You can still find stray bits of confetti around downtown Miami, remnants of the championship parade, but the Heat is now off the main stage it so dominated. The coming big events that would demand our sporting attention — Dolphins training camp, the Summer Olympics — don’t start for another month, one summoning the power of 47 years of local tradition, the other tugging on patriotic heartstrings.
The window in between has opened, the window that looks out on to baseball.
This is the Marlins’ time, in theory, at least. Now is when the calendar invites casual fans and South Florida at large to reacquaint with the team in the new ballpark, that chance to retake the stage accentuated by the team’s starring role in Showtime’s The Franchise reality series premiering July 11.
The question is, will the Marlins be up to the scrutiny? Can they take advantage?
Will we eagerly reacquaint with the team that set a club record for wins in May when most of us were otherwise obsessed by LeBron James and the NBA playoffs? Or will we cringe to rediscover the team that has June-swooned into the National League East cellar?
This is the pulsing opportunity for this team to begin to turn around what we must say at midseason has so far been a disappointing Year 1 in the new Marlins Park. The ballpark itself has not disappointed — but the team in it has, and yes, attendance has, too.
That’s why this next month with the Miami spotlight on them sees the Marlins in position for a symbolic relaunch. And this weekend’s home series against Philadelphia starting Friday night might properly launch the relaunch in a duel of the division’s two biggest early disappointments.
“School is now out, the [Heat’s] championship is accomplished, and we have a spectacular team — I still believe that, and I love our chances,” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria told us Thursday. “The Dolphins don’t play significant games until the fall. We’re going to play our significant games in August and September, and by that time people will be so in love with us they won’t want to go anywhere else!”
Give him credit. To Loria, the glass isn’t half full, it’s overflowing. With nectar.
A 35-40 record as the all-star break nears — dragged down by a 4-17 cascade since June 5 — has not deterred Loria from believing his team will end up in the postseason. In fact, Loria calls this the best Marlins roster in his 11 years as owner, better even than the 2003 team that won the World Series.
“It’s a playoff-caliber team, absolutely,” the owner said. “We’re going to have our run.
“The dynamic will change again.”
That belief puts the onus on Ozzie Guillen to make it happen. Despite the current slump and earlier Fidel Castro mess, Loria likes the job his first-year manager is doing.
“He’s keeping a very level head with these guys. I like what he’s been doing in many ways that are very subtle,” Loria said. “He talks to guys individually. He continues to encourage them. He’s a steady hand. I think that’s maturity.”
Loria would smooth over all blemishes with his optimism, and yet there can be no denying the new ballpark’s inaugural season has been rough. The stadium itself is great despite those lime-green outfield walls — eye-pleasing from the outside aesthetically and a delight inside with that sliding roof and air conditioning. Anxiety over parking problems has proved unwarranted. The park is a monument to the franchise’s long-term stability.
But so much has gone wrong early on.
Maybe it was a bad omen that Opening Day in the new park, despite years to plan, generated mostly talk of the glitches, such as the monumental buzz-kill of seeing an incapacitated Muhammad Ali wheeled out on a golf cart.
Soon after came the firestorm of Guillen’s statements suggesting support of Castro, and subsequent protests and public apology. (The controversy subsided quickly, however, and Loria said Thursday it has had “not one iota” of affect on attendance.)
A marvelous May for the team was largely overshadowed by the Heat, then June sent the Marlins tumbling in the standings.
All the while attendance has been less than expected. That’s relative, of course. The average of 28,176 after 41 home games is 9,169 per game better than last year, the biggest percentage increase in baseball and second biggest overall.
But the team projected about 2.6 million in total attendance this year and the current average is on pace for 2.28million. Miami’s crowd average ranks only 18th out of 30 clubs and is below the overall MLB average. The Marlins’ 75.3 percent of capacity ranks 12th, the only sellout was on Opening Day, and the home record is only 19-22. These facts, no matter how they are spun, amount to a Year 1 box office and all-round boost somewhat modest by new-ballpark standards.
Summer is traditionally a boon to baseball crowds, though, and that coupled with winning and playoff contention could still help the club catch up to projections (assuming a few of the drowsing bats might agree to wake up anytime soon).
“Sure, we’d like those extra five or six thousand fans a game, but as summer goes on we’ll have a chance,” Loria said.
Miami catches a break with the added wild-card team beginning this year. That has the Marlins only 5 1/2 games off wild-card pace when otherwise they’d be 7 1/2 games off.
The team also gets a break with center fielder Emilio Bonifacio returning soon from injury and reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo (the former Leo Nunez) from suspension, both due back in July.
The July 31 trade deadline also could find the club looking to bolster itself for a stretch run, “But we have to be within striking range,” Loria said.
Meantime, Giancarlo Stanton will be showcased in the all-star break’s Home Run Derby, reminding Marlins fans why optimism should still come pretty easily.
Oh, and Loria reminds, “In 2003 we had the same record as now” after 75 games en route to being champions. Well, almost. That team was one game better at 36-39.
Close enough for hope, though, right?