Inside a nearly empty Marlins Ballpark, an endangered species stirs to life.
They roam Marlins Park clad in bright orange jerseys, caps, even team pins and earrings. They wave flags, have baseball mitts at the ready, and come with offerings of cupcakes.
These are the fans who come out night after night to cheer on a team in a new home that most have abandoned after only a year.
And they do it for one reason: Loyalty.
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Most of the star players might be gone but that doesn’t keep fans like Dori Amador away, specially after their current three-game winning streak led by the always present home run threat of Giancarlo Stanton.
You can see her loyalty from across the field.
Amador is a walking exhibition of Marlins paraphernalia.
Wearing a black first baseman Logan Morrison T-shirt, orange baseball cap speckled with collectable pins, Marlins logo stylized sunglasses, nickel-sized Marlins logo earrings, homemade bracelets and with a matching orange Marlins phone case slung across her chest, Amador is a beacon of baseball.
This new fan of a year and a half was there for Opening Day last year at the 37,000-seat Marlins Park. It was the self-professed NFL girl’s first stab at watching a game she had always despised, dismissing it as boring.
One trip and she was sold.
“I fell in love with the park,” she said. “We enjoyed ourselves so much that we went again and we never stopped going. It just became an obsession for us.”
Obsession is a good word for it.
Amador’s love for the fish is expressed in her Marlins inventory: 10 T-shirts, 10 pins, eight baseballs caught at the games, five bracelets, three jerseys, three hats, three pairs of earrings, two calendars, a phone case, a bag, a canvas print, a Billy the Marlin hat and endless photos and memories.
Inspired by her 91-year-old aunt, Maria Walled, a lifetime baseball and Marlins fan, Amador fell in love with a team that might not be so loveable anymore.
The 46-year-old baker goes to games with anyone who will join her. Her husband, Eduardo, became a fan with her.
“It’s what every dude wants, for his wife to like sports,” her husband of 27 years said with a chuckle. With a Marlins flag-turned-cape slung around his neck, team spirit has obviously taken over his life.
Half the pictures in the living room were replaced with signed Marlins photos. His 25-year-old daughter’s old room is being converted into a Marlins shrine.
Walk in and you will see balls caught at games, some signed and each in their plastic cube case, pictures from calenders given out at watch parties and events, her collection of booklets from each game, bobbleheads of players and of Billy the Marlin, Dori Amador’s favorite.
But she is one of a rare breed.
In their sophomore season at the new park, the Marlins have struggled to attract fans. According to the 2013 Major League Baseball Attendance Report, the Marlins come in last in average home game attendance with 17,262. Upper deck seating is often closed because of low attendance, slicing stadium capacity by 10,000.
Trade after trade, the Marlins have lost most of their star lineup. In 2012, the team won 69 games and lost 93, finishing last in the NL East. A recent three-game winning streak this year is a welcome change to a season with almost twice as many losses as wins, which could be linked to so many young players in owner Jeffrey Loria’s team.
Attendance might be diminishing, but true fans remain.
“If you’re a fan, you should go out there and watch them and get them more inspired,” Dori Amador said. “No one wants to play to an empty stadium.”
And the players notice the diehards.
“The players love having fans in the stands. They really feel the love and the passion that these hardcore fans have for them,” said Sean Flynn, Marlins senior vice president of marketing and event booking.
Hardcore fans, particularly season-ticket holders, get rewarded, Flynn said. A rewards program lets fans accumulate points for participating in watch parties and social media interaction during games. Those points can be traded in for autographed merchandise, tickets to suites and to meet-and-greets with the players. A reward to the fans who stay for extra innings, for losses.
Fan at any age
Season-ticket holder Jenny Weinreb has been bringing her 88-year-old mother, Ann, to Marlins games since 1999. Jenny Weinreb began her relationship with baseball at the very first Marlins game at the then Joe Robbie Stadium on April 5, 1993. The Marlins beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-3.
She left work early, paid $100 to be there and never stopped coming back.
In their years with the Marlins, the Weinrebs have forged bonds with players and employees.
“I want to support my team and I want to support the employees and staff that work here,” she said. “They make you feel like family.”
She’s worried that people will lose their jobs if she doesn’t go to games.
In a silent protest of the current state of affairs — at 27-50 Miami has the worst record in baseball — a black ribbon snakes around her arm, a sign of her dislike of the owner.
“My black ribbon was in memory of the team we could have had this season, in memory of the players who got traded,” she said.
Despite the sour feelings, the Marlins still make her happy.
And that’s how 5-year-old Kai Perez, feels, too. Kai comes to the games decked out in Marlins orange, accompanied by his mom and long-time fan, Omy Perez. She remembers the Marlins from their start in 1993, when she was in middle school.
“We are from the 305, so what can I say, you have to support your home team,” said Perez, 31.
Perez attended the Marlins showdown against the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this season with her husband, Tony, 27, daughter Anastasia, 9, and son, Kai.
Omy Perez still remembers the 1997 World Series Championship against the Cleveland Indians, when the Marlins took the trophy in the 11th inning of Game 7, 3-2.
“Going outside with my whole family yelling out for them that they won,” she said, “that was a good, good memory.”
Good Marlins memories continue on to her own family. Son Kai eagerly jumps up and down in his chair before the start of the game. He is there for one reason: to see Billy the Marlin.
He is Kai’s favorite quite simply “cause he’s a fish!”
Fifteen-year-old Michael Zaremba, a student at Miami Beach High and a fan since 2008, has his own reasons for going to games: to snag a baseball.
He is well-known around the ballpark with a collection of balls that tops 230.
On last count, Michael said, he had 231 in his Marlins ball box at home. At a game earlier this season, he had eight more in a drawstring bag.
He is not showing off his accomplishment. He just sits quietly from his clubhouse seats, black Marlins cap on.
“I just like my hometown team,” he said. “You have to stay with your team. If you don’t, you’re just a bandwagon.”
Power of fanaticism
Dori Amador is looking for autographs.
Before the game, Dori Amador is on a mission trying to collect signatures on a ball she caught at a previous game. First base coach Perry Hill comes through after she waves him over to help her on her endeavor, tossing back the ball with player signatures on it.
When she’s not getting balls signed, she has her photo organizer at the ready. Tabs divide the different players, each section containing downloaded photos of each player printed on photo paper. She also has her chocolate and vanilla icing Marlins logo cupcakes at the ready to pass out to workers and deliver to Marlins Vision host Katherine Akra.
Everyone knows Dori Amador.
As she sits back down, her eyes focus on a player who tosses a ball to a little girl in the row in front of her. The girl gazes at the ball in amazement. Dori Amador knows the feeling.
“I feel like that,” she said, looking at the girl. “I feel like a kid when I go here.”
Husband Eduardo laughs, “She goes about it with childish enthusiasm,” he said.
Baking food, making the players goodie bags, even making them Star Trek pins for Star Trek day, Dori Amador treats them like her little league team, Eduardo Amador said.
“They’re grown men,” he said. Despite the jokes, he supports his wife and accompanies her on his days off. She has enhanced the experience for him, he said.
“I’ve had so many positive experiences here,” she said. “Baseball now is such a special part of me.”
As she looks around the stadium, eyes wide, there is no doubt: Fans, true fans, never die.