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After two games in Japan last week, the Major League Baseball regular season schedule begins in earnest on Wednesday. And in Miami, the expectations are very high. The Marlins begin their first season in a new ballpark and flush with expensive new talent.
As Phil Latzman of member station WLRN reports, the team is trying to build a fan base that stretches into the Caribbean and Latin America.
PHIL LATZMAN, BYLINE: The franchise was born in 1993 as the Florida Marlins, living their formative years in a football stadium, fighting the chance of afternoon thunderstorms and fan apathy. Through it all, they managed to become the youngest franchise to ever win a World Series in 1997 and then shocked the baseball world again six years later by doing it again, despite never winning a single division title.
This year, they'll move into a new $600 million-plus, mostly taxpayer funded retractable roof stadium on the site of the old Orange Bowl in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. But, during batting practice at their spring home in Jupiter, Florida recently, Marlins fan Tony Clemens, who lives 70 miles away in Palm Beach County, says he will not be attending as regularly.
TONY CLEMENS: Yeah. I'm not going to be able to make the drive down as much. It's going to be another hour, at least, with all the traffic.
LATZMAN: But Clemens believes the franchise will be better off.
CLEMENS: I think they'll have more of a fan base down there because it's more in an Hispanic area. They brought in a lot of Hispanic players, so I think there might be more and the new stadium, nicer stadium. They'll definitely be more people coming in.
LATZMAN: Clemens is saying exactly what the Marlins want to hear, that their franchise, now in its 20th year, will finally experience a renaissance now that they have a brand new baseball-only facility. To celebrate, the Marlins invested over $200 million in free agents this off-season. Over half of that went to former New York Mets star shortstop Jose Reyes, native of the Dominican Republic.
JOSE REYES: Every Latin place is close here in Miami. You know, we got Dominicans close, Venezuela, Puerto Rico. You know, in Miami, we have a lot of Latin people, you know. We just want to focus, you know, and be at the game, win some games. You know, I know if we were winning, the sun will come out.
LATZMAN: To underscore that connection, the Marlins brought in Venezuelan-born manager Ozzie Guillen, formerly of the White Sox. First baseman Gaby Sanchez is a Miami native born of Cuban immigrants. He grew up in the shadows of the old Orange Bowl and will be playing in his own backyard.
GABY SANCHEZ: It feels great. I think it's about time that Miami actually - real Miami - has a baseball team. I mean, if you think about it, we have, you know, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, center field - all Hispanic guys.
LATZMAN: One of the greatest Cuban-born baseball players of all time is Hall of Famer Tony Perez, who has worked for the franchise since its inception.
TONY PEREZ FORMER PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL PLAYER: I never see people so enthusiastic, you know, like they're very happy about it and they really want to see baseball now. They need a stadium and I happy for that.
LATZMAN: So, if the Dallas Cowboys were America's team, the Miami Marlins hope to be the baseball equivalent of Latin America's team. Miami-based marketing executive Jorge de Cardenas says it's a long road ahead.
JORGE DE CARDENAS: Yes. The (unintelligible) how long it's going to be - it's going to take, I don't know. My experience is the people in Latin America will follow all the team but the players from their country.
LATZMAN: Miami Herald beat reporter Clark Spencer says there's another reason that fans have lost interest.
CLARK SPENCER: I think a larger part of it's been the ballpark issue and I think a large part of it was after they won the '97 World Series, the dismantling and that turned off so many people.
LATZMAN: A similar dismantling took place after the team's improbable 2003 run. Miami sports fans are fickle and expectations, says Clark Spencer, will be high.
SPENCER: Well, they should have high expectations with the amount of spending and the number of moves they made over the year and, you know, getting Ozzie Guillen and a new ballpark. I mean, the fans should expect a winner.
LATZMAN: So the lesson for this field of dreams: if you build it, they may come, but only for a winner. For NPR News, I'm Phil Latzman in Miami.
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