Will Fans Wait For Marlins To Get Good?

A jumbotron displays an opening day game logo prior to the game with the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The opening of Marlins Ballpark, along with some expensive free agents and a famous new manager, brought such hope with the Marlins this season. But it's been a lousy season, and now it's all about the future.

They're calling it a fire sale.

In the space of just a few days, the Miami Marlins traded their every-day second baseman (Omar Infante), their every-day third baseman (Hanley Ramirez) and one of their better starting pitchers (Anibel Sanchez). And they're not necessarily finished dealing, as Heath Bell, Ricky Nolasco, and even Josh Johnson have been mentioned in various trade rumors.

In an unrelated note, Wednesday afternoon the Marlins sold out their new ballpark and set an attendance record.

Caveats:

1. Marlins Ballpark is exceptionally small: the new record is 36,711.

2. It was Camp Day.

Entering Wednesday, the Marlins had averaged 28,400 tickets sold per game. That's fantastic, compared to their average of 17,500 in 2011. It's not so fantastic, considering the Marlins just moved into a new ballpark this spring; as Forbes notes, the Marlins are going to finish with the lowest average attendance in a new ballpark in a full season since the Twins moved into the Metrodome, more than 30 years ago.

In isolation, the Marlins' attendance this season might be worrisome; probably should be worrisome. After all, if you're drawing only 28,000 per game in Year 1, what happens in Years 3 and 4 and 5?

But nothing actually happens in isolation. Before this season, the Marlins did two things to boost attendance and interest: They opened a new ballpark, and they spent a lot of money to get better.

Fans generally show up for three reasons. In no particular order, they are:

1. Ballpark
2. Spending
3. Winning

Generally, a new (or classic) ballpark guarantees a certain level of attendance. Spending a lot of money gooses fan interest. And of course winning usually does the trick, too. For the perfect combination, just look at the Philadelphia Phillies, who have (officially) sold out more than 250 straight games. They have the ballpark, they have the payroll, and they've had, until this season, the winning.

The Marlins entered this season with two out of three, with the possibility of the third.

Well, next season they'll still have the ballpark, but they'll have cut their spending and they're not likely to be winning. Not enough to get the fans excited, anyway. If you're a fan of good government, the Marlins are probably going to drive you crazy. But if you can adopt the distance of an outside observer, you might have a fascinating experiment to watch. If the Marlins can draw only 28,500 per game in a season that began with such fanfare and excitement, how few can they draw in a season without either of those things? Could they drop below 20,000? Could they do as poorly as they did in their old football-stadium home?

We'll see.

But none of this is an indictment of the people making the baseball decisions. Sure, Heath Bell's downfall wasn't impossible to predict. The plan for 2012 wasn't a bad one, though; with the expected seasons from Jose Reyes and Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez and Heath Bell, this team should have been at least moderately competitive.

It just didn't work out, as sometimes happens. And the moment that management realized it wasn't going to work out, it was time to come up with a new plan. And trading veterans for young players seems like a pretty good plan, particularly considering management's acumen over the years when making such trades.

When the Marlins traded Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante to the Tigers, they got the Tigers' best pitching prospect and the Tigers' best catching prospect; both are likely to be making real contributions within two or three years.

When the Marlins traded Hanley Ramirez (and Randy Choate) to the Dodgers, they got the Dodgers' third-best pitching prospect, along with some salary relief.

These are good baseball moves; really good baseball moves.

But the positive results probably won't show up on the field until 2014 or '15, at best. And it's not at all apparent that the fans will still be around to see that happen.

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