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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.