As the strangest season we have seen in South Florida sports bore in close, I asked Marlins president David Samson this week if he understood how most people in Miami, the teams would-be fans, feel about franchise owner Jeffrey Loria. Hated was a word I happened to use, although something stronger to better convey the venom might have been more fitting.
He knew. He also knew that arguing the basic fact or trying to apply makeup would be hopeless.
I volunteered how many fans I have heard from who say they want to support the Marlins but wont again as long as Loria is the owner. As if Samson hasnt heard the same? That is the angry echo in season-ticket sales that have plunged from 12,000 one year ago to 5,000 today.
That is the No. 1 thing that makes me the sorriest and the saddest, Samson said. That means someone is not going to make a memory with their parent or child or client just because of me or Jeffrey. I think about it every day and it ruins my day every day. Try to look past that. Jeffrey cares. He really cares. Hes misunderstood. What he cares about is winning.
A big disconnect
He really cares, but has one hell of a way of showing it, apparently.
He cares about winning, supposedly, but sells off his best players (again) and presents a team young and (most importantly) cheap.
Samson is what youd expect: A loyal lieutenant to his boss and former stepfather. He also personifies the disconnect continuing. The tone-deafness.
Marlins ownership moves forward as if fans should be so enamored of the new ballpark that the players inside the uniforms hardly matter. And that the owners commitment to spending and fielding competitive teams his broken promise to do that is incidental as well.
Samson plows forward, unable to hear how he sounds, unable to hear that his conciliatory words are incongruous, and drowned out by the scoffs of distrusting fans who feel betrayed.
I and we are amazingly and incredibly and heartfelt-sorry for how it all went down, he said. I just want people to come to games and enjoy baseball again. People are upset and angry and rightfully so, but I hope they will try to look past that and just enjoy a baseball game.
Its as if it is a pure coincidence that people are upset and angry directly related to what Loria has done. Samson and Loria advising fans to look past their anger and enjoy baseball again is something like the man who robbed your house telling you to enjoy your safety and peace of mind again.
This is the Marlins 21st season about to start. Thats a coming of age number, but it feels more like a coming apart on this franchises timeline.
Including the Dolphins, Heat and Panthers, this Marlins season will be the 112th combined in our professional sports history, and I cannot recall a stranger one.
The team has its 1-year-old stadium in Little Havana, the new-car smell still in it, but zero momentum from the new park, zero sense of goodwill. The honeymoon is over. Was there ever a honeymoon at all?
The Marlins April 8 home opener might not even be a sellout. The club is scrambling to save face by at least filling all 37,000 seats for that one night, so the Marlins have aligned with Groupon, the discount coupon company, to offer reduced-price tickets. The team also is offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal, with a ticket to Opening Night getting you a complimentary bonus ticket to any home game in April or May.
Dont be a trader?
That is desperate. That is sad.
FoxSports Florida asked six University of Florida advertising students to concoct a marketing campaign for the networks Marlins coverage this season. One of the slogans bandied about was Dont Be a Trader, but the very double entendre is part of the Marlins problem.
It alludes to the major offseason trades and asks fans to not be a traitor to the team because of them even though the teams allegiance to fans is what is in doubt.
A big problem with the Marlins was the current brand image, understated Matt Delisle, one of the UF students on the project.
One year ago Loria seemed to have largely rehabilitated his image with Marlins fans. Now? A blog poll of mine in late February found 97.6 percent of Marlins fans would-be customers wished Loria would sell the team.
That broken image is the natural residue of an unending parade of missteps by the club since the season opened with such promise one year ago then soured almost immediately.
A year ago on Opening Night Muhammad Ali was wheeled out to the stunned silence of the crowd, showgirls on each players arms proved an embarrassment, and a loss followed.
It was downhill from there.
Manager Ozzie Guillen professed his respect for Fidel Castro, the losses mounted, and the scent of the fire sale to come was in the air as the club traded star shortstop Hanley Ramirez and his big salary.
We picked a very bad year to have a very bad year, as Samson puts it.
And it was STILL going downhill.
After the 93-loss season and requisite managerial change the team jettisoned popular Jose Reyes and longtime ace Josh Johnson in a massive trade with Toronto that made the Blue Jays World Series favorites and made Marlins fans irate, plundering the roster and slashing the player payroll from $100 million to $40 million.
Back to business as usual, in other words. Back to the bare-bones payrolls that were supposed to have been a thing of the past thanks to the new stadium.
Lorias combative full-page newspaper ads explaining himself in February did his image no good. Nor did the club threatening to sue two long-time season-ticket holders who complained about their view being obstructed by advertising.
The last star
More disconnect. More tone-deafness.
Now Giancarlo Stanton Last Star Standing will, of course, be the next to go, traded prior to hitting the free-agent market in three years.
Might Stanton even be traded this season?
I dont know, Samson said. The pause grew, and grew awkward. I would say very unlikely, he filled it in.
The constant recycling is what frustrates. Stars traded just when they get too pricey, replaced by the next wave of cheap prospects.
For the record, I do not blame Loria for the Marlins paying only $160 million toward the $635 million ballpark. His job was to strike the best deal for himself and the club. And oh did he. Miami mayor Tomas Regalado recently told Sports Illustrated that the residents of Miami were raped in the deal. But it was the politicians job to represent the residents and protect them.
What I DO blame Loria for is thinking his role in getting the new ballpark is enough. The public is paying for about three-quarters of it. His job is to put teams in it that people will pay to support.
What I DO blame Loria for is crying about losing money when baseballs revenue sharing and TV contracts provide such massive income streams even apart from the new ballpark.
What I DO blame Loria for is retreating from the implied promise that the new ballpark would mean bigger payrolls and competitive teams.
The Marlins have neither in 2013, and so their fans the loyalists and the estranged alike have a decision to make.
Some will decide that the Marlins and their long-term future here are bigger than the current owner, and that they are cheering for the players and the uniform, not for the men in the suits.
Others will decide on what they see as a moral stand to not pay their money in support of an owner they see as an uncaring liar.
Im not sure which is right, but I know this.
It isnt as simple as Samson saying fans should look past it and just enjoy a baseball game again.
Not when the people in charge of this team make that so much harder and more complicated than it ought to be.