- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"What we [predicted] turned out not to happen—but that's not lying. That's like saying that everyone who gets divorced was lying on their wedding day."
But for Samson and Loria, and now the city and Miami-Dade County, that wasn't even the scary part. No, looking back, what's most alarming is the fact that, even after the December spending spree and the Marlins' quick start in 2012—they were in first place on June 4—the new ballpark drew fewer than 29,000 fans a game. In other words, before the team's June swoon and Heath Bell's collapse made such numbers seem logical, bad questions were starting to take shape: What if everyone was wrong? What if Cuban-Americans don't actually like going to baseball games? What if the baseball market in Miami was a propped-up corpse from the start?
Samson admits the numbers shook his faith, but not fully, because last season's fall into last place left one shred of hope. He points to the last quadrant. "There's only one place left that I can hang my hat on for this market," Samson says. "Once we win and don't draw? Then it's over."
Early season-ticket sales for 2013, he says, dropped to 5,000 from last year's 12,000—and if critics respond to that figure with Why should we believe you?, well, no one's predicting big crowds, either. The easy explanation is that the market has never had a chance to prove itself, that the ballpark debate poisoned the air, that Ozzie's love of Fidel gave the casual fan pause and then the team tanked. Maybe. But there are plenty of us, too, who recall blackouts for Dolphins playoff games and swaths of empty seats when the LeBron-led Heat made their first playoff run. Miami is the nation's hardest sell in sports.
God knows, Loria's public display won't help. Premier free agents will avoid the Marlins until they lift their ban on no-trade clauses, and even then the franchise's reputation for dissembling will give other suitors endless ammo. The club would love to lock up burgeoning superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton with a long-term deal, but he's from L.A., still angry, and has no reason to believe the rebuilding will ever end. "Nothing we can do now but move forward from it," Stanton said, standing in an ice bath. "Go about my business and help take care of the team we got now." He couldn't have looked more miserable.
For his final run through the media gantlet, on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 26, Loria rode up to the Marlins' spring training site in Jupiter, Fla. There, five television crews, another half-dozen writers and a clutch of new-media types awaited his arrival, springing up to snap cellphone footage as he stepped out of a black town car. The cameras made it a more aggressive crowd, nobody wanting to be seen as being too soft, but Loria still couldn't be pushed off message. He turned one question about last year's "betrayal" into a discourse on "disappointment," another jibe about his new "Triple A team" into the claim that "we have the core and the makings of a championship-caliber team now."
As for Miami, he assured everyone he still has faith. "Miami is a wonderful baseball town," he said, and then, after 14 testy minutes, he grimaced, turned on his heel and ducked into the clubhouse. He was sighted an hour later sitting in his box to watch the Marlins play the Mets. Someone in the crowd yelled, "Trade Loria!" and a former season-ticket holder turned to me and said, "Want to throw something at him? I do. I hate that guy."
Loria heard none of that. At 5:01 p.m., after a day of meeting with Redmond and Beinfest and the players, he walked back out to his car. Three fans were waiting behind a fence. One asked him to sign a ball, and another told Loria how much he appreciated his letter. "You got to put that out there," the man said.
Loria nodded, trudged to the car and sank into a quiet backseat. He was heading to New York while, some 85 miles south, Marlins Park sat in the fine winter air awaiting its second season of judgment. Late in May, when Miami hosts the Mets, the Herald will have completed the move from downtown to its bland new headquarters out west, closer to the Everglades. In its place the out-of-town owners hope to someday put up a giant casino. The state hasn't legalized such gambling, and yes, opponents abound. But there's no reason, really, to think it can't happen.