Greg Cote

Opening Day offers new hope, but rebuilding Miami Marlins see early growing pains

Miami Marlins fans arrive to Opening Day in Little Havana

Miami Marlins fan George Lehman-Rodriguez talks about his expectations for team before the start of an Opening Day baseball game between the Miami Marlins and the Colorado Rockies at Marlins Park on Thursday, March 28, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
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Miami Marlins fan George Lehman-Rodriguez talks about his expectations for team before the start of an Opening Day baseball game between the Miami Marlins and the Colorado Rockies at Marlins Park on Thursday, March 28, 2019 in Miami, Florida.

Everybody remembers their first Opening Day, though not always fondly.

Manager Don Mattingly’s first-ever home opener as a Yankee in 1983 saw the first baseman try to pick a ball in the dirt and have it flip up over his head, and later couldn’t handle a bad hop on a potential double-play ball in a 13-2 loss to the Tigers.

“It wasn’t great at all getting booed at Yankee Stadium,” he recalled before Thursday’s 27th Opening Day in Marlins franchise history. “I don’t think [those two plays] were my fault, but it was that kind of day. But you know what? It’s good to start at the bottom and work your way up, and I started at the bottom that day.”

His Miami Marlins are like that now. Starting at the bottom. Starting over, really. Trying to work their way up.

Like waiting for children to grow or wine to mature, it may take some years. Some patience.

The storybook christening of the new season would have had the youthful Marlins winning Thursday to leave a packed house cheering at Marlins Park.

Instead, a slap of reality. Miami fell 6-3 to the Colorado Rockies, a fifth Marlins Game 1 loss in a row, and the Opening Day crowd of 25,423 was well short of a sellout, empty blue seats all around the upper decks and beyond the outfield. (All of those added ballpark amenities — new colors, new food, new seating areas — did not include added fans, alas).

The rebranding Marlins are trying to be super fan-friendly. Thursday, pitcher Pablo Lopez, in uniform, was greeting fans stepping off an escalator before the game. But, “We get the fact that we have to continue to mend relationships in the community,” said CEO Derek Jeter.

Mattingly can add Thursday to bookend that first Opening Day of his as a player. It was that kind of day.

“You like to win Opening Day,” said the manager afterward. “We just weren’t able to really put anything together.”

Hurtful errors by shortstop Miguel Rojas and center fielder Lewis Brinson led to Colorado’s four-run fourth inning. You heard booing as Brinson chased the ball that had eluded him.

And the Marlins were being no-hit by Rockies ace Kyle Freeland until Starlin Castro roped a single up the middle in the fourth. Miami did hit three solo home runs — pinch-hit shots by JT Riddle and Neil Walker and a late one by Jorge Alfaro — but otherwise did not alter concerns that, while the starting pitching may be decent, squeezing runs may be tough from a lineup that won’t cause opposing pitchers to lose much sleep. (How appropriate a young team with a future presently a mystery got its most noise on Opening Day from a player named Riddle).

Marlins starter Jose Urena — the team’s first pitcher to start consecutive Opening Days since Josh Johnson had three straight in 2010-12 — got hit hard before being yanked after 4 2/3 innings, four doubles and a homer among his nine hits allowed. Bright side? At least Urena did not allow a home run on the season’s very pitch pitch, as he did one year earlier vs. the Cubs to ominously christen the new Marlins era of primary owner Bruce Sherman and Jeter.

The Sherman/Jeter blueprint of trading away stars for prospects, a ground-up rebuild, launched last year with a 63-98 record, and similar results are anticipated this season. I think the team will be better than expected (the spring training mark of 14-10 included an 11-game winning streak), but Thursday’s stumble out the gate feathered my argument not a single bit.

Sixteen of 25 Marlins on this roster were in their first or second career major-league Opening Day on Thursday. The average age of the starting rotation is 25, with Urena the graybeard at 27.

“We’re too athletic not to score runs,” said Walker, one of the Marlins’ few veterans. “We’re going to find a way to do it. We’re throwing the expectations out the window.”

One of these young Marlins is bound to reveal himself as a budding future star this season or soon. If two or three do, there might be encouragement even in a losing season. Is there a starter in the organization whose electric power might remind us of Jose Fernandez? Is there a few bats and all-round power in the mold of departed Christian Yelich?

The Marlins badly need a face of the franchise to replace the executive Jeter’s

This season will be about watching for stars to emerge, looking for signs, for hints of promise in the Marlins’ grand plan.

Those were scarce on Opening Day, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, waiting to emerge as sports’ longest season gradually begins to answer the mystery of what the Marlins’ future may be — and when it might arrive.

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