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Marlins are not guaranteed to be a big-market monster with a new owner

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It’s a nice thought. But the scars run deep.

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Last week, I fantasized about Jeffrey Loria being eaten by wasps. As one does. I’ve received hate mail for writing about cats, but I didn’t receive hate mail about that one. Love mail, mostly. A couple pieces of love mail. That imagery spoke to people.

The idea that Loria would sell the Marlins was not met with hand-wringing from the team’s fans. There was no momentary panic, no what-now cloud that hung over them ominously. There was just glee. There was mirth. There was ...

... ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead giddiness expressed by Marlins players and executives past and present in texts and calls to one another.

Exactly. That’s from Jeff Passan, who disassembled Loria and swallowed the allen wrench of doom that put him together. It’s a fine, necessary, justifiably angry read. Baseball has always had lesser imps and demons, and it will continue to have them. Loria, though, really, really, really has never given a hot damn about fans, in a way that’s special even by oblivious rich-and-powerful standards.

The question now is an obvious one: Now what? What is the potential of a Miami baseball team with an owner that actually gives a damn? If Loria is really selling the team, is this really the big-market opportunity of a lifetime?

There are no guarantees.

The reasons why a Miami team should be a juggernaut are obvious. While Miami is just the 44th-most populous city in the country — sandwiched between Omaha and Oakland — it’s the eighth-biggest market, bigger than Boston or the Bay Area. We’ve seen what a mid-market team like the Cardinals can do with success and effective branding. Imagine that, but with twice as many potential customers. It’s a seductive dream.

Let’s talk about the obstacles, though. It’s not about having millions of people and shoving sports down the feeding tube. It’s about expectations and symbiotic relationships. Sports are supposed to be fun, and the fun becomes a benevolent addiction, which funnels more money to the sports.

Miami baseball was not always fun or benevolent. Picture yourself a Miamian, half-heartedly following the city’s quest for a baseball team for the last decade, and celebrating the announcement that, good lord, they did it. There was going to be baseball in Miami. The old people thought about Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew. The young people thought about Ken Griffey, Jr. One day, they would all have a shared memory, one of those trans-generational sports icons, hot damn.

The early years were rough because expansion teams are always a mess, and the Marlins played in a miserable football stadium, but those are just growing pains. Before the fifth year of their existence, the owner has an epiphany. What if I just go for it?

He tells the front office to spend, to buy free agents, to caulk the holes and expand. They get some of the best players in baseball, and even though the sport isn’t supposed to be that simple, it actually works. The Marlins win the World Series.

It looks like this:

That looks like a normal World Series-winning moment. I promise, the crowds were loud. I watched it. Maybe they weren’t third-generation-pappy-made-me-promise-to-spread-his-ashes-at-Fenway loud, but whatever. The franchise was five years old. They took a syringe filled with concentrated baseball and jabbed it into the necks of every potential baseball fan who was paying attention.

What happened next was amazing. Game 7 was played on Oct. 26. Moises Alou was traded for prospects on Nov. 11.

Sixteen days. Less than two weeks after the danged parade. Somewhere between ticker tape and Nov. 11, Wayne Huizenga thought for a moment and gurgled, “Eh, screw it. Show’s over.”

It was one of the most cynical, short-sighted moves in baseball history. It was exactly the kind of vision you would expect from a man who became rich because of VHS tapes. And it hurt. Go back to the parade from 1997.

The Florida Marlins threw a 10-hour party yesterday that turned downtown Miami into a howling river of teal ...

That phrase, “howling river of teal,” was never used again. It’s a good line. It deserved to be used again.

''This community has come together in a way I haven't seen for many, many years,'' said Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, wearing a Marlins jersey.

Awesome. Hope you like Andy Larkin instead of Kevin Brown.

The motorcade also included pitcher Alex Fernandez, a Miami native who delayed shoulder surgery to take part; Manager Jim Leyland, enjoying his first World Series title in 33 years of professional baseball, and the team's owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, who put the team up for sale in June. He has since said he might reconsider.

You grubby, entitled, tasteless ogre. why were you interested in owning a baseball team in the first place?

Don Smiley, the Marlins' president, who is trying to organize a group to buy the team, found the enthusiasm heartening. Public support may be fleeting, however. Just last month, the 5-year-old Marlins drew a disappointing crowd of 16,677 in the midst of the pennant race.

No, no, no. You can’t build a Cardinals team in a day. There were five years of bad baseball and teal, and most teams suffer through the weirdness. The Mets drew fewer than a million fans in their first season, and while they led the league in their World Series season, they were back down to 788,000 a decade later.

Ebbs and flows. When you get that championship in the first five years, howl at the moon and laugh, you idiots. What a gift. The Marlins drew 2.3 million fans in 1997, fifth in the league. Then they won the World Series. The growth should have been exponential. Then the fans were told baseball wasn’t worth the effort. Sorry.

The good news was that the rebuilding efforts were much better than the average rebuilding efforts. They did it right. And they got back to the World Series again. They won again, just six seasons later. After that amazing spot of luck, they let their free agents go and traded their star first baseman. It wasn’t quite a rebuild, but it was certainly not a textbook job of reloading, either.

There was no way the team could succeed without a new stadium, so we have to ditch these players until we get one, the billionaires cried. I’m not even sure which one it was at this point, and I promise you it doesn’t matter.

Jeffrey Loria comes in and says the same thing. Get me the stadium. Give me your public money, and let’s see what Miami baseball can be. Right before the stadium was completed, the Marlins were the scourge of the offseason, and that’s a good thing. They were signing and trading, trading and signing. They were the boldest hot-stove team of the generation, announcing the return of MIAMI DAMNED BASEBALL, which shouldn’t have left in the first place.

A couple months later, it didn’t work out as planned, so, dunno, whatever, and it was all dismantled again.

There were high points mixed in. These illusions of stability were always followed with a herring to the face, though. The investment of hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of leisure time were paid back with a stained I.O.U., and those I.O.U.s were paid back with grosser stains and more desperate I.O.U.s.

These are the kinds of slights that are passed down over decades. The 40-year-old who went through it the first time stopped caring. That 40-year-old’s kid is going to introduce the same thoughts to his or her family.

The only consistent theme of Marlins baseball over the last 24 years has been “Why bother?” If there’s a reward, it’s yanked away. And there usually aren’t rewards because baseball likes to ration those. The new owner might bring those rewards back. But it’s going to take years to build that trust up again. Years and years. And even if a new owner wants to buy those rewards, there are booby traps. Rich teams can fail, and fail often.

If everything works perfectly, though, if a new Marlins owner commits to a strong, long-term plan that yields immediate success, it will still take a while. It will still be asking a lot for fans to forget about the previous quarter-century and the distaste that was handed down by the people who lived through 1997 or 2012.

The answer is to keep trying, keep doing it, but better and bolder. And, eventually, it will become the backbone of the franchise’s history. The new owners will have a billion-and-a-half clams invested, which will keep them ... invested. The other stuff will become folklore. This isn’t an Instant Juggernaut, Just Add Water situation, but it’s a giant moon leap in the right direction.

The Marlins might just have a future in the big-market-bully arena. It’s just not going to happen immediately, and all that up there is why. What a mess. What an opportunity. The fans will remember the mess, even if subconsciously, and they’ll be timid about coming back.

But the opportunities are there. Hopefully the new owner won’t screw up as much. Let’s all set a reminder on our calendars to check back in 10 years, and yell at some more buffoons if we have to, while hoping that it won’t be necessary.