In Miami, vis­i­tors get more sup­port

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - 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, where the Ma­jor League Baseball All-Star Game is be­ing held Tuesday, broad­casts the lack of al­le­giance for the home team loud and clear.

It’s not some­thing likely to hap­pen in any other bigleague city, ex­cept pos­si­bly Tampa Bay, the other Florida mar­ket with a ma­jor-league

team. 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 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.

“I don’t know what the dis­con­nect is,” said NL 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.

“It’s not a great sit­u­a­tion,” said Miami Man­ager Don Mat­tingly, ac­cus­tomed to a more fa­vor­able home at­mos­phere when he played for the New York Yan­kees. “It would be nice to have a packed house with Mar­lins fans, so Cub fans or Met fans can’t get tick­ets. But that’s not the case. What are you go­ing to do?”

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.”

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’ 5-yearold

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.

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.

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.

Lack of com­pet­i­tive­ness is of­ten pointed to as the rea­son for the lack of fan loy­alty.

And it’s that Florida’s teams have reached the play­offs six times in their 43 com­bined sea­sons. The Mar­lins haven’t been to the post­sea­son since 2003, the long­est cur­rent drought in the NL.

But the Mar­lins have had their mo­ments, ac­tu­ally two mo­ments, and they made them count.

They won world cham­pi­onships in 1997 and 2003, both times get­ting to the world se­ries as a wild-card team, giv­ing them two world cham­pi­onships in their first 11 sea­sons of ex­is­tence.

The Rays, mean­while, made the World Se­ries in 2008 (los­ing to Philadel­phia) and have two divi­sion ti­tles, both un­der Mad­don.

“I don’t think it’s a mar­ket we should give up on just yet,” said South Florida na­tive Mike Low­ell, who played for the Mar­lins’ 2003 World Se­ries cham­pi­ons.

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