WASHINGTON, November 26, 2012 — Part 1: Here’s hoping that the last Miami Marlins fan turns out the lights on the way out the door. There are few words to describe how owner Jeffrey Loria and his front office gutted the revamped Marlins’ roster that they’d assembled less than a year ago. The one sure thing is that the move destroyed the last shred of credibility Loria had with fans. Over the past decade, Marlins fans have gone through what I dub the “Seven-Step Method to Alienate Fans (and Lose Money).” In just nine years, euphoria over a championship has gone from dismay to disdain for a rapidly sinking ship.
Here is how it evolved in seven stages:
1. Unquestioning Contentedness
This stage is the nirvana of fandom. A team is coming off a championship or near miss, many of the same players are definitely returning, so nothing can possibly go wrong. The unquestionably contented fan is at peace with his or her team because success is not just imminent — it is in motion.
This was the state of the Marlins fan as the 2003 offseason merged into the 2004 season. The Marlins had just come off a shocking run to the World Series Title, and their entire core was returning, sans catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who signed with the Detroit Tigers, and first baseman Derrek Lee, who was flipped to the Chicago Cubs for top prospect Hee-Seop Choi, a major breakout candidate.
The 2004 Marlins didn’t make the postseason, but they again retooled around the same core for another run and were widely expected to take the NL East crown. Instead, they missed the postseason again, setting the stage for a colossal fire sale.
2. It Worked Before, So Management Must Be Right
In this stage of fandom, the glow of success has faded, but there is no fear, because the same savvy management team that brought home a title is starting again with the same tactics that built a championship squad in the first place. The trusting fan stands behind the management, believing that the winning formula just needs to be applied one more time.
Following the disastrous 2005 season, the Marlins dispatched their big-name stars for big-name prospects. Their ace, 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett, and their starting third baseman, Mike Lowell, were shipped to the Boston Red Sox. Star first baseman Carlos Delgado was dealt to the New York Mets after only one year in South Florida. The leadoff tandem of Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo was split up, with the former going to the Cubs, and the latter to the Minnesota Twins.
But a boatload of blue-chip prospects came into the fold as a result of all the trades, and even as financing for a new ballpark lagged, the stage was set for another fast rebuilding period, like the one that had ditched most of their 1997 World Championship roster but set the stage for their 2003 team.
3. Waiting At The Crossroads, But It’s The Same Old Story
The fan at this stage is stuck — literally. At least one major problem is going on with his or her team. They might be losing, they might not be able to keep a manager, they might be losing money, attendance might be plummeting, their stadium might be falling apart around them…the list goes on and on. But there are still bright spots, because no one has publicly given the situation up for lost, and no private angry conversations from the front office have been leaked to the media — yet.
The 2006-2010 Marlins went in circles. During 2007 and 2008, the rebuilding continued as scheduled, and by 2009 they were back in the playoff hunt. There were problems galore, however. Manager Joe Girardi had a public fallout with owner Loria and was tossed aside. Meanwhile, the situation with the new stadium continued to languish. The circular pattern took off in earnest, as the core of the 2009 and 2010 teams was summarily offloaded for prospects.
4. Everything Will Be Okay When….
The fan at this stage is cautiously optimistic. The off-field problems have resolved themselves. There’s a steady hand at the tiller, revenues are not declining, and a new stadium or broadcast mega-deal is on the way. The team may be struggling — they may even be languishing in last place — but hope is on the horizon because everything is going to change once the cash flows in and there’s motivation to spend that cash.
Even as the 2011 Marlins moved towards an eventual 72-90, last-place finish, there was finally hope in the air. The brand-new Marlins Park was slated to open in 2012, allowing the franchise to finally ditch Sun Life Stadium, never designed for baseball in the first place. Management was adamant in their determination that the revenue floodgates would open in 2012, and they promised to finally turn the Marlins into a perennially, not cyclically, successful team.
The last three stages are what happen when the cycle kicks in over, and over, and over. Maybe if Loria and the Marlins had re-evaluated here, or if the clamor for selling and relocating the franchise had won out, part two of this story wouldn’t be necessary.
For the final stages, read tomorrow’s follow up column.
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