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Marlins Park attendance suffers amid team’s failure

Igneo Espindola stands on a shaded sidewalk near Marlins Park holding a crudely made cardboard sign that reads $10, his asking price for a parking spot within an outfielder’s throw of the team’s new digs.

The going rate for the same spot was $30 in July, he said.

And back in April, when the Marlins’ christened their new home, it was $50.

“It started amazing,” Espindola said, staring down a mostly deserted street an hour before the start of Sunday’s game. “It was nice at the start. Then they traded all those players [in July], and it disappeared.”

Year One for Marlins Park, both on the field and off, did not go entirely as team executives had hoped. Despite the addition of more than $200 million in free agent players, the rebranded Miami Marlins were a last-place disaster that lost more games this year than they did the one previous. Though the ballpark itself received mostly high marks for its distinctive looks and fan friendliness, just two games were sellouts in the 37,000-seat facility.

While the Marlins will total more than two million in home attendance for only the third time in franchise history, the grand sum after the season finale on Wednesday will represent the lowest figure of any of the 11 major league ballparks that have opened since 2001.

Sources say that, based on internal projections by Marlins officials before the season, final attendance will fall short of expectations by about 500,000 fans.

“We were just never able to get any momentum on the field, and that impacted attendance,” said Marlins President David Samson.

“I can’t say that we were very surprised. We thought our honeymoon was going to last five innings. We thought the team would be competitive. Clearly we were wrong about that.”

For years, Marlins officials used the “build it and they will come” mantra in their pitch for public funding to build a new climate-controlled ballpark with a retractable roof. But after a robust inaugural on April 4, large sections of empty seats became the norm.

The Marlins failed to sell out once in their three-game series in June against the Boston Red Sox, a marquee team that usually packs them in.

After the underachieving Marlins went into a swoon in June and July, six of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster were sent packing in trades and the Marlins went into a tailspin that landed them at the bottom of the standings.

Now, some season ticket holders, such as Nancy Farrell of Cutler Bay and Mercy Garcia of Kendall, are having second thoughts.

“We enjoy everything about the ballpark,” Farrell said. “But the trading is what upset us. Now I don’t even know who’s on the field.”

Farrell and Garcia, who are first-time season ticket holders, each bought 20-game plans. But they said it’s unlikely they’ll renew next season.

When asked what it would take for her to change her mind, Garcia replied: “More wins.”

Once the novelty wears off, new ballparks almost always experience attendance declines in their second season, which is a concern to everyone from vendors to team officials.

Luis Garcia, who runs a hot dog stand near the west entrance of the ballpark, said business has declined steadily since the start of the season. He said he did about $1,500 in sales the first game. Now, he said, he averages about $150 to $200 a game.

“In the beginning it was amazing,” Garcia said. “But I was expecting something bigger. Everybody was.”

Despite the decline, Garcia said he intends to stick it out, hope for better days, and bank on other events — such as concerts and soccer games — to help support his business.

“I believe in the stadium,” he said.

Chris Smith, a baseball fan from Fort Lauderdale, said he has no major complaints with the new ballpark and far prefers it to Sun Life Stadium, the Marlins’ former home.

“It’s a little farther to travel from Fort Lauderdale,” Smith said. “But it’s definitely worth it. The atmosphere is so much more pleasant to be in. It actually feels like a ballpark, as opposed to a football stadium.

“But I hope they get a few more people in and improve next season and get the place jumping a little bit more.”

Smith said he attended about four games and took advantage of deeply discounted seats that became available on the secondary market.

“When you can get tickets for $1 each from Stubhub, I don’t mind paying $8 for a beer,” he said.

Marlins Park wasn’t without glitches.

Samson acknowledged that the cooling system is a work in progress, as some seats located near the air vents can be unbearably chilly. The sound system is not crystal clear in some reaches of the ballpark, making it difficult to understand.

A leaky roof at the start of the season was fixed. The turf on the playing field was patchy, and club officials are looking into new strains of grass to see what grows best.

“I think it’s a beauty. Now the team has to do their part because government cannot bring people to the ballpark,” said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.

“I never believed the promises of ‘if you build it they will come.’ Once you see it once and your curiosity is done, if your team is not winning, it’s difficult to go. I just hope that they have a better season [next year].”

But Samson said positives at the new ballpark far outweighed the negatives.

The Clevelander club in left field was a big hit, he said. So was the Bobblehead Museum on the main concourse, as well as the Home Run Sculpture in left center. Over time, the parking hassles that plagued the ballpark at the start of the season subsided as fans got to know their way around.

The two most popular concession stand items? According to Samson, pizza and chicken tenders.

Samson said that, overall, he is pleased with the first season.

“We are happy, but not satisfied,” Samson said. “Clearly it’s a different world than we had at Sun Life. The main thing is this ballpark will last much longer than the disappointment of the season.”

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