The faith fracture is so profound that the Marlins find themselves in an unfathomable predicament today and going forward. It is bad enough when your customers don’t trust you to be competent; it is another thing entirely when they don’t trust you to be moral. But both? You’d have more luck drawing fans to your new ballpark by combining Food Poisoning Night with kick-you-in-the-groin coupons.
The Marlins needed a front-office fumigator and brought in a public-relations firm instead. But newspaper ads don’t placate angry mobs. And spin is rendered useless when everyone in the environment is coughing on poisoned air. It was an understandable effort, trying to get the facts out last week, but this organization has created an atmosphere so contaminated that even truth has somehow ceased to matter. There isn’t a corporate entity in the world that wants to ask for your money in that climate, but especially not one that does its trust trafficking in the emotion business. South Florida feels like it is in bed with the baseball equivalent of a Ponzi schemer, and it doesn’t much matter if that’s true or not. The customer is always right about feeling wronged.
So the hostile noise engulfed the start of spring training, a time for hope, and the team’s owner was immersed in whatever the exact opposite is of what he was trying to buy with those newspaper ads. Any words from this management team — even contrite words, never mind condescending and combative ones — would have felt like firemen rushing to put out a raging blaze with hoses spewing lighter fluid. Those arrogant, tone-deaf newspaper ads were the result of bad advice? Sure. But only because there is no such thing as good advice given the smoldering rubble in the rearview mirror, the charred remains of what little faith was left. Meeting with the media was like demanding calm and reason while being lowered into a pool of piranha.
There is nothing these people who work in the fun-and-game business can say or do now that won’t result in shaking torches and pitchforks. Stay in hiding, and you are an immoral, greedy coward. Come out in the open to explain yourself, conveniently at the exact time that you need your wallets/fools/customers again, and you become a piñata with every syllable, no matter the validity in some of what you say (these people did save baseball here, and they were handcuffed by dismal attendance, and the ballpark tax money did come from tourists). But a new ballpark somehow bought the Marlins only a few months of goodwill, a mismanagement so immense it usually gets a lot more than just the players sent away. And they burned through that hundreds of millions worth of goodwill faster than Floyd Mayweather goes through money at the casino, things somehow getting worse after the loudmouth manager proclaimed an affinity for Fidel Castro.
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Every move since then has been choosing between bad options, which makes every single thing you do seem wrong, even in the rare instances when you happen to be right (the trades of Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Hanley Ramirez were right). Confirmation bias is an unholy bitch that way. Once your customers fear incompetence and/or immorality, they will see it in everything you do, even if it doesn’t exist. They’ll go looking for it as if it were something at concessions. And even the truth — We’re trying to sign Stanton! — gets dismissed as a lie. In the history of South Florida sports, there has never been an organization with this deep of a credibility problem. Awful attendance? Yes. But the business that blames the customer does not stay in business.
Hitting the reset button wouldn’t be a bad business or baseball move if anybody trusted the people running the Marlins in any way. Cheap, young failure is better than expensive, old failure when rebuilding, which the Marlins absolutely had to do after last year’s calamity. The team had to cut costs given that their ballpark drew more poorly than any new ballpark ever, and it didn’t make any financial or business sense to let go of just a few obligatory guys with that cutting and keeping only, say, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle while trying to win in a division that includes the one-two punch of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the Upton-brothers-adding Braves and the Phillies payroll. You are looking at an expensive and inefficient fourth place that way even in the wild-card era.
You can’t cut costs and keep an injury-prone, unreliable Josh Johnson when he has trade value, is in a contract year and is about to get a lot more than the $80 million given to Sanchez. The Red Sox did something similar to what the Marlins did, gutting everything and starting over, even firing the manager after a single calamitous season, but the difference in perception is that Red Sox management can be trusted to try at every turn and re-spend money saved. Problem here is that you are entrusting the solutions to the same people who caused the problems, which is like fixing your weight problem while walking on a treadmill while eating ice cream and fudge.
The customers don’t trust anybody in charge to do any job correctly, to fix this with leadership or vision. Paying Heath Bell, Ozzie Guillen and John Buck millions upon millions to go away when you are cash-strapped is an absurdity. You’d get the same return on that mountain of millions if you set fire to it in center field. Replenishing your farm system with prospects when your farm system is barren because you have been so bad for a decade at correctly predicting the success of prospects feels like an oasis to the desert parched. You don’t trust this management team to fix this in free agency or in the draft or through trades or in the minor leagues, and that doesn’t leave any other options. You’ve struck out in a pretty huge way when you have a perception problem and a reality problem.
You know what would help? Giving Giancarlo Stanton a long-term deal. And you can bet the Marlins would have spent that newspaper-ad money on that if they could have, and it would have at least bought them something other than rage. But here’s the problem: There is no way he is signing anything here. That faith fracture has trickled down from the fans to the employees. And so the Marlins will be forced to trade him, which will unleash the cycle of distrust and outrage all over again, the Marlins leading the league only in reopening this particular scab again and again.
Arrogance used to be the fastest way to unpopularity in sports, a sin even greater than actual illegalities like domestic violence and drunk driving, but it seems to have been replaced by lying — a fan base’s faith to be treated like a fragile treasure. Ochocinco and Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, guilty of being full of themselves, used to get killed in Q ratings, but they’ve been replaced by people who have lied to us recently. Manti Te’o. Lance Armstrong. Tiger Woods. No one in the history of South Florida sports has angered the locals the way Nick Saban did. The Marlins tried to set the record straight last week with their version of the truth, but it was drowned out by all the howling. Tough as the upcoming baseball seasons will be, cheap youngsters going up against big payrolls in a loaded division, it isn’t nearly as difficult as this promises to be going forward:
Convincing paying customers you are honest when they have never been more sure that you are not to be trusted.