Sports

What Exactly are the Miami Marlins Trying to Do?

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There are a few teams I rarely get to see. One of those teams is the Miami, née Florida, Marlins. I live on the opposite coast, and the teams I see most often are from the AL and NL West. Every now and then I catch a televised Marlins game, but it’s rare. With all of that said, even from 3,000 miles away it looks to me like something is seriously wrong with this franchise, and frankly has been for some time. Let’s review.

The Florida Marlins came into the league in 1993. Incredibly, they won the World Series in their fifth season in the league. The next year, 1998, they were 54-108, the worst record in MLB that year. The manager quit, most of the remaining talent was sold, and so was the franchise. That’s the sort of story that’s normally followed by years of losing, fan frustration, and management excuses. But that’s not the story of this franchise. Instead, they won the Series again in 2003. By the end of their 11th year in existence, they already had two championships. That’s a great story, the sort of story that leads to “dynasty” talk, and “best teams of all-time” talk. But, once again, the Marlins managed to defy expectations.

After their second world championship, Manager Jack McKeon got them through a couple of decent 83-win seasons in 2004 and 2005. However, in 2006 they were 16 games under .500 by June 6th, their payroll was a paltry $14 million, and they were being guided by rookie skipper Joe Girardi. Under Girardi’s brilliant leadership, they played solid, fundamental baseball for the rest of the season. They finished 2006 only 8 games under .500, and Girardi won Manager of the Year honors in the National League. So, naturally, the franchise had something to build on, right? A system was in place and a few more pieces would make another run at a third championship in 15 years a possibility, right? Wrong. Instead, Girardi got in a tiff with ownership and was fired. How bizarre is that? Where I work, the best guys keep their jobs. But not if you work for the Florida Marlins.

After Girardi’s departure (don’t worry about him; I hear he landed on his feet somewhere north of Florida), the franchise limped along, and its attendance reflected the team’s performance. They finished last in the NL in attendance for five years straight starting in 2007. With only two years of better than .500 baseball during those years while playing in a park made for football, it’s not surprising fans weren’t coming out to watch.

But 2012 was going to be different: a new name – the “Miami” Marlins, a shiny new ballpark, new uniforms, a new manager with a World Series win on his résumé, and some off-season big-name player acquisitions. All signs indicated a franchise poised to compete, right? Wrong. Not this franchise. Instead, the roller coaster continues, and now the peaks and valleys are coming closer together.

The fans showed up on opening day to cheer for their newly-named team in their brand new stadium. A sellout! Unfortunately, the month of April went downhill from there. For starters, Ozzie Guillen popped off about admiring Fidel Castro. It’s tough to imagine a higher degree of stupidity more likely to offend South Florida’s substantial Cuban population, i.e., the team’s fan base. My guess is that ownership figured that since Ozzie’s from Venezuela (which is practically Cuba, right?), and that since he speaks Spanish (which is practically what Texas Governor Rick Perry referred to as “Cuban,” right?), then he’d be a natural fit for South Florida. Looks like the Marlins’ management skipped the business school seminar about the dangers of generalizations and stereotypes.

The opening day sellout was an aberration. Even though the park holds barely 37,000 fans, the Marlins have yet to fill it a second time. They are currently 12th out of 16 teams in the National League in attendance, and apparently their attendance is on pace to be the worst of any team during its first year in a new stadium in 30 years. Strange stuff.

Their on-field performance has been just as weird. By the end of April, they were already six games under .500 at 8-14, and six games out of first in the National League East. But, by the end of May, they were seven games over .500, and only ½ game out of first. So they settled down, figured out who should play where, bat when, etc., right? Wrong again. With May behind them, they went back to stinking up the joint; they won a total of six games in June. By the end of June, their record was 37-40, and they were 7 ½ games out of first place. So, they’re out of it right? As the trade deadline approaches, they’re sellers, not buyers, right? Wrong again.

At the beginning of July they acquired Carlos Lee from Houston. So what’s the message? It’s simple: this is a team with its eye on one of two wild card spots, a team that’s going to do what it can to compete, a team of buyers, not sellers, right? Wrong once again. Last week they went from buyers to sellers, big time. Omar Infante – gone; Anibal Sanchez – gone; Randy Choate – gone; Hanley Ramirez – gone; chances of making the playoffs – gone. As of this writing, the Marlins are 45-54, 14 games out of first, and destined to fall behind the resurgent Philadelphia Phillies for last place in the NL East.

I have no idea what the long-term plan is for the Marlins. Is the plan to win? Is the plan to make money irrespective of how the team performs? Honestly, I doubt that ownership and management have a long-term plan. From where I sit, it seems like the only plan is to make sure Miami continues to be the strangest franchise in MLB.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com