So. Time to take Marlins Park and: A) Disassemble it; B) Crate it; C) Sell It; D) Ship it to San Jose (or Oakland, or Portland, or San Bernardino, Austin/San Antonio/Round Rock, or – wherever).
Now that the Miami experiment is over (as forecast here a year ago next week, and reiterated here last June) and Hanley Ramirez, Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and the merely arbitration-eligible Emilio Bonifacio have either been offloaded in A Going-Out-Of-Business-Sale (or are about to be), the Marlins are officially the Montreal Expos of the 2010’s and baseball is unofficially dead in Florida.
Notice I did not write South Florida. All of it. Rays’ owner Stu Sternberg was already less than sanguine about getting significant scratch from the state and local governments for a new ballpark that is absolutely essential to his survival in Tampa/St. Petersburg. If he had any hopes left after the disastrously low crowds for the free ballpark the good burghers of Florida gave Jeffrey Loria, they have to be gone now and he has to be looking elsewhere.
There are all sorts of other implications if the Reyes/Buehrle/Johnson deal to Toronto is completed as advertised. Obviously, this revivifies a Toronto franchise that was already showing signs of being on the upswing last year and as far back as 2010-11. It sure knocks the price down for whoever is the Jays’ first choice for the manager’s job. It might make John Farrell a little remorseful. And it buries the Yankees in the American League East; there would now be at least three other teams in the division with more talent than New York. The prospects of Alex Rodriguez going to the lame duck Miami franchise (first reported blah blah blah here and blah blah blah ) might actually have increased, on the premise that Loria and MLB have to do something to make it at least look like they’re trying to field a product worthy of 2013 big league ticket prices).
But the biggest long-term implications are fairly simple: the franchise carousel, all but quiet since the upheaval of the 1953-72 era, will begin to spin again.
Miami has a slight chance of survival (that stadium is standing, and a mess of prospects can suddenly win a division – ask the Oakland A’s about that) but Tampa Bay is gone. One would assume that at the latest the season of 2020 opens without a Florida team in the majors.
Where do the Rays (and probably the Marlins) move?
Here are the top U.S. Metropolitan Areas without MLB teams ranked by population, on 2011 estimates drawn from the Official 2010 United States Census:
12. Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario CA 4,304,997
23. Portland OR/Vancouver WA 2,262,605
24. San Antonio/New Braunfels TX 2,194,927
25. Sacramento/Roseville CA 2,176,235
26. Orlando/Daytona Beach FL 2,171,360
30. Las Vegas 1,969,975
31. San Jose 1,865,450
32. Columbus OH 1,858,464
33. Charlotte/Gastonia NC 1,795,472
34. Austin/Round Rock TX 1,783,519
35. Indianapolis 1,778,568
36. Virginia Beach/Norfolk 1,679,894
37. Nashville 1,617,142
Nashville you say? Virginia Beach? Hahahahahahaha?
Not so fast. Every metropolitan area on this list is larger than Milwaukee and Riverside, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento are bigger than Cincinnati. There are certain practacalities here. All of Southern California is Dodger/Angel territory and the Magic Johnson group that just spent Eleventy Billion on the Dodgers isn’t going to give up claim on anything. Though Texas is a big place don’t tell that to the Rangers and Astros, who claim both the San Antonio and Austin zones. Columbus is Cleveland’s territory (unless it’s Cincinnati’s), Orlando would have at least some of the same problems as Tampa/St. Pete, and the Giants and Athletics are in their fifth different decade of arguing over San Jose.
So the Rays go to Portland and the Marlins to Sacramento? Not so fast.
You know who’d be 15th on the list – right between Phoenix and Seattle – if we made it of not American metropolitan areas but North American?
15. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Regional population: 3,824,221.
But wait, didn’t things go very badly in Montreal before? They certainly did, but not because of the city nor its love of baseball. Corrupt government and underfunded ownership and a betrayed fan base – all of them saddled with the greatest white elephant in the history of North American sports construction, Olympic Stadium. In every full season between 1979 and 1983 – even in that XXL Airplane Hangar – Les Expos drew at least 2,102,173 fans a year.
The peak total – 2,320,651 in 1983 – edged out the Cardinals for second place in National League attendance, and was just about a million more than the Mets drew in New York. It was about then that stuff started falling from the roof of the tribute to provincial graft, and star players started falling off the Expos’ roster. But make no mistake about it: Montreal supported baseball. As late as 1997 the Expos still brought in a million-and-a-half fans (more than the Mets or the Giants).
If all that could not be done in the ’90s and ’00s could be put together – a downtown stadium with government support, plus a well-run franchise making a long-term commitment – baseball’s second try in Montreal could be a triumph. And consider if it were the Rays fleeing north. Not only would Montreal get that well-run franchise, but it would suddenly find itself in a division with rivals from hated cities like Boston and New York…
Montreal and Toronto in the same division. Genius, I tells ya. Genius.
It’s a win-win. Unless you’re one of those few Florida baseball fans.
Oh yeah, I left out a fifth thing to do about the Marlins and Marlins Park: E) Ship Giancarlo Stanton separately. And while you’re at it, you might as well start wrapping uber-prospect Christian Yelich too.
The Miami Marlins have dumped all of Hanley Ramirez’s contract (“an original Eovaldi – how lovely”). They have traded Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez for a Detroit Tigers’ can’t-miss pitching prospect (how well did that work out when they offloaded Miguel Cabrera for Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin?). They threw Randy Choate overboard and might flip Carlos Lee. They are begging somebody to take Heath Bell off their hands. They might still deal Josh Johnson (update: there’s now even a rumor-let today about trading Jose Reyes).
But unlike when Wayne Huizenga did it in 1998 and 2004, owner Jeffrey Loria claims with a straight face that this is not a fire sale.
“It’s no secret I love [Ramirez],” Loria told Fox Sports and MLB Network reporter Ken Rosenthal. “He needs to have a fresh beginning, a new beginning … This is a very painful moment for me. But we had to do something.”
Uh-huh. The people who are having the “very painful moment” and who “need the fresh beginning” are Florida baseball fans. If any.
In the new stadium, the Marlins have averaged 28,397 fans per game, which is 12th in MLB in terms of percentage of capacity (that’s about three-quarters full). But a) it’s not as big as it seems (the Brewers have averaged 83% of capacity) and the raw numbers are below need, not growing, and disturbingly static during the most marketable moments. Since June 3rd, Miami has hosted 10 marquee games against divisional rivals Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, and three more against the Red Sox. They’ve only drawn even 30,000 fans on four of those dates.
The Marlins’ billion-dollar bet – that people would go to an area with no parking and little public transportation to go see a sparkly new ballpark and an all-star team – was failing even before the team began to stumble on the field. The sadness here is that I don’t know what you do with a great new ballpark that can’t draw enough customers to permit you to make money off it. Crate it and ship it to San Jose for the A’s? Airlift it to Montreal and try that again?
Of course the Marlins’ failure will kill the Tampa Bay Rays, too. Only a miracle would’ve given the state of Florida or the local governments the kind of political cover necessary to even chip in to a new baseball stadium (well, a baseball stadium) in St. Pete or Tampa. The Rays have excited an initially ambivalent fan base with a superior job of planning and growth and innovation. And their new loyal fans can’t figure out the equation. They’re a little hurt that the team expects them to pay to get into the park.
So Florida baseball, 20 years old, isn’t going to get much older – at least not as we know it now. The Marlins are stuck there, doomed to live forever in a mansion with no furniture. The Rays aren’t. They’re almost certainly going to have to move. It’s a shame, too, because in those two decades the two clubs have produced three World Series trips, which is exactly one less than the five California franchises have produced in the same span.
The other shame here is, it’s not as if some of us didn’t see this coming. This is the blog entry from last November 15th (and that was before they’d actually signed Reyes or Bell, and before Guillen’s Castro gaffe):
Miami In A Vice
They have gone out and spent the money on what looks like a fabulous and distinctive new ballpark.
They have gone out and spent the money on what is an often fabulous and alwaysdistinctive new manager.
They are evidently willing to go out and spend the money (“in the range of five years, $18-$20 million a year,” per Buster Olney on ESPN) on Jose Reyes and might be able to snare Albert Pujols as well.
They even went out and spent the money on rebranding themselves as a city, not a state, and on some decent looking new uniforms (although the basic premise of the attire struck me as an adaptation of the original 1977 Toronto Blue Jays’ unis, with orange substituted for powder blue).
And I think it will all end in disaster.
As the 20th season of Marlins baseball looms, there is still almost no evidence that South Florida is a major league baseball community, or that it wants or needs big league ball. The entire dynamic could be changed by the new roofed stadium, but the certitude about that – and the willingness to wager literally hundreds of millions of dollars on that certitude – is, to me, unjustified. With the caveat that I know from sopping-wet experience that Joe Robbie/ProPlayer/Whatever Stadium was a miserable place to watch a ballgame, I still think that it’s mortifying that the Fish averaged 37,838 fans per game in their inaugural season of 1993, and 33,695 in 1994 – and never came close to that figure again.
I mean, not close. The World Champions of 1997 played before an average house of 29,190. Otherwise they have had just five seasons of more than 19,007 paid admissions per game, and four that were below 15,766 a year.
Team president David Samson thinks some improvement on the squad and the ballpark will convert a city that has for two decades been saying ‘you fill me with inertia’ will suddenly convert into producing “30 to 35,000 every single game.”
This was a city that could not support AAA baseball in the ’50s, and never again tried higher than A-ball. And I don’t buy the idea that a high-priced indoor facility in Miami proper rather than it a remarkably hard-to-get-to corner of Fort Lauderdale is now going to entice 37,000 fans away from everything else the city offers, especially at night. Pujols and Reyes would be hard to resist. Then again the Marlins fans of nine seasons ago resisted the 2003 World Champions (except for 16,290 of them each game). I’m not even sure how a $95,000,000 investment in Reyes and lord knows how much in Pujols would translate into profitability or even break-even status.
Reyes alone will not do it – ask the Mets.
As if these doubts were not enough, late last night the impeccable Clark Spencer of The Miami Herald tweeted something to make Miami fans shiver:
Source: H. Ramirez is not at all pleased at prospect of changing positions if
#Marlins sign Reyes; the two aren’t the friends many portray.
When the Reyes rumors first started, Spencer had quoted Hanley Ramirez with words that bring honor to the role of wet blanket: “I’m the shortstop right now and I consider myself a shortstop.”
One can easily see where all this will go if a) Ramirez and Reyes squabble; b) Reyes gets hurts again; c) the Marlins don’t sign enough new talent to compete in a daunting division; d) the fans don’t show up; or e) all of the above, in any order you choose. When the ’97 Marlin World Champs did not yield a new stadium, 17 of the 25 men on the World Series roster were gone by mid-season 1998 and three more by mid-season 1999.
Imagine Jose Reyes being traded in a fire sale in the middle of 2013. Or Albert Pujols.