The Miami Marlins’ 25th Anniversary season arrives shadowed by sorrow and lifted by hope. There is a lot going on here. This season will be unlike any other — that we know even before we find out if the team that takes the field might make it special.
The death of Jose Fernandez will loom over the spring and summer and fall, the encircled-16 uniform patches worn over the heart a constant reminder. There will be the traditional red, white and blue bunting on Opening Day, but in Miami it should be black crepe for a season of underlying mourning. The flame extinguished last September in that awful boating accident — the player not there — will define the 2017 Marlins season.
But we’ll party in July! Miami hosts its first All-Star Game, a five-day celebration including the Home Run Derby and culminating with the 88th ASG on July 11. We don’t know if the Marlins will be a contender then or already broken down on the season’s soft shoulder, only that Miami will be the epicenter of Major League Baseball at midsummer.
Meanwhile, Marlins fans for the first time begin a season daring to be dream that the Jeffrey Loria curse might be lifting at last. Spring training arrived with the news that Loria, the immensely penurious, unpopular, unsuccessful team owner, is actively seeking to sell the club. (This news came attached to the bizarre revelation that Loria could become the Trump administration’s U.S. ambassador to France.)
Because things are seldom normal when it comes to the Marlins, that’s why.
No other franchise of the 122 in the NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL has had a history quite like this one. The Marlins approach their Silver Anniversary season with two gold rings surrounded by tin.
Only two playoff seasons in 24 — but both, in 1997 and 2003, ending in World Series wins. That is unheard of. Literally. No other franchise in any of the Big Four sports has won a championship every time it has made the playoffs. The next-best percentages are by the New York Yankees (27 titles in 52 playoffs, or 51.9 percent) and the Green Bay Packers (13 titles in 32 appearances, or 40.6 percent).
That’s putting a positive spin on it, of course.
Here’s a more sober reality:
The Marlins’ overall playoff percentage of 8.3 percent (two times in 24 years) is tied for second worst of the 122 pro franchises. Only the Chicago White Sox have historically made the playoffs less frequently at 7.8 percent (nine times in 116 years).
Elsewhere in South Florida, the Heat is at 65.5 percent (19 playoffs in 29 seasons), the Dolphins at 45.1 percent (23 playoffs in 51 seasons) and the Panthers at 21.7 percent (five playoffs in 23 seasons).
True to form, this Marlins season isn’t forecast to reach the playoffs, either. A common over/under on Miami victories is 77 1/2, or slightly below .500. Part of that is Miami losing its ace pitcher and No. 1 starter with the tragic death of Fernandez. Part of it is that the NL East rival Washington Nationals and New York Mets both are expected to be better.
(Miami figures to get a good measure of itself fast, opening the season with three games in Washington starting Monday and then three at New York before finally seeing its home opener April 11. Only the Braves [8 games] and Mariners and Giants [7 each] open the season with longer road trips than the Marlins.)
Might the Fish be better than most expect in their second season under manager Don Mattingly?
Yes, with good health, some luck and a small parade of “ifs” all cobbling together.
The lineup, led by slugger Giancarlo Stanton and rising star Christian Yelich, is solid. Few teams have as few weak spots in the eight-man batting order. But five of Stanton’s seven seasons have been limited by injuries. Can he stay healthy? Depth beyond the starters seems dubious.
Miami’s bullpen seems solid. The bad news? It might be relied on heavily, because the starting rotation plainly lacks an ace and, on paper, seems average to weak. There is nothing remotely close to Jose Fernandez from among Edinson Volquez, Dan Straily, Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen.
Who knows, though. Maybe this is a franchise and a fandom due to finally catch a break. So much of a Marlins fan’s time line has been marked by disappointment over the team, anger over the owner, and now the tragedy over Fernandez.
Maybe Miami getting the All-Star Game was a positive omen. Loria selling? That might cause a parade to spontaneously erupt.
Dare we hope for the sweet shock of a playoff season, too?