Late on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 23, with the light going buttery and the sky a perfect blue, with temperatures in the 70s and a slight breeze rustling the palm fronds—precisely the conditions that supposedly distract South Floridians from matters such as civic decay and the woes of their sports teams—nearly 1,000 men and women filled the chairs set up on an indoor volleyball court at the University of Miami. Some could barely speak. Ron Fraser had been dead more than a month. They still didn't want to let him go.
For the next two hours there were tributes to the Hurricanes' legendary baseball coach, from the Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda, former Miami football coach Howard Schnellenberger and Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez, among others, all attesting to how "the Wizard" had created a national power from nothing, to his lovably shameless shilling, to the way he kept the game alive in the region long before Major League Baseball cast a covetous eye there. It was sweet, at first, but soon all the references to the "innocence" of cozy Mark Light Stadium, to what UM president Donna Shalala called "the plain, unabashed fun of America's favorite pastime played up close and personal," reflected one jarringly sad reality. It had been a long time since anyone had spoken so lovingly about baseball in Miami.
Afterward, Charles Johnson stood engulfed by fans and old friends. No wonder: In South Florida's ever-eroding sandscape, Johnson has been one of the few constants, not to mention an embodiment of the old notion that Miami could become "major league" without pain. An All-America catcher for the Hurricanes during Fraser's final season, in 1992, Johnson was the Florida Marlins' first amateur draft pick, a two-time major league All-Star and the anchor of the 1997 World Series--winning team. "They built a tremendous fan base," Johnson says of those early Marlins, "but then they gave the fan base back."
He has since witnessed the club's signature boom-and-bust cycles, the parade of departed homegrown stars such as Miguel Cabrera and Josh Beckett, the revolving door of managers, the endless and bitter battle for a downtown ballpark that, in the long run, will cost the county a jaw-dropping $2.4 billion. He saw it all blow up worse than ever last year, when Marlins Park opened and drew the fewest fans in the recent history of new stadiums, and the club cratered, and then, in November, the Marlins were gutted yet again in a faith-shattering 12-player trade with Toronto. It's why Johnson, himself traded away by the Marlins in the summer of '98, feels a warmth for Fraser's program that he rarely felt as a pro.
The next morning Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria ended three months of silence by publishing a full-page, 800-word missive to fans in four Sunday newspapers in South Florida, sparking a fresh round of columns, TV smirks and online comments that dismissed him as clueless and irredeemable. Gimenez says, "We'll go see a winner. Will we ever forgive? No. It'll always be in the back of everybody's mind, what happened here." But with ticket sales plummeting, Loria's newly hired public relations firm—armed with a full-time crisis management team and called, yes, the JeffreyGroup—clearly figured that he might as well go down fighting.
Letter to Our Fans
It's no secret that last season was not our best—actually it was one of our worst. In large part, our performance on the field stunk and something needed to be done. As a result of some bold moves, many grabbed hold of our tough yet necessary decisions to unleash a vicious cycle of negativity....
Many of the things being said about us are simply not true.... The ballpark issue has been repeatedly reported incorrectly.... Fans didn't turn out last season as much as we'd like, even with the high-profile players the columnists decry us having traded....
Are we fiscally capable and responsible enough to fill the roster with talented players, invest in the daily demands of running a world-class organization and bring a World Series back to Miami? Absolutely!