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An empty feeling

South Florida’s baseball troubles are as real as those in Tampa Bay.

[AP photo]
This gathering of 8,365 at Pro Player Stadium on April 6, 2000, is not even the smallest in team history. The Marlins drew 6,955 for a May 17 game with San Diego.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


Tampa Bay's ownership group is in turmoil. The team could be up for sale. Outsiders are suggesting contraction as a possible solution.

If you are a Rays fan, where do you turn for solace?

At Yeehaw Junction. Take a right on Florida's Turnpike and head south to the Broward/Miami-Dade border. You'll recognize the chaos when you see it.

Less than four years after conquering the world, the Florida Marlins may not even survive in their own hometown. Fans are displaying remarkable apathy, owner John Henry says his losses are mounting and commissioner Bud Selig's last-minute threats were ignored by community leaders.

"It's very sad for me to even think about it," said Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine, who played five seasons for the Marlins and still lives in south Florida. "The bulk of my baseball memories are there. The fans will cry if the team goes, yet they won't go out and support them right now. It's like they don't believe the team can be taken away from them and, from what I understand, that might be a very real possibility."

With the Rays and Marlins last in attendance in the United States (we're still calculating the fan exchange rate in Montreal), it has been suggested that Major League Baseball's foray into Florida in the 1990s was a mistake.

It is a difficult point to argue. Neither franchise has enjoyed the kind of community support of its expansion brethren in Colorado and Arizona. And neither has tangible hope for change in the foreseeable future.

"I am not going to get into a discussion comparing markets," Marlins president Dave Dombrowski said. "I will say that every market has its unique characteristics. We have unique characteristics here that some other clubs might not have. We are not a market like St. Louis, or Boston or the Cubs in Chicago where fans will come out in abundance, no matter what.

"It takes a club that is competitive to put the people in the stands here. We also have weather here that is unlike most places. We get a lot of rain and we have to address that. We have some unusual characteristics."

South Florida actually has some similar characteristics to Tampa Bay. Neither market has strong corporate presence. Both have distinct divisions between population centers (Tampa/St. Petersburg and Miami/Fort Lauderdale). Community identity is weak in both markets with large segments of the populations relocating from other areas. Neither has a stadium that would be considered ideal by modern baseball standards.

Community officials in Tampa Bay admit they are surprised fan support for baseball has not been as strong as anticipated before expansion, and leaders in south Florida have said much the same.

"I think south Florida was a questionable market to begin with," said Hank Goldberg, a longtime radio personality in Miami and a contributor on ESPN. "This is more of a football market. People always have excuses for why they don't go to baseball games here. I just don't think they care. The apathy here is amazing."

There are definite distinctions between the markets. The Marlins, for instance, won the World Series in 1997. The Rays have had trouble consistently winning regular-season series.

The Marlins also have shown signs of actually drawing crowds. They surpassed 3-million in attendance in 1993. They were close to 2.5-million in '97. Each time there was reason for optimism, it came crashing down the next season. In '94, it was the strike. In '98 it was a fire sale of players.

"This market can be successful," Dombrowski said. "Unfortunately, the population down here has had their hearts broken a couple of times and that has had an impact on the support."

Winning the World Series was a momentary respite for the Marlins.

Within weeks of Edgar Renteria's winning hit in Game 7 of the Series, owner Wayne Huizenga announced he would tear apart the roster for financial reasons. Players were traded or cut loose and the team dropped to last place.

"I think the root cause of the fan issue in Miami was Wayne Huizenga dismantling a world championship club," Miami city commissioner Johnny Winton said. "Talk about deflating. No one had time to savor the accomplishment. The whole world was as enthusiastic as can be and that enthusiasm got ice cold water thrown on it. It left a really bitter taste in everyone's mouth, and justifiably so."

Huizenga sold the team to Henry but, in a way, he continues to have a very real and very negative impact on the Marlins.

Huizenga controls Pro Player Stadium and got Henry to sign a lease that is universally seen as atrocious for the ballclub. The Marlins get very little in the way of revenues from club and luxury seats, which is a main source of income for most franchises. Huizenga also gets the bulk of parking revenues and has incensed fans by continually raising parking prices.

The lack of revenues is what has driven Henry to seek a new retractable roof stadium. Considering Pro Player Stadium is 13 years old and considering Dade just built a basketball arena and Broward just built a hockey arena, the community did not embrace the idea of a new baseball stadium.

The Marlins also have made some fans unhappy in Fort Lauderdale by supporting a stadium proposal in downtown Miami, which is 30 minutes farther south of the centrally located Pro Player Stadium. Coupled with the constant suggestions that the current stadium is inadequate, the Marlins have done a fairly good job of alienating the people they are trying to attract.

"Fans have not supported us. Corporations have not supported us," Henry said a day after a stadium funding bill died in the state Legislature. "The people who do come are terrific. I know them all by their first names."

Henry has twice struck out with the Florida Legislature and says he will not go back again. The latest plan to build the $385-million stadium seemed to suffer from infighting between Miami and Dade County about how much of the bill each would be responsible for with tourist tax money.

Dade leaders still are hopeful of getting a voter referendum in July to extend for 40 years a parking surcharge tax. Even if it passes, the issue would have to be taken up by the Legislature again in January.

To say the franchise's future is uncertain would be a kind characterization. Henry projects losses of more than $20-million this year and says they will grow each season without a new stadium.

"At some point, you just say to yourself, "This is madness,' " Henry said.

Henry said he will not sell the team or dump salaries. He did not rule out moving the team. He has talked about approaching leaders in Broward and Palm Beach counties about a new stadium, although that idea has been met with coolness from the local governments.

For now, the team remains in limbo. As does Major League Baseball's future in the state.

"There is a value to a major-league baseball team, a community value," Winton said. "We're willing to pay something for that community value, but how much is right? Baseball at all costs does not fly, in my mind. Baseball at some value number would be okay."

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