- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

MIAMI Keith Wade was doing his best to try to convert a New York Yankees fan into a Florida Marlins fan.
"Come on, give me that Yankee hat," Wade said. "Do it for baseball. Do it for your country."
Wade is in charge of the Marlins conversion booth at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, one of the promotions new owner Jeffrey Loria implemented to win over fans in the troubled South Florida market. The premise is that if you are wearing another baseball team's hat or jersey, the Marlins will replace it with a Marlins hat or jersey and then send the hat or jersey you turn in to a charity in the other team's community.
On this beautiful, cloudless South Florida night, with the Marlins facing the San Diego Padres in the first game of a six-game homestand and just two games out of first place in the National League East, nobody in the sparse crowd of 6,098 seemed to be converting.
"The Marlins are a good team," said 14-year-old Chris Adamo, who lives in Hollywood, Fla. "But the Yankees are the best. They're my team. I'm not trading in a Yankee hat for a Marlins hat."
Another Yankees fan strolled by, and Wade made another pitch. "You're not in New York, you're in Florida," he pleaded as the fan waved his Yankees hat and walked by.
This is one of the significant contributing factors to the failure of major league baseball in the state not just in South Florida but in the Tampa Bay area as well.
There are baseball fans in Florida. They just couldn't care less about the Florida Marlins now in first place in the NL East or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Last year the Marlins drew 1.2 million fans. This season they have drawn an average of 10,333 and are on pace for 837,000. Only the lame-duck Montreal Expos, who most definitely will be folded or relocated at the end of this season, are worse, drawing 8,409 per game.
In its fifth season, Tampa Bay is not much better. The Devil Rays drew 1.3 million in 2001 and rank at the bottom of the American League this year with a 13,846 average (on pace for 1.12 million).
The Yankees drew 173,000 for their spring training games alone in Tampa.
"The Yankees are a big deal here," said Rick Dodge, assistant county administrator for economic development in Hillsborough County and one of the driving forces behind bringing major league baseball to the Tampa Bay area. "You can go see the Yankees play 17 games here in the spring, and I don't know if spring training is an incentive or a disincentive."
It's the same throughout the state. "Everyone here is transplanted from somewhere else," said Marlins president David Samson, who insists the conversion program has been successful. "What we have to do is to create a tradition here."
Yankees fans, Red Sox fans, Mets fans, Orioles fans all can be found throughout the markets of South Florida and Tampa Bay. Because of that, Major League Baseball figured it was tapping into a gold mine when it moved into Florida with the Marlins in 1993 and the Devil Rays in 1998. After all, with the tradition of spring training in Florida for more than 70 years, it seemed that there was a natural fan base waiting to be tapped.
But baseball officials made some huge miscalculations about the Florida market, followed by a long list of public relations miscues by both organizations that have turned off their fans. And now MLB officials might be thinking that the state cannot support two major league franchises.
Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino knows the Florida market well. He was partners with former Marlins owner John Henry in that unprecedented offseason deal that saw Henry and his group purchase the Red Sox, while Expos owner Loria bought the Marlins, and MLB, funded by all 29 owners, agreed to operate the Expos for one year in Montreal, pending a determination on contraction.
Lucchino, a former president and part owner of both the San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles, got to know Henry when Lucchino was asked by commissioner Bud Selig to go to South Florida to determine the chances of getting a ballpark built there. It was the second time Lucchino had consulted on the South Florida market. After he left the Orioles following the 1993 season and before he joined with John Moores to purchase the Padres in 1995, Lucchino worked with former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga on plans for a ballpark in what was envisioned to be a huge entertainment complex called Blockbuster Park.
Looking at the market now, Lucchino thinks baseball may have overestimated the fan support available in the state for two teams playing 81 home games each.
"Every market is different," Lucchino said. "Maybe one team would have worked better in Florida than two. Maybe there wasn't a sufficient examination of the market for two teams. After the National League decided to go [to South Florida in the 1991 expansion instead of Washington], then the American League was determined to go there as well. They didn't want to concede the whole state."
Of course, the conventional thinking in baseball is that the reason Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion franchise in 1995 again, over the Washington market, this time Northern Virginia was part of a deal to avoid a lawsuit stemming from baseball's interference with the sale and relocation of the San Francisco Giants to the Tampa Bay area in 1992.
What baseball officials actually saw as a positive sign the presence of spring training in Florida might actually have been a negative. Fans in Florida might get enough baseball before the season even begins. There are 19 major league teams that train in Florida for about seven weeks, with 1.6million fans attending games there at spring training prices before the Marlins or the Devil Rays have even thrown their first pitches of the season. No other team, save for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix, has to deal with the unique issue of spring training competition.
"Maybe fans in Florida are just not hungry for a home team because they see a lot of baseball anyway in spring training," Lucchino said.
Lucchino's thoughts on one market in Florida do not bode well for the Marlins, who appear likely to be eliminated through contraction or relocation even though South Florida may be the better economic market of the two and the Marlins currently can put a more competitive team on the field.
The Devil Rays, who lost 15 consecutive games in a skid that ended over the weekend, have 27 years remaining on their lease at Tropicana Field. The Marlins' lease at Pro Player Stadium is up at the end of 2003. Given the difficulties MLB has had with the lease in Minnesota, where the Twins have just this year remaining on the agreement, baseball officials are unlikely to try to contract or relocate a franchise with such a strong, lengthy lease as exists in Tampa Bay. MLB Executive Vice President Sandy Alderson has stated publicly that the Devil Rays are not a candidate for contraction.
It's ironic that the lease at Tropicana Field may be the only saving grace for the Devil Rays franchise. It's also considered one of the reasons for the struggles of the team, a non-retractable domed stadium that had been built and completed by 1990 before the Camden Yards phase of design dictated stadium construction. Also, it was built in St. Petersburg, instead of the more populated community of Tampa. But it is the facility the Devil Rays will have to live with, and no one in baseball has suggested that a new ballpark would be the solution in Tampa Bay.
Dodge said the Devil Rays ran into some stiff competition for sports dollars in the community right from the start.
"You had the Bucs, who were already building a stadium and selling season tickets and corporate boxes for that," he said. "If someone had decided to buy their Bucs tickets, that was it for them. They weren't going to buy anything else. And then you had the new hockey arena built."
Dodge believes the franchise still can succeed in Tropicana Field, if it is marketed right.
"It's what you make it," said Dodge, who led the effort to built the domed stadium to try to attract a baseball franchise. "I don't think the problem is anything other than the product on the field and how to market it."
Under the ownership of Vince Naimoli, the Devil Rays have been a public relations disaster. He has alienated much of the business community and fans with his outlandish and combative comments, and the team itself abandoned its early plan of player development several years ago for an ill-fated attempt to build a quick winner, spending more than $30million on a group of free agents Jose Canseco, Vinny Castillo and Greg Vaughn which turned out to be a bust. There was a rift reported among ownership last year, and at one point the franchise was reportedly up for sale. There were even reports that the team might not be able to make its payroll.
Enter John McHale Jr., who came from the Detroit Tigers and spent a year getting the Devil Rays' house in order before leaving last year to work for the commissioner's office as an executive vice president.
"John McHale went in there and told baseball that it was still a strong market that could be saved," Dodge said. "His presence was an important change in the direction of the team. They cut payroll, began working well with the business community and went back to the plan they previously had of player development. There is more of a good buzz now around here about the Devil Rays than in a long time."
Said McHale: "They started out with a good plan, but they changed it and went too fast. It is a slow process. They have to establish their own tradition for the Devil Rays. But there are 2.5million people in the area and 3.5million within driving distance. That should be strong enough to support a major league club."
Some of the same issues that Tampa Bay faces have plagued the Marlins in South Florida. The facility where the Marlins play is designed for football, the home of the Dolphins, and has been painted as the primary roadblock between the success and the failure of the Marlins. Former owner Henry spent three years trying to drum up political support for a new ballpark, but after funding arenas for the NBA's Miami Heat and the NHL's Florida Panthers, government officials in South Florida and in the state legislature in Tallahassee had no taste for government funding of a ballpark.
Coupled with that is the residue from the dismantling of the Marlins' 1997 World Series champion team by Huizenga, plus reports that the Marlins are a prime candidate for contraction or relocation, and interest in the team is at an all-time low.
Just 6,100 showed up Wednesday night for a game that would give the Marlins, off to their best start in franchise history, a share of first place in the National League East. That same day, Miami Herald sports columnist Greg Cote wrote a column blasting Loria for being so invisible and for failing to address the ballpark issue that hovers over the team.
But club president Samson says that the lack of discussion about a new ballpark is by design and insists that the franchise is in South Florida for the long haul.
"This market was stadium-ed out," he said. "There had been so much time and energy spent over the last three years on this issue, people were tired of it. So we made a marketing decision not to discuss it from the outset, to try to calm the waters."
That plan has had mixed results. A trade that sent pitchers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Julian Tavarez before Opening Day raised concerns that the Marlins were cutting payroll and fueled fears that the team was being set up for failure to make it easier to fold or relocate. And most recently, reports that the team's best and most popular player, Cliff Floyd, is on the trading block have raised skepticism even further. But Samson said there are no plans to leave town.
"This is not a temporary stop on the way to anywhere else," he said, "Jeff is here for the long run. He went through a historic offseason to get here. I'm moving my family down here, and my wife and I just gave up our private school slots in New York for our children. Those are hard to come by.
"We think this is the biggest underperforming market in sports right now," Samson said. "The challenge is for us to make work what hasn't worked before. If we succeed or fail, either way we are going down in history."


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