Greg Cote

Jose shadow, For Sale sign loom over Marlins, but time to make this season about baseball

In the spring of 1993, in a different ballpark, a knuckleball left the fingers of Hialeah High’s Charlie Hough, stitched the air like a dragonfly does for a generous called strike, and Marlins baseball was born.

Twenty-four springs later, Opening Night on Tuesday at Marlins Park launched the franchise’s Silver Anniversary season, the celebration and hope of it tempered by the residue of grief. His clubhouse locker has become a shrine, its contents frozen in time behind protective Plexiglas. Nobody needs a reminder that ace pitcher Jose Fernandez died in that awful September boating accident, but there it is. It is on this team as plainly as those black-encircled No. 16 uniform patches. It is on this team like a heart-shaped tattoo.

“Great tribute. Glad we did that,” manager Don Mattingly said of the locker memorial. “It does feel fresh, still. I think Jose’s with us all the time. His energy and his personality was huge. You should have that joy when you’re competing...”

So much is going on with this team beyond the diamond, beyond the games, as the home schedule set sail Tuesday with an 8-4 pounding of the NL East-rival Atlanta Braves powered by Marcell Ozuna’s two homers and six RBI and following a somewhat encouraging 3-3 road trip that began the year. Miami was 7-11 vs. the bad Braves last year, and reversing that this season will be a must if the Marlins hope to contend.

(Ozuna had a much, much better night than the unnamed gray cat that sprinted across the outfield warning track in the sixth inning, spooked up a wall and got stuck in the Home Run Sculpture, briefly delaying the game ... on National Pet Day. It’s always something with the Marlins, isn’t it?)

Apart from the post-Jose cloud that will be omnipresent — and included a pregame moment of silence Tuesday — the For Sale sign on the franchise pulses in neon, with several prospective ownership groups including one fronted by Derek Jeter hoping for the winning bid as Fish fans celebrate that anyone other than disliked Jeffrey Loria might soon own the team. Talks to sell the club are “further than we’ve been,” Marlins president David Samson said Tuesday; still, negotiations could stretch across the year.

This also is the season that will pause midsummer for the clanging bells ‘n whistles of Miami hosting its first All-Star Game and Home Run Derby.

There are distractions around every turn.

“You can’t get caught up in the outside stuff,” Mattingly said. “You can’t let a hurdle get in your way. You step over it. You step around it.”

No MLB team more than the Marlins needs to make it about the baseball again, about the team itself.

About winning. For a change.

What a merry distraction that would be.

The Marlins haven’t been about winning for awhile. They so seldom have been.

Before the home opener began the Marlins honored the 20th anniversary of the 1997 World Series championship team, with Livan Hernandez, Charles Johnson and Edgar Renteria taking a bow. That was nice.

But the downside of celebrating your ever-distant glory days is that it reminds how lean the present has become. The Dolphins have perfected this in that franchise’s almost obsessive homage to the 1972 Perfect Season.

The Marlins’ glass half full is two World Series titles in 24 seasons, the other in 2003. Not bad. But that same glass not seen rose-colored shows only those two seasons in the playoffs. Shows seven consecutive losing seasons. Marlins Park, opened in 2012, has known only losing teams, surrounded by a franchise time line of too much disappointment and controversy. Too many managers, fire sales and low payrolls.

It was as if that maiden Marlins Park Opening Night here in ’12 cast a curse as a feeble, Parkinson’s-riddled Muhammad Ali was wheeled out in a golf cart as the full crowd gasped. (It didn’t help lift the curse when Ozzie Guillen, working at the time in the heart of Little Havana, unfathomably praised Fidel Castro).

Can we make it about the baseball again, please?

Do Mattingly and this team possess that power?

Tuesday’s Opening Night drew a nice crowd of 36,519 but was not a sellout, by the way. Didn’t a full crowd for your first home game used to be a given? A Marlins official floated a few excuses, including Passover, the Heat’s big week and the fact the Fish already had played six games on the road.

Nope. No sale. The Marlins didn’t sell out Opening Night because the toxic combination of Loria and losing has systematically eroded the fan base. Too much uninterrupted losing foments an irrelevance that has a trickle-down, debilitating affect. But not one beyond repair, it should be noted.

“Just hoping to create some excitement,” Mattingly said of his 2017 team. “A situation where people will want to come see us.”

Imagine the manager of the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals or Cubs having to cast a line and beg for support like that? On Opening Night?

Winning cures so much of that. I mean above-.500 winning. Still in the playoff chase and keeping our attention into September winning. I mean excitement. Giancarlo Stanton staying healthy and and making as run at 40 homers. Christian Yelich blooming as one of the game’s next superstars. Maybe young Adam Conley growing into an ace starting pitcher.

I mean sustained winning. Stability. A sense of blueprint and direction. Sufficient spending. The needed gust of hope and fresh air that would sweep in with a new owner. And crowds growing commensurate with the winning.

Hey, it’s spring! Optimism is all but mandated by law this time of year, right?

It could happen, then. It actually could.

The Miami Marlins could surprise us and make it all about baseball again.

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