The Miami Marlins knew they had a one-time opportunity to sell their fair-weather city on baseball last winter, and they did everything they could to make it happen.
They changed their name and their address, ditching “Florida” for “Miami,” dropping teal for orange and relocating from a mammoth multipurpose dump outside the city to a spectacular new ballpark in Little Havana.
Additionally, Miami’s generally frugal ownership finally pried opened its checkbook, going after the league’s top free agents and landing a few solid pieces — even if they missed out on Albert Pujols.
Still, Miami accomplished what it set out to do: It put a team worth watching in a beautiful new stadium worth visiting, then sat back and reaped the benefits of a viable team with a recharged fan base.
Or at least that was the idea.
The problem is that last part never happened, and almost none of the splashy moves Miami made in preparation for this season have panned out.
The new era of Marlins baseball has been a disaster thus far, and after a 50-60 start that has them tied for last in the National League East and 17 games out of first place, it’s probably fair to wonder whether that window of opportunity to rekindle interest in Marlins baseball has already closed.
Manager Ozzie Guillen was supposed to provide energy and direction after a largely successful stint with the Chicago White Sox, but all he did was ruffle feathers from the moment he arrived in Dade County while getting very little in the way of production from his players.
Miami was supposed to have one of baseball’s best left sides of the infield in All-Stars Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez after signing Reyes away from the Mets. But Ramirez, frustrated by the forced move from shortstop to third, was gone by the trade deadline, dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers after he couldn’t thrive in his new situation.
The Marlins also were supposed to have some powerful, budding young talent in Giancarlo (nee Mike) Stanton and Gaby Sanchez, but Sanchez hit .202 over his first 55 games, lost his job when the Marlins traded for Carlos Lee and then got traded to Pittsburgh.
Stanton, 22, raked over the first few months of the season with 19 homers and 50 RBI by July 1. But he underwent knee surgery, missed a month and is just now returning to the lineup. Now, no matter how far he hits the ball, the Marlins won’t be winning a playoff spot.
On the mound, All-Star Josh Johnson was supposed to be back to his normal self after a shoulder injury robbed him of most of 2011, but thus far he has just been OK — his 7-7 record and 3.85 ERA hardly reminiscent of the pitcher who went 36-13 with a 2.80 ERA over the past four seasons.
Like Johnson, holdover Ricky Nolasco (8-11, 4.95) and newcomers Mark Buehrle (9-10, 3.70) and Carlos Zambrano (7-9, 4.43) also have been mediocre, none of them emerging as a reliable option.
And then there’s Heath Bell.
After saving 132 games for the Padres over the last three seasons, Bell got a three-year, $27 million contract in December before immediately imploding with the Marlins. Bell blew four of his first seven save opportunities and had an ERA of 6.75 as recently as July 8.
Bell’s ERA currently sits at 5.36, and he’s no longer the closer in Miami. That job now belongs to Steve Cishek, who is making $480,000 this year to do what Bell couldn’t do for $9 million.
About the only Marlins move that actually seems to be panning out is the one to sign Reyes. On Tuesday he extended his MLB-best hitting streak to 25 games with an infield single against his old team, putting his batting average at .366 since the streak started July 13.
But much like every other bit of good news surrounding the Marlins this season, Reyes’ streak comes with a footnote. Miami is 9-16 over the course of his 25-game run, and 25 good games doesn’t change the fact that he was hitting .264 over the first 84 games with a .336 on-base percentage that was lower than his .337 batting average last season in New York.
What does all this mean? Well, it means the Marlins simply aren’t very good, and in the short term, there’s not much hope to get better.
Miami went 21-8 in May and at the end of the month sat at 29-22, a half-game behind NL East leader Washington. But the Marlins won only eight of 26 games in July and fell to fourth place, 7 1/2 games out of first. Going into Wednesday’s games, they were in a last-place tie with Philadelphia.
The fear is that Friday — when the Marlins return from an 11-game road trip to their taxpayer-funded, $634 million, retractable roof stadium — the fans won’t be there. Average attendance has been a little more than 28,000 per game this year — a huge upgrade over last season, when they barely averaged 19,000 per game.
But 28,000 fans — if you believe that many people are actually using their tickets — still represents only about three-quarters of the capacity of the new building.
Capacity in the new ballpark was held to 37,442 so it always would be full.
It’s not, and it certainly won’t be now. The Marlins had one year to get the city of Miami to buy what they were selling, and they failed, although it might not have been entirely their fault.
Bad luck, underperformance and a familiar sell-off already have turned off the Miami community to the baseball team they were supposed to love again — all of which should serve as a reminder that, no matter where they play, they’re still the same old Marlins.