With another challenging season of ticket sales ahead, the Miami Marlins still face a tough sell with one of the country’s most reliable niche of baseball fans: Hometown mayors.
“I’ve never actually seen the Marlins play at Marlins stadium,’’ Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during a recent interview on sports-talk radio. “I just choose not to go.”
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said he has attended one Marlins game in two years, an outing with his grandchildren. He doesn’t want the visit mistaken for reconciliation, after joining Gimenez in opposing the 2009 deal that sent about $490 million in borrowed government dollars to build the $645 million Marlins Park and parking garages.
The funding package helped fuel the recall of Gimenez’s predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, and only became more unpopular as the Marlins slashed payroll weeks after ending a dismal debut season in the government-owned stadium in the fall of 2012.
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“I don't think that they have fulfilled their promises,’’ Regalado said. “Forget about the bad deal with the city. The promises of being a very competitive team.”
Such mayoral proclamations capture another nuance of the Marlins’ unpopularity as they struggle to sell out their third Opening Day at Marlins Park on Monday night.
Not only did the new Marlins park draw one of the weakest crowds in professional baseball last year, prompting the team to once again use Groupon to fill seats for this year’s home opener. (Seats were still $13 as of Friday evening.) The Marlins also managed to upend the traditional politics of baseball: Even with debates over tax-funded stadiums common, mayors across the country tend to make the local ballpark a regular stop on their glad-handling circuits.
“It just doesn’t seem like spring if you don’t go to the season opener,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said in a statement last week. “I will be marching in the Opening Day parade and sharing the enthusiasm with my fellow Reds fans.”
Rick Kriseman, the newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, succeeded a season-ticket holder in office and plans to lead an Opening Day rally for the Tampa Bay Rays. His city’s website includes a page for how fans can help the team, which despite a pennant run managed to draw a smaller crowd last year at its city-owned stadium than the Marlins did. Among the city’s official advice for fans: “Learn the words to Take Me Out to the Ball Game and SING IT.”
Of the 29 Major League teams outside of Miami, at least 27 had their local mayor in the stands last season, according to Miami Herald interviews and a review of news reports and social media posts.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recently balked at funding a new Atlanta stadium to keep the Braves playing in the city, after lengthy negotiations with the team. He still plans to attend Opening Day, a spokesman said.
Poor playing on the field doesn’t deter mayors eager to broadcast their top-fan status. The Minnesota Twins finished the 2013 season with just 66 wins, but then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak took his enthusiasm public when the team signed Ricky Nolasco, a pitching ace and former Marlin.
“I’m a positive Twins fans/Who doesn’t like to be a bitcher,’’ Rybak posted on his Twitter feed in November, three months before leaving office. “But boy it’s great/@Twins got a starting pitcher.”
In Miami, a winning season may be the best salve for lingering grudges. And Marlins Park is not toxic territory for some of the biggest names in Miami. Heat star LeBron James sat in the front row at a an August game against the Dodgers last year, and former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino is set to throw out the first pitch Monday night.
Last year, the Marlins blamed 2012’s weak attendance in part for Loria cutting payroll my more than half for the 2013 season. With the Marlins still struggling to fill seats, front-office executives say they’re hoping to put past controversies behind them in 2014 and position the park as a community-owned asset.
“I want all the mayors and everybody else to take advantage of all the beautiful things they helped create. I would hope they to go to the Triple-A to see a Heat Game. I would hope they go to the Peréz art museum,’’ Marlins President David Samson said. “We are a team.”
Even when the debut season looked promising in 2012, the team pointed to weak fan demand tied to the funding controversy. Baseball afficianados embraced Loria’s stadium design and the art-collector owner delivered a payroll topping $100 million, which the Associated Press ranked the eighth richest in the league. Still, front-office executives said, advanced ticket sales lagged throughout the winter and spring before the 2012 debut, even with the signing of star Jose Reyes and match-ups with popular teams, including the Boston Red Sox.
Controversies helped keep the 2009 backlash alive, including leaked financial statements showing the Marlins posting healthy profits during the stadium negotiations, a securities investigation tied to government borrowing for the project, and Samson telling a business group that most candidates for elected office don’t represent the “intellectual cream of the crop.”
Five years later, even supporters of the original funding package aren’t eager to take a seat in the stands.
“From the outside, it looks beautiful,’’ said Rebeca Sosa, the current chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission. She said she has yet to attend a game at Marlins Park, citing a busy schedule that leaves little time for a baseball outing.
Sosa was one of nine yes votes in 2009 for the $370 million borrowing package for the $640 million stadium complex, with 85 percent of it to be repaid with hotel taxes and the rest from property taxes. Miami contributed about $120 million, mostly for the garages, and the Marlins paid about $160 million.
Gimenez, then a county commissioner, cast one of the four no votes, joined by current commissioner Sally Heyman and two others no longer serving.
Marlins funding offers an easy punching bag for Gimenez as he negotiates three separate stadium deals with the Miami Dolphins, Miami Heat and David Beckham, who wants to build a soccer facility at the county’s PortMiami.
“I still wear my Marlins stadium scars quite proudly,” Gimenez said in his State of the County address last month. “History has shown I was on the right side of that battle.”
Gimenez points to the current stadium talks as proof he’s not interested in scoring points with voters by merely opposing all potential ventures with wealthy team owners
In championing higher hotel taxes last year to help the Dolphins upgrade their stadium, Gimenez negotiated a referendum requirement and penalties if the team couldn’t deliver promised Super Bowls. After that effort failed, Gimenez now backs a plan to waive some county property taxes for Sun Life in exchange for the Dolphins forgoing public dollars in the upgrade.
For Beckham, Gimenez said he will offer no subsidies and insist on market rate for a county stadium site. (He has not publicly shared his thoughts about the Miami Heat’s request for an early extension at the county’s AmericanAirlines Arena, except to say in a March 21 memo to commissioners that he wants an extension that “is fair and equitable for both parties.”)
The soccer talks offer the most intrigue, since land next to Marlins Park is considered a fallback option if Beckham can’t overcome opposition to a stadium at PortMiami. Regalado said last week he would insist on a referendum about use of the Marlins site, which would likely involve city land.
The Marlins are quietly supportive of that scenario, according to several sources familiar with Beckham’s negotiating team. The soccer stadium would share the city-owned parking garages that the Marlins manage, and could bring a wave of new public investment if Beckham negotiates for more public transportation.
“With MLS there, you can change the zoning, you can do the infrastructure and all that,’’ said one sports insider involved in the 2009 Marlins deal. “And you’re doing it for Beckham. You’re not doing it for David Samson.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.