- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

Young? Yes. Well-paid? No. Immature? Sometimes.

Productive baseball players? Absolutely.

Those words can only describe the 2006 Florida Marlins, who have surged the past month into second place in the National League East. The upstart club, a unanimous pick to finish last in the division before the start of the season, went 18-7 in June.

The Marlins have done it with plenty of color, enthusiasm and, at times, uniqueness, which showed during a recent trip through the visitor’s clubhouse in Baltimore late last month.

A rookie pitcher perused a men’s magazine and barely glanced away from the pictures as members of the media interviewed him.

At the other side of the clubhouse, two-time All-Star third baseman Miguel Cabrera practiced salsa dancing with outfielder Alfredo Amezaga, complete with the flare of tosses, lifts and spins. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez tried to break up the dance lesson by kicking a water bottle at the pair, bursting into a World Cup mocking “Goooaaalll” celebration.

But don’t be confused by the loose, jovial and even nonchalant pregame attitude. Their lighthearted approach is what has made them one of Major League Baseball’s most surprising teams.

Since May 22, when the Marlins stopped a seven-game losing streak with a 9-1 win over the Chicago Cubs, Florida has gone 24-11.

“Something obviously happened, but I don’t know what it was,” said rookie second basemen Dan Uggla, a Rule 5 acquisition from the Arizona Diamondbacks in December who entered last night with 13 homers and a .312 average. “Our pitchers have done an unbelievable job all year long. I think we just started getting some timely hits and we started keeping leads.”

Florida’s outburst of victories since late May include a 14-5 home record, yet the Marlins (35-42) suffer from the league’s worst attendance. Florida averages fewer than 11,000 fans every home game — more than 6,000 fewer than the worst team in baseball, the Kansas City Royals (26-52).

Even after the Marlins’ World Series run in 2003, they finished the following season 26th in the league with an average of slightly more than 22,000 fans.

“It doesn’t bother me and I tell the guys all the time, if you need a crowd to get you motivated then you are not a professional athlete,” said infielder Wes Helms, one of the few veterans on the team. “What separates us as a professional athlete is that we know how to control our minds. If you can pump yourself up to play in front of 5,000 people, then you’ve got no problem playing in front of 40,000 people.”

Maybe the lack of fan attention is the result of a slow start to the season in which the Marlins opened with a 1-6 record.

Or, it could be that the Marlins’ roster is cloaked in anonymity, a youthful team with an average age of 26. The only remaining players from the Marlins’ 2003 World Series champions are Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis.

Although the Marlins have won two World Series (1997, 2003) in the last decade, the team has faced severe roster cuts, leaving the team filled with rookies.

With 12 players earning the league’s minimum salary, the Marlins have withered their total payroll to $14.34 million. The next-lowest payroll in the league is held by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — who, at $35.42 million, more than double Florida’s expenditure.

But even with the lack of fan support and big salaries, most of the Marlins said they were just thrilled to be playing in the major leagues.

“I think our players understand,” manager Joe Girardi said of the poor attendance. “Remember, most of our players came from [Class AA] last year and they don’t have 8,000 every night in [Class AA]. Sure, it’s a bigger ballpark, but it’s still more fans than they are used to playing in front of.”

Rookie center fielder Reggie Abercrombie smiled while relaxing on a leather couch in Baltimore, echoing that “glad to be here” attitude.

“As long as we are in the major leagues, nothing is going to bother us,” Abercrombie said.

No matter how well the Marlins perform, their salaries and attendance might continue to stagnate until the fierce debate over a new stadium is settled.

Playing in Dolphin Stadium, the Marlins receive a minimal revenue stream from concessions, parking and advertising because the stadium is controlled by the Miami Dolphins’ owners as a result of a deal struck with the late Joe Robbie.

“They really are financially constrained,” Miami Herald baseball writer Kevin Baxter said. “They need a new stadium and until they have that, they have to dig deep into their pockets to get players. That is going to be slow to happen without new revenue streams.”

There have been several plans for a new stadium, including various locations and financing plans, but the one constant feature is a ballpark with a retractable roof.

Because South Florida is known for its soggy summer weather, many prospective fans simply do not want to risk being caught in the rain.

“Fans here are just weird,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Craig Barnes said. “If it looks like rain in Boca, they won’t go. South Florida is a very event-oriented area and it is not worth it to most people to sit through multiple rain delays … A lot of the fan favorites were scrapped for payroll reasons, so you can clearly understand why fans would reject that maneuver.”

This is the second overhaul of the team following a World Series title. Only three members of the 1997 championship team remained for the 2003 title run.

But, this personnel slash and burn technique has proved quite effective.

“I saw more guys I used to play with when New York [Yankees] was down here,” said Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine, who played for both of Florida’s championship teams. “They have rebuilt twice, if they win it all again this might become a trend throughout the league.”

Although the Marlins cheap, rookie-dependent strategy has proved successful in the past, the basics of the game still pose a problem to an inexperienced team.

“It’s hard to control their emotions,” Girardi said. “The emotions of trying to do too much. Every young player wants to prove that he belongs … What we talk about is just doing things right. Experience is important, but you know if you do things the right way, the chances of good things happening are much better.”

Girardi, in his rookie year as manager, so far has been able to connect with his young team. In one incident on May 23, Girardi grabbed rookie pitcher Scott Olsen by the jersey and tugged him into the tunnel leading to the clubhouse and berated him for a lack of focus. Since that confrontation, Olsen has gone 4-1 with an ERA of 5.02.

Olsen joked, as teammates near his locker rolled their eyes, that he was glad Girardi was “open enough to have a nice conversation” with him.

“[Girardi] is one of the youngest managers in the game, but I think he is already one of the smartest,” Uggla said. “He has shown a lot of patience and that is a big-time quality to have.”

The fans who have remained loyal are being rewarded for their patience. Chris Giroir, who used to live in South Florida, was one of the few people at Camden Yards sporting Marlins’ gear.

“If I abandoned them during the hard times, what kind of a fan would I be?,” Giroir said. “It’s hard to support a losing team, but nobody is going to go out and watch a team they know the ownership will dismantle as soon as the season is over, no matter how good they are.”


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