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Devil Rays and Marlins? Fans Just Won't Bite

By Rick Bragg
New York Times

July 27, 2001

MIAMI, July 27 -- In a way, all the empty space surrounding Michael Lawson at the baseball stadium only made the day a little finer. There was no beer being spilled, no blowhard bellowing into his ear. There was just the game, the green field fanning out below him, and row after row of orange, vacant seats.

Mr. Lawson, who came to watch the Florida Marlins play the Cincinnati Reds on a recent Sunday afternoon, believes the fans will eventually return to the Marlins, one of the worst draws in baseball. But just in case major league baseball in Miami is only a passing dream, "I'll relish every moment I can," he said.

Across the state in Tampa Bay, where a domed stadium protects fans of the worst team in baseball from thunderstorms that frequently stab the state with lightning on summer afternoons, Jay Horning, 76, wondered at the Devil Rays' home crowds, which are among the smallest in baseball.

"It's kind of depressing, when you see so many empty seats," said Mr. Horning, who grew up a Chicago Cubs fan in Richland, Iowa. But like Mr. Lawson, he hopes. He believes the Devil Rays will one day win, and the stands will fill.

"Anybody who can stick with the Cubs," he said, "ought to be able to stick with the Devil Rays."

Tampa Bay fans got more bad news today, when the Rays' star first baseman, Fred McGriff, a Tampa native, accepted a trade to the Cubs.

How different it was a decade ago, when major league baseball in Florida seemed so promising.

How could baseball fail in a state populated with large numbers of retirees and transplants, many of them lifelong baseball fans from the Northeast and Midwest? Latinos, the state's fastest-growing group, bring with them a passion for the game from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other points south. How could they not crowd into every game?

Spring training for generations brought a migration of fans, and minor-league parks, for much of the century, lit up both Florida coasts.

"The recipe was there," said Mr. Lawson, 26, an artistic development representative for a music distribution company in South Florida.

But neither team is coming even close to filling its stadium. The fans who do go to the games do so in the midst of rumors that the teams might someday have to relocate, and when good crowds come to the ballpark, it is often to see the Yankees or the Mets or other franchises from their past -- not the here-and-now Marlins and Devil Rays.

Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, has talked about eliminating some clubs in a reduction known as contraction, a move intended to strengthen the league by weeding out the financially weakest teams. The Marlins and Devil Rays are often mentioned as possibilities for the reject pile.

While many experts on the business of baseball say it is unlikely that contraction will happen to Florida's teams -- lawsuits alone could delay contraction indefinitely -- the very possibility highlights how frustrating baseball in Florida has been since the Marlins, in 1993, and the Devil Rays, in 1998, joined Major League Baseball. Both South Florida and Tampa Bay had fought for years to draw big-league baseball here, either by luring a failing team into relocations or through expansion, but neither team has built a loyal fan base, the key to survival.

Most people familiar with baseball marketing agree that Florida's baseball problem is not a single woe but something distinct to both teams.

In Miami and in the rest of South Florida, fans are still haunted by the dismantling of the 1997 Marlins team that pulled off a baseball miracle by winning the World Series after making the playoffs as a wild-card team.

The team's owner at the time, Wayne Huizenga, sold off the stars, leaving fans stunned and angry. Attendance has dwindled every year since, and now a crowd of 17,428 -- in a stadium that seats more than 36,000 -- is average. Only Montreal has a worse National League average: 8,751.

"It takes years for a team to establish cultural links with a community," said Sean Foreman, a political science instructor at the University of Miami Business School.

Marlins fans saw a "dramatic rise to World Series champions, then a fire sale," Mr. Foreman said. "There wasn't time to establish a loyal following before turmoil set in."

That reluctance to give their hearts -- and dollars -- to a team that burned them once, even though Mr. Huizenga is no longer the owner, is compounded by a new management that has said openly that the team cannot survive in South Florida without a new, covered stadium, a stadium it has been unable to persuade the State Legislature, or any other government body, to bankroll.

John Henry bought the team from Mr. Huizenga, but not Pro Player Stadium. Mr. Huizenga still owns it and its big sources of income, like suite rentals, that would go to the new owners if they had a new park.

Such talk makes fans nervous, and less likely to invest in the team, said Scott Becher, a sports and marketing consultant in Coral Gables.

"They're still a little leery about embracing the Marlins because they're afraid they'll be hurt again if they leave town," Mr. Becher said. "They've been burned."

There is also a practical need here for a domed stadium or one with a retractable roof. Rainouts are so common in the open-air stadium that some people do not bother making the rush-hour drive to the ballpark when the almost daily storm clouds gather.

Team officials have said they expect to lose $17 million this season.

Some marketing experts say the Marlins have not done a good job in attracting South Florida's Hispanic population, but Hispanic fans say they have stayed away from the ballpark for the same reason other fans do not go to the games.

"Things are not the same since they dismantled the team," said Roberto Mendoza, 55, an electrician who lives in South Miami. "It's like we were taken to the top after the World Series, and dropped."

The Marlins, unlike some embattled teams, are not a doormat. They are only a few games out of first place in the National League East, behind Atlanta and Philadelphia. But even if they keep winning, their fans need assurances that their team will remain here -- and even the team's front office has been unable to provide them a long-term assurance.

Mr. Becher said one critical element to the team's survival was already in place. They are winning again, and need to keep on winning. "There is a sense of urgency," he said. "If you're not a winner in South Florida, you're an afterthought."

In Tampa Bay, a domed stadium shields fans, but reports of management turmoil earlier in the season and a miserable won-loss record has Florida's newest major league team in trouble after just three full seasons and part of a fourth.

On any given night, only about one in three seats is occupied. The Rays draw an average of 15,720 fans a game, in a stadium that seats 44,445.

Some fans say that four years is not enough time to build a winning franchise -- and certainly not enough time to win the hearts of fans that still belong to the Cubs and Cardinals and Tigers and Indians.

"We stuck with the Cubs through thick and thin -- well, there wasn't really any thick," said Mr. Horning, a retired copy editor at The St. Petersburg Times. "All these people are baseball fans, but fans for the teams they grew up with."

The Devil Rays have not given the fans a team to love. "Winning," Mr. Horning said. "That would help."

The team has finished dead last in its division its first three seasons and seems destined to finish dead last again, and the team has not sold out since its home opener -- its very first home opener. But any effort to move the team would probably be stymied by a 26-year stadium lease, and government officials in St. Petersburg who have said they are willing to sue to keep their team.

In May, the team hired John McHale, an experienced baseball executive, from the Detroit Tigers to run the team's day-to-day operations. Both team officials and fans said it was a move that should have been made years ago.

Mr. McHale said contraction was "not something we worry about."

The team's front office does worry about winning, and plans to do that by bringing good young players up through its minor league system. That means that major improvement may take time, in a region starved for winning. Fans here say they do not really care about front office bickering or management changes.

"The 'W' column," is the only thing between the Rays and better attendance, said Lou Plasencia, chairman of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. In the meantime, Mr. Horning says he will stand by his new team.

In South Florida, Michael Lawson and Roberto Mendoza will stand by theirs. "I'll keep going," Mr. Mendoza said, "as long as we have a team."