The fan showed up two hours early wearing a white Marlins jersey and a black Marlins cap turned backward. Yilbert Hernandez looked every bit a Marlins fan, and for the team’s first 20 years, he was.
Now his loyalty is broken, almost beyond repair.
When the Marlins took a sledgehammer to their roster and pulverized last season’s $100 million outfit, the 36-year-old Palmetto Bay man threw up his arms and said enough. He had weathered previous roster purges after 1997 and 2003, but no more.
“My family’s had season tickets since ’93,” Hernandez said Monday, shortly before the Marlins played their home opener. “We survived after ’97 and after ’03, and we kept on going. But this is it. Third strike, you’re out.”
Hernandez didn’t renew his season tickets and said the only reason he showed up Monday was out of “tradition, Opening Day.” He doesn’t plan to be at many more games this season.
Indications are, he probably won’t be the only one staying away. As the Marlins began Year Two in their new ballpark, an undercurrent of discontent was prevalent Monday when 34,439 fans flocked to see the Marlins face the Atlanta Braves.
The opener being what it is, it could very well turn out to be the largest crowd of the season. The harsh reality of what’s ahead could start to become more apparent Tuesday at the second home game.
Last year’s season ticket base of 12,000 has shrunk to 5,000. The Marlins enticed fans to Monday’s game with discounted tickets, two-for-one specials and an assortment of other gimmicks and promotions.
“We have ticket promotions to every game,” said Marlins president David Samson, who would not say how many tickets to Monday’s game were sold at full price. “This was truly no different.”
Most fans in attendance for Monday seemed happy to be there, no different than any other year. The west plaza was filled with music and games as fans waited for the turnstiles to open.
But the evidence of what once was abundant. The names Sanchez, Infante, Reyes and Ramirez — the Marlins’ Opening Day infield from a year ago — could be found on the backs of replica jerseys worn by fans young and old. All four players were ultimately traded as the Marlins carved the payroll down to about $35 million, or close to a third of what it was this time a year ago.
It didn’t deter Tico Solares from organizing his annual gathering for the home opener, something he started doing in 1993 when the Marlins began play. But he and the rest of his friends showed up in protest Monday, wearing brown paper bags on their heads.
“We’re pretty upset,” Solares said.
Solares bought season tickets last year. This year, when the sales rep from the Marlins called seeing if he would renew, the 40-year-old man from Pinecrest had a ready response:
“I told the season ticket guy to go to hell,” Solares said. “We might not come to another game again.”
One of Solares’ buddies, Joey Hernandez, said about four or five of their friends refused to join them Monday. Hernandez said he implored them to attend, just for the sake of keeping the tradition going.
“If you do that,” he argued, “the terrorists win.”
Dr. Carlos Pena, 60, showed up wearing a Marlins jersey, but with a mismatched Toronto Blue Jays cap. The Marlins’ most controversial trade was in November when they dealt five players — Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio, and John Buck — to Toronto.
“It’s a sign of protest,” Pena said. “I’m a fan. I always support the team. We’ve been from the first year. But I don’t see us getting any better. We gave up on our team too early.”
Steve Vadja renewed his season tickets even thought he said he was “disgruntled” with the offseason moves.
“But baseball supersedes everything, so I’m here for the game,” he said. “Even though many of us season-ticket holders don’t agree with what’s going on, they have to look to the game and look to the future.”
Meanwhile, two spectators wearing protest shirts and signs were ejected by Miami-Dade police inside the ballpark for what Marlins president David Samson said was “creating a disturbance.”
Samson said the protest messages were “not the issue.” “They were drawing some attention to themselves, making some noise later in the game, which is not uncommon,” he said. “As per standard operating procedure, the police go up, try to tell them to calm down, and they did not. The police said show some I.D. They did not and that was it. You have to show I.D. And so they were ejected.”
Outside the ballpark, business was “slow” for Melvin Jones, a scalper.
“Heat good. Marlins bad. Dolphins bad,” Jones said of his street corner business. “Last year here was the best ever because the stadium was new and everybody wanted to come see it.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Joseph Goodman contributed to this report.