There will be an upcoming referendum on whether to spend public money on Dolphins stadium improvements, and the vote will be bitterly contested and the outcome angrily decried no matter the verdict, with well-meaning folks on both sides convinced they are right and no middle ground on the ballot.
It isn’t the biggest decision that faces us as a sports community, though.
It isn’t even the most controversial or important or emotional choice we face.
That decision is how Marlins fans should and will feel and act moving forward into this new season. What to do with all of the frustration and anger? Where does it go? How does it show? Should fans separate their understandable disdain for owner Jeffrey Loria from the blameless players in the hometown uniform? Or is that too much to ask?
What South Florida decides won’t be known as neatly as a referendum vote taken in one day. Here, the ballot will be the ongoing numbers reflected in turnstile counts and TV ratings. The verdict will be the number of filled seats versus empty seats in the shiny new downtown ballpark that will launch its second home season Monday.
It is just as well the Marlins open on the road for a week because it gives us time, as a community, to figure out what is right. That is always tougher when the emotions on either side seem so valid. When people arguing an opposite viewpoint can both seem right even as the only thing agreed upon is that there isn’t much gray area between the extremes.
The polarizing nature of this topic appeared in two emails I received just minutes apart on Tuesday — both entirely reflective of what I hear all the time.
Rich G. of West Palm Beach wrote: “Supporting the Marlins is the same as supporting Loria, and I refuse to do it. I’m not going to games, watching games on TV, or even reading articles about them.”
Moments later, this from Elena G-L., who also expressed intense dislike for Loria but wrote: “I think it is outrageous to sneer at the current Marlins team as if they didn’t exist. This is our home team. Don’t badmouth it. I’m tired of hearing ownership and team lumped together in people’s venom.”
Both sides agree only that Loria, after a short-lived rise in popularity a year ago — with a star-filed team in the new ballpark — has returned to a disdain level in Greater Miami down there with Fidel Castro. The animus is deserved. A pledge that a new stadium would mean consistently higher player payrolls and competitive teams was the foundation of political support for the new park. But the fire sale began after less than one full season.
It feels like Loria has betrayed the public trust, and I don’t know he will ever be forgiven for that. See, we don’t forget. We hold grudges. Former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga broke apart the 1997 World Series champions and we never forgave him. A few years later, he threw a lavish stadium farewell for the retiring Dan Marino and was viciously booed when Marino mentioned his name to thank him.
Loria’s name might always be mud down here.
The question is, can and should fans who dislike or even hate the owner still support the team?
I say yes.
I say we as a sports community that wants big-league baseball to be a part of our fabric for generations to come must be bigger than the current owner.
The best fans are loyal to their city’s team, to that uniform, no matter the men in the suits running it.
The Heat will be the Heat even after Pat Riley finally retires. The Dolphins will be the Dolphins long after Stephen Ross might sell. Likewise, the Marlins will outlast this owner — survive this owner, is the way it feels.
Supporting the Marlins, even now, does not support Loria financially nearly as much as it simply supports the team, the very idea of baseball here.
Even as you boo Loria if he chances having himself introduced on Opening Day next week — he wouldn’t dare! — find something to like. It won’t be as hard as you think. It might be slugger Giancarlo Stanton. It might be welcoming back popular Juan Pierre. It might be cheering for blossoming prospects such as 20-year-old pitching phenom Jose Fernandez or young catcher Rob Brantly. It might be awaiting a future star such as Christian Yelich, or rooting for homegrown manager Mike Redmond (a guy as easy to like as Ozzie Guillen was the opposite). Heck, it might just be the new stadium.
This ownership makes it very difficult to just enjoy baseball again, yes. Makes it a challenge. But that does not mean we should surrender to that challenge.
The essence of all this is to understand who really owns the Marlins and the future of baseball here.
It isn’t Loria. It’s us.
I am writing this less as a journalist than as a father here, by the way. There is an emotional element for me.
My two sons were about to turn 6 and 2 when Charlie Hough fluttered in that first-ever Opening Day pitch around this time in 1993. This franchise — through its very highs and more constant lows — has been part of the timeline and soundtrack of their lives. It has been part of my bond with my boys.
I remember the life-sized poster of original slugger Orestes Destrade adorning the inside of my oldest son’s bedroom door. I remember those old days when Billy the Marlin was a bigger attraction for my youngest son than the game itself. I remember the look on a child’s face when you hand him his first foul ball, and it’s almost enough to make a grown man cry.
Huizenga came and went. Then the owner was John Henry. Now it’s Loria. The uniforms and colors evolved. The stadium changed. Florida became Miami. Players came and went, the going often too soon, or for the wrong reasons.
But it’s still the Marlins, and will be long after Loria disappears into his little niche of notoriety ever fading in our sports past.
My two sons are young adults now, and still big Marlins fans, even though that isn’t nearly as easy as it ought to be.
I wonder how many of you out there, though, have sons or daughters who are around 6 or 2 now.
I hope you will allow them to experience a ball game at the park.
And I hope by the time they are old enough to wonder who the owner is, he will be long gone.