MIAMI (AP) Long lines snaked through the concourse at Marlins Park on Saturday as fans waited for autographs, even from players who won’t make this year’s team.
The throng was enthusiastic and ticket sales were brisk at the team’s annual winter warmup, reinforcing the notion that franchise fortunes are on the rise.
”People are happy,” team president David Samson said, ”but we need to play baseball and win games. That’s what our plan is.”
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Saddled with small payrolls under thrifty owner Jeffrey Loria, the Marlins haven’t been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 2003. Chronic apathy took root, and they’ve finished last in the NL in attendance nine of the past 10 years.
But last season Miami improved by 15 wins to 77-85, and then drew a lot of attention in the offseason with a series of aggressive moves, most notably signing slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a record $325 million, 13-year contract.
Baseball took notice.
”There was a lot of surprise that it was the Marlins, that we were able to retain our superstar,” president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. ”I’m glad Giancarlo had belief in what we’re trying to do here, and I’m glad Jeffrey gave us the opportunity to make it happen.”
The Marlins’ national profile has changed, Samson said.
”When I look at Giancarlo Stanton as the face of our franchise, he’s also the face of baseball, having him here in Miami, which is a hugely important city for MLB because the globalization of the game is important,” Samson said. ”To me we are poised to become the epicenter of baseball, and that’s exciting.”
That prospect might seem improbable for a team accustomed to playing before home crowds of less than 10,000. And the last time the Marlins were a national cover story, they flopped – in 2012, when they moved into Marlins Park, spend heavily on free agents and lost 93 games.
To build a bandwagon, Samson said, the Marlins must become a playoff contender.
”The true magnet is winning, and we haven’t done enough of it,” he said. ”We haven’t really tested the theory of how it is to win in this ballpark and how it would impact attendance.”
Also yet to be tested is how much the Stanton deal eased acrimony toward Samson and Loria. Some South Floridians have pledged never to attend another game while Loria is the owner.
”There are people who may say that,” Samson said. ”And then they look at the promotions and the team we have, and realize there’s a train leaving the station and you want to be on it. And they’ll be on it. …
”Fans are embracing the Marlins. The story isn’t about Jeffrey or me anymore. It’s about what’s on the field.”
Season tickets sales are the best they’ve been since 2012, Samson said. And with spring training just under way, anticipation about the season stretches beyond South Florida.
Marlins caps are a common sight in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and even Cuba. The Marlins signed Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in the offseason, and as a result, at least 90 of their games will be shown on TV in Japan.
”We’re finally hitting the runway where we will take off to be an internationally celebrated team,” Samson said.
New first baseman Michael Morse sat in a suite overlooking the field and smiled at the prospect of crowds filling Marlins Park for a change. He’s a South Florida native who signed a $16 million, two-year deal with Miami because he sensed Loria and his front office were building a contender.
”As an avid Marlins fan growing up, there have been a lot of ups and downs with this organization,” Morse said. ”There have been a lot of moves where you’re shaking your head.
”But I know these guys want to win. And if we start winning, this place will be rocking.”