All-stars will give Florida a rare full house
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A Miami Marlins fan walks into a bar, and this is no joke: He wants to watch his team play, but all 10 televisions are tuned to other games in other time zones. The bar, located near Marlins Park, broadcasts the lack of allegiance for the home team loud and clear. It’s a common occurrence in South Florida, and where else would such a thing happen? Not Boston or St. Louis or San Francisco or most major-league locales. Tampa Bay? Maybe. Like the Marlins, the Rays are last in their league in attendance and battling the kind of chronic fan apathy that has plagued both franchises since they were founded in the 1990s. The Marlins are in their 25th season and about to host the all-star game when it comes to the state for the first time. But does Major League Baseball belong in Florida? Perhaps not, given the failure of the Rays and Marlins to develop a robust fan base. “I don’t know what the disconnect is,” said National League all-star manager Joe Maddon, who spent nine seasons as Tampa Bay’s manager. “Spring training has been here for 100 years. You would think this would be a strong area for baseball.” Instead, it’s a strong area for foul-ball collectors, because they face little competition. The Rays have finished last in the majors in attendance every year since 2011, when they were next to last. The Marlins have finished last in the NL 11 of the past 12 seasons. Many spectators who do show up care more about the visitors — even if that means booing them. Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez heard jeers from Baltimore fans recently as he left the mound after a poor performance at Tampa Bay. Both Florida teams tried changing their name; that didn’t help. It turned out calling them the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Marlins wasn’t the issue. So what is? Theories might outnumber empty seats. “There are a bunch of problems,” said Rays first baseman Logan Morrison, who also played for the Marlins. One issue is the transient nature of the state, which makes it different from markets where fan support goes back generations. “A lot of people who live in Florida aren’t from Florida,” Morrison said. “The organizations are relatively new, so you don’t have fans with deep roots. A lot of people who go to games in the Florida markets are fans of other teams.” Another issue is lack of competitiveness. Florida’s teams have reached the playoffs just six times in their 43 combined seasons. The Marlins haven’t been to the post-season since 2003, the longest current drought in the NL. For both the Marlins and Rays, modest payrolls have made it tough to keep popular — and expensive — players. Constant roster turnover has alienated fans, especially in Miami, where unpopular owner Jeffrey Loria’s team is for sale. The all-star game will showcase the Marlins’ five-year-old ballpark, which received rave reviews, but hasn’t helped attendance. The Rays, by contrast, play in 27-year-old Tropicana Field, widely regarded among the worst facilities in professional sports. Neither ballpark is centrally located in its region, making for long drives at rush hour for many potential spectators. “There are a lot of Marlins fans,” said Marlins executive Jeff Conine, a former all-star game MVP nicknamed Mr. Marlin. “I get recognized wherever I go. People like the Marlins. They just don’t come to games.” Most South Floridians don’t watch on TV, either. The Marlins ranked 26th in the majors in ratings last season; the Rays ranked 14th. When expansion brought teams to Florida, Major League Baseball anticipated success in a state with a rich spring training tradition. But many of the fans who attend those games are gone in the summer. “Spring training’s a different animal, tied to vacationers and teams that are here in the Grapefruit League,” said Orestes Destrade, a Rays broadcaster who played for the inaugural Marlins team in 1993. “There’s so much going on in Florida during the baseball season. In Detroit, what are you going to do? Certain northern cities, I’m not dogging them, I’m just saying you don’t have the beaches and nine million things to do. That makes it a problem.” The Rays’ best hope for a turnaround is a new ballpark in Tampa, across the bay from their current home in St. Petersburg. A vote last year allowed the Rays to start looking at possible sites in Tampa, but the process of relocation will likely be lengthy. In Miami, antipathy toward Loria keeps many fans away, and the anticipated sale of the team could provide a reboot. But there’s no guarantee new ownership will succeed where three previous Marlins owners failed. Perhaps all those empty seats are a way of saying Miami’s just not a baseball town — and Florida’s not a baseball state.
As the all-star game comes to Florida for the first time, the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays continue their perennial struggles with attendance, raising the question: Does Major League Baseball belong in the state?
A vendor walks through a section of mostly empty seats during a game at Marlins Park stadium in Miami in June.