After staying away for three seasons, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez says he may be ready to go see the Miami Marlins play in their county-owned ballpark.
“I didn’t go last season. I may go this season,” said Gimenez, whose fierce criticism of the 2009 public funding package for Marlins Park helped propel him into the mayor’s office in 2011.
“I think it’s time,” he continued. “You know, the stadium is there. If they put out a good quality product, which is what they promised the people of Miami-Dade County, then I may start to go. … If they don’t put out a good quality product, which is what they promised the people of Miami, then I won’t go to the game.”
While hedged, Gimenez’s statement could signal a significant rapproachement for the Marlins, who have spent the past six years as one of the biggest political punching bags in Miami-Dade County.
When the Miami Dolphins pursued county subsidies for a stadium renovation in 2013, the team drew such sharp contrasts with the Marlins deal that Marlins owner Jeff Loria called it a “smear campaign.” Opponents of David Beckham’s short-lived push to put a soccer stadium at PortMiami aired a television ad that ended with an aerial shot of Marlins Park and the tag line: “Remind you of anything?”
Last year, Gimenez used his State of the County address to harken back to his unsuccesful fight against the ballpark funding as a county commissioner. “I still wear my Marlins scars quite proudly,” he said.
Gimenez said he stayed clear of Marlins games for the 2012, ’13 and ’14 seasons at the $645 million stadium complex, a rare boycott among Major League mayors, according to Miami Herald research. Last year, the Herald could find no other Major League Baseball city where the mayor didn’t attend at least one home game in a season.
Voter ire over the 2009 stadium deal helped spur the 2011 recall of its champion, then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez, and the fallout continues to make politicians leery about cheering the team in person. Miami-Dade agreed to pay $369 million of the $515 million stadium tab, with Miami contributing $120 million (mostly for a $94 million stadium garage) and the Marlins paying $155 million. Almost all of the county’s debt is tied to hotel taxes.
“If I tweet a pic of me and my son at Marlins Park, would people take that as me embracing the Marlins Stadium deal?” asked School Board member Raquel Regalado, daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and a likely Gimenez challenger in 2016. “Some might.”
Gimenez has attended non-Marlins events at the ballpark, which opened to encouraging reviews in 2012. But it was the All-Star game that really began the thaw. Two weeks ago, Major League Baseball announced Miami as the site for the 2017 game that features the major leagues’ most popular players.
Miami-Dade participated in the bid, and Gimenez spoke at the park’s Feb. 13 announcement event. On Wednesday, he stood on the tarmac at Miami International Airport when Gov. Rick Scott handed a Marlins cap to President Barack Obama, who had flown in for a televised town hall meeting. The All-Star embrace followed a string of well-received moves by the Marlins front office, including re-upping player Giancarlo Stanton in a stunning $325 million deal, and snagging fan favorite Ichiro Suzuki for a one-year stint.
Stanton landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in body paint, and a Marlins executive said an ESPN magazine cover story is in the works, too. David Samson, the team’s president, said season-ticket sales in February were the best since the ballpark’s debut season. Asked for his thoughts on Gimenez’s absence from home games, Samson said the team would be happy to host him this season. “Whatever the reason, I’m much more focused on the present and the future than the past.”
An ongoing mayroral boycott of Marlins Park may complicate Gimenez’s efforts to bring a David Beckham soccer stadium to Miami. On Tuesday, the County Commission is set to vote on a resolution that instructs the mayor to negotiate a deal for putting a Major League Soccer stadium on land next to Marlins Park.
Miami Mayor Regalado also came to office in the wake of the Marlins deal, which he unsuccesfully opposed as a city commissioner. He was elected mayor in 2009, months after the funding deal went through. Regalado said he’s mostly stayed away from the stadium, despite taking his grandchildren to a home game shortly after the ballpark opened. He sounded conflicted when asked if he would take in a game this season.
“The stadium is there. It’s built. They have shown themselves to be good community partners,” Regalado said. He added that attending a game might put him the awkward position of having to trash the 2009 financing package if someone asked his opinion. “I would rather stay away from the games,” he said. “I’ll just watch it on TV.”
While the 2009 financing deal enraged residents, Loria made it worse after the ballpark’s debut season in 2012 when he slashed almost $150 million from the payroll. Labeled the “most hated man in baseball,” Loria blamed the team’s dismal record and said he wanted to rebuild the roster. But attendance took such a sharp dive in the ballpark’s second season that the Marlins had to close the upper deck for some games and use Groupon to sell seats on Opening Day.
Gimenez alluded to the roster moves as he talked through his thinking on possibly attending his first Marlins game at Marlins Park in 2015.
“It all depends on how good they are,” Gimenez said. “We have spent that money. At least give us a good team.”