Troubles At Home
The Marlins are winning, but abysmal attendance signals an iffy future in Miami
Marlins owner John Henry has built his career on eliminating uncertainties. He made a fortune in commodities trading after devising a formula to predict market behavior, and he wrote a book detailing a system for winning at blackjack. But he's still searching for a way to guarantee his $150 million wager that the Marlins can succeed in Florida. "It's difficult without political support," Henry says of his crusade to get his team a new ballpark, without which, he argues, the Marlins cannot survive. "And elected officials point to the lack of attendance as reason not to support the stadium. It's a Catch-22."
South Florida fans, still stung by the dismantling that followed the Marlins' 1997 World Series win, have been slow to embrace a team that deserves their support. At the All-Star break the Marlins, who had won seven of their last nine, were 45-43 (the latest they've been above .500 since '97) and trailed the Mets by only four games in the National League wild-card race. Florida also had the league's third-best staff ERA (4.43) and the major league leader in saves ( Antonio Alfonseca, 28) and coleader in steals ( Luis Castillo, 36). "They're a good team," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said after his team lost two of three to Florida last week. "They're going to wreak havoc with people who play them the rest of the year."
Still, the Marlins' average attendance of 14,741 was third-worst in the majors before the break. Despite uncommonly cooperative weather—there had been no rainouts and just three games delayed by bad weather at Pro Player Stadium, compared with two postponements and eight rain delays at the same point last season—they had drawn 14 crowds of less than 10,000. The much-anticipated series against the Mets attracted an average of just 18,514.
Even on those rare occasions when fans do show up, they're often not there to see the Marlins. The players still bristle at the memory of two games against Boston last month, when at least half the crowd was on its feet with Florida trailing in the bottom of the ninth, rooting for the Red Sox to win. "You see guys laughing in the other team's bullpen," says Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd of the home field disadvantage. "It kind of hurts."
Manager John Boles hopes increased stability will bring fans back to the ballpark. "A lot of our players are becoming more visible, and when the fans see they're coming back next year and not being traded, they'll start to say, O.K., it's safe to support the Marlins." But that may not be enough, Boles acknowledges: "For us to draw well, we have to be perceived as a real contender."
Henry says this team, which had an Opening Day payroll of $19.87 million, won't suffer the same fate as the much-higher-priced 1997 team. Yet, hamstrung by a stadium lease that grants the Marlins little revenue from luxury suites, concessions and parking at Pro Player, neither can he afford to increase payroll by much. "If attendance doubled to 30,000, we could probably afford a payroll of around $30 million," says Henry. "That's still not enough to compete in the National League East."
With plans for a new park stalled—Florida governor Jeb Bush, who in April quashed the team's proposal to raise stadium money with a tax on cruise-ship passengers, last month signed a bill creating a nine-member authority to plan how to pay for a stadium—the Marlins are left between an ugly past and an uncertain future. "We get down, especially when we come back from a big road trip and 8,000 people are in the stands," says Floyd, "but maybe come August, if we're in the wild-card race, they'll come out to see us."
Braves' Kiwi Comer
Fast Climb from Fast-Pitch
The dugouts for Sunday's Futures Game—the annual All-Star weekend matchup between top U.S. and international prospects held this year in Atlanta—overflowed with draft picks and high-priced signees, players whose dreams of making it to the major leagues have been fueled by stardom at virtually every level they've played. Then there was Braves prospect Travis Wilson, the World Team's starting second baseman. "I had never touched a baseball or stepped on a baseball field before the Braves talked to me," says Wilson, 23, who plays for the Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans of the Carolina League and is the only New Zealander playing pro baseball in the U.S. "If someone told me three years ago I'd be playing in an all-star game, I'd have thought he was kidding."