The Marlins and Panthers remind me of a line from sports mogul and lifelong rich guy Lamar Hunt.
Hunt, who eschewed extravagance, said he owned only one pair of shoes because, “You can only wear a single pair at a time. The rest sit there, depreciating.”
That’s the Marlins and Panthers.
They sit on the sidelines, literally for the moment and in the South Florida sports scene now, depreciating in interest (if not value).
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If I need to recount the Marlins’ most recent kneecapping of trust, you’re probably reading this only because you flipped to the wrong section and thought the balding dark head above was Leonard Pitts (I apologize for your disappointment).
The NHL lockout has stalled the Panthers’ momentum from last spring’s first playoff berth since 2000 and plucky seven-game loss to eventual Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey.
This period, which should be their adulthood, epitomizes the perpetual adolescence in which these franchises arrest themselves.
To call either franchise “young” or to say “It still feels weird for there to be Marlins/Panthers,” brands you as middle-aged or old.
The Marlins just finished their 20th season.
The Panthers would be playing their 20th season if not for the current NHL lockout.
And the NHL lockout that eliminated the 2004-05 season.
That means to those 20 and under, here and everywhere, the Marlins and Panthers have existed for as much of their lives as Red Sox and Red Wings.
Especially in the latter case, the only way they know differently is musty media types repeating, “It still feels weird …”
Their fandom should be flowering.
The 20-to-30 set who were taken to Marlins and Panthers games as kids should now be going on their own, perhaps taking their own young children.
Fandom should be being passed down.
In South Florida, our wavering passion for our local teams isn’t that we have too many transplants.
It’s that, with one exception, our franchises have just hit the stage upon which they can call upon tradition.
The Dolphins benefitted from being the only pro game in town, getting very good relatively quickly (Super Bowl appearance in season No. 6), historically great soon after (Perfect Season followed by a second consecutive Super Bowl win) and staying consistently good for all but a few years of the 26-season Shula Era.
That built a mighty fan foundation cracked only by the current decade of failure.
By every measure, we have been a terrible basketball market, NBA and college.
Our most consistently successful franchise of the past 15 seasons on the record, the Heat, dropped the tarp over its upper deck for many games in 2002-03 and 2003-04.
Even the Shaq Era, the omnipresence of activist/center Alonzo Mourning and iconic figure Pat Riley couldn’t cultivate a fan base that would sustain interest through dark years (or year — see, 2007-08).
It has taken more success and the buzz of combining two of this NBA generations biggest stars, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, for the Heat to build what it would have long before had in most other cities.
But the Heat did it.
Meanwhile, the other team in town that has won two “world” championships damaged itself with two eras of uncompetitive austerity, 1998-2002 and 2006-2011.
marlins don’t care
That first run of years, in the wake of the 1997 World Series team sell-off, began with the 1998 Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa/record Yankees season that brought baseball almost a full recovery from killing the 1994 World Series.
The Marlins couldn’t drink of that elixir.
Two stretches of playing it cheap while hustling for a new home held the line on Marlins fans.
How do you maintain a love for a team that doesn’t seem to care about repaying your love by making you happy with wins?
At some point, even kids shake their heads and say, “Can’t hang with you.”
And, now, whether they have abused fan trust again, it feels like it.
How many years for this stunting of growth?
Cats can’t be embraced
The Panthers did theirs through sheer ineptitude — bad drafts and bad trades, leading to an NHL-record 10 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.
Ice rinks were built, expanded. Travel teams win tournaments around North America.
High schools added hockey.
Some kids and adults who didn’t play learned the rules and NHL stars via video games.
Yet the Panthers repeatedly stumbled away from that generation’s embrace.
Now, the NHL and NHL players’ association are doing the stumbling for them.
Only two franchises in our so-called major leagues, the Chicago Cubs and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, can have extended runs of abysmal play without hurting attendance or local status.
Everyone else is three to six losing seasons from humility.
The Marlins and Panthers are well past that, just as they should be well past being South Florida sports problem children.
This failure to launch stuff is tired.