All-stars will give Florida a rare full house

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The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVEN WINE MIAMI —

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

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?

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

A ven­dor walks through a sec­tion of mostly empty seats dur­ing a game at Mar­lins Park sta­dium in Miami in June.

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