen and Reyes were wearing, black with accents of blue, orange and yellow. "The colors are a reflection of the bright sunsets you see in Miami," explains Loria, an art dealer by trade. "Yellow of the sunlight, blue of the water."
Guillen wasn't entirely sure about them. "If we lose games, we're going to look bad," he said. "But if we win, that's going to be the best uniform in the game."
Still, on-field performance aside, there are potential storm clouds that even a retractable roof won't obscure. One might come from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is investigating whether the $500 million in public bonds that were controversially issued to pay for the stadium and its parking lots were secured as the result of improper financial disclosure by the club. (Loria's contribution to the project was $161 million, plus a roughly $4.4 million annual payment to the city for access to the parking lots.) "They're investigating," says Samson. "That's their right. We are cooperating fully." The S.E.C. is less forthcoming about the investigation's status; a spokesperson for the Commission declined to comment.
Then there is the possibility that the Marlins have overplayed their hand. That their pristine, climate-controlled new ballpark won't prevent damage to Johnson's shoulder or Reyes's legs (injuries to which have caused him to miss 191 games over the past three seasons). That their clubhouse, populated with big personalities like Guillen, Ramirez, Zambrano, and the Twitter-happy Morrison, will prove not energetic but combustible. That the residents of South Florida don't enjoy turning out for baseball games, even those played in air-conditioned comfort.
Then, perhaps, the future will include only uniforms that look sadly clownish, worn by a team so quickly dismantled that it gives Red Grooms's sculpture infrequent reason to move, in a new stadium so quiet that, on some nights, you'll be able to hear the chickens clucking outside.