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HIGH STANDARDS
S.L. Price
October 27, 1997
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
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October 27, 1997

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

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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 hot 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."

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