(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
Baseball teams, like works of science fiction and political campaigns, operate on the willing suspension of disbelief. The tagline for 1978's Superman: The Movie was, "You'll believe a man can fly." They weren't even being cute. Flying was pretty much the whole ballgame—if you didn't believe that, the performances of Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, and the rest wouldn't much matter. Similarly, you'll either believe a baseball team is actually trying to compete or you'll realize that they're just out to showcase the visiting team and take your hot dog money.
This week in 1997, the Florida Marlins were in the process of destroying that belief as it pertains to their team. Your faith in the discernment of the average Miamian might be restored somewhat by the fact that despite a few ownership changes and myriad managers—depending on how you count interims and repeats, Don Mattingly will be the 14th in 24 years—the Marlins have never regained that trust.
The 1997 season would be the Marlins' fifth since joining the National League in the 1993 expansion. The club was owned by H. Wayne Huizenga, who had made his fortune hauling garbage and then expanded into businesses from Blockbuster Video to the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers. The Marlins played at Joe Robbie (aka Pro Player) Stadium, which Huizenga also owned. It was a terrible venue for baseball, but Huizenga disliked it for other reasons: Those sweet ballpark bucks weren't going to the team. Of course, since Huizenga owned both team and ballpark and therefore could negotiate with himself, money that might have been applied to the Marlins' bottom line went to the separate corporation that owned the stadium. The Marlins might not have had big-market revenues despite playing in one of the country's larger metropolitan areas, but their bottom line would have improved significantly had Huizenga moved some revenues from one of his pockets to another.
Huizenga, though, had very good reasons not to go fumbling awkwardly around in his pants. If we can take a step back for a moment, you might remember a 2012 campaign speech by President Obama around the theme of "You didn't build that" which sparked a momentary backlash. This was 15 years after Huizenga had served as just one example of what Obama might have meant: Not only did you not build that, you didn't want to build it. You wanted us to build it, with "it" in this case being a new, baseball-only stadium for his team.
As a spectacularly rich guy who wanted a ballpark but didn't want to pay for it, it was very important for Huizenga to poor-mouth the Marlins. This would engender sympathy or a popular uprising ...or something; you know how it is with the sort of half thought-out plans that tend to trickle down from the owner's box. "Unless a new stadium is built, where luxury suite and all other revenue go directly to the team, which will enable the team to compete for the best players," Huizenga said later, the Marlins would not be successful.
Note the passive voice in that first clause: "Unless a new stadium is built." By who? Fans weren't supposed to think about that; they were just supposed to desire it, in the same way you desire a 50-inch television that's curved to replace your 50-inch television that isn't. What else might the city do with the people's money? Shh. Quiet your mind. These things are distractions from the pleasure of The Want.
Huizenga had an odd plan to stoke The Want: he'd win a World Series and then hit fans up for the ballpark money while they were enjoying the afterglow. He'd get them there by out-Steinbrenner-ing George Steinbrenner. Having already added free-agent starting pitchers Kevin Brown and Al Leiter in December 1995, the Marlins went on a shopping spree during the 1996-1997 offseason, signing free agents Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, John Cangelosi, Dennis Cook, Jim Eisenreich, and Alex Fernandez. Throw in manager Jim Leyland, lured away from the Pittsburgh Pirates at $1.2 million a year, and the Fish had committed over $90 million in a single winter. It doesn't sound like much now, when Clayton Kershaw personally has $215 million flowing into the bank account, but it was a lot then.
"It's a very big year for us," said then-team president Don Smiley as spring training began. "The idea was to put together the best team we could, get the manager we could get, win as many games as we can, and see if we can get the fans involved. And at the end of the year, we'll add it up and evaluate."
It worked, at least on the field. The Marlins improved from 80-82 in 1996 to 92-72. They didn't win the National League East, with first place then still on long-term lease to the Atlanta Braves, but they did take the wild card. Propelled by excellent pitching from rookie Livan Hernandez, who was himself aided by a strike zone about the size of Canada—Hernandez would pitch for another 71 seasons (approximately) and never came close to the 15 strikeouts he put up with umpire Eric Gregg behind the plate for NLCS Game 5—the Marlins swept Dusty Baker's Giants out of the NLDS, beat the Braves in a six-game championship series, and then defeated the Cleveland Indians in a seven-game slugfest of a World Series.
No new ballpark was immediately forthcoming, however. Huizenga claimed he lost $34 million in 1997 and moved to sell the team. In the interim, the fire sale began almost immediately. The Series ended on October 26. On November 11, Alou was traded out of town, leading a parade that ultimately included closer Robb Nen, Jeff Conine, Devon White, Charles Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Brown, Leiter, Bonilla, and more. The deletions left the team with one of the worst pitching staffs of all time. The Marlins crashed to the bottom of the NL East with 108 losses. The trades and their offspring did bring Derrek Lee and A.J. Burnett, who would have significant stays with the team. Lee was a cornerstone on the Marlins' next World Series winner, in 2003. But nothing was quite the same after.
"Everybody got used," Alou said on his way out the door. "I feel dirty." Should he have? One question in sports that is difficult to answer is if a team owes its fans consistency of effort. Hypothetically, fans might take one championship in their lifetime and feel like their team did right by them, even if the team goes on to lose 95 games a year for the rest of eternity. Hypothetically, but only hypothetically. If that were true, any Royals fan, say, 10 years old or older as of 1985 would be looking at this year's championship not as a return from 30 years of shameful wandering in a wilderness of shame and degradation, but as the purest gravy. You can check around KC, but one suspects you won't find many people with that attitude. They would rather the god of their desire be constant rather than come around only every so often like a periodic comet. They're human, in other words.
One-hundred years ago, Philadelphia A's co-owner/manager Connie Mack tore down a team that had won four pennants in five years so completely that they went 43-109 and dropped to last in baseball in attendance. Within 10 years the fans had forgiven and the team led the American League in attendance again. In the early 1930s, Mack again broke up a team that had won three straight pennants. He felt the fans were taking winning for granted. "The law of diminishing returns is unrelenting," he said. "Philadelphians will turn out in greater numbers to see their home team fight to become champions than they will to see them fight to remain champions." Mack was wrong. Attendance never did rebound, and his team wound up in Kansas City.
Between Huizenga and subsequent owner Jeff Loria, who has stripped the team twice more, once in the years after the 2003 championship and again when fans failed to respond to the new Marlins Park in what he felt were acceptable numbers, the Fish have reaped permanent disillusionment faster than Mack did. Marlins total attendance was never great, but they had three seasons of ranking fifth in the NL in their first five years, including 1997. Since then, they've more often been last or second to last, the former in nine of the last 10 seasons.
The Marlins lost 91 games this year, but they do have exciting young players in Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Dee Gordon, and Jose Fernandez. Many around baseball like to talk to about them as an up-and-coming team. They just signed manager Don Mattingly to a four-year contract, and good on them—he's a fine baseball man, if not exactly John McGraw on strategy. But even Mattingly gets the thing about the Marlins. "That was probably my biggest fear," Mattingly said at his introductory press conference regarding any hesitation he had in taking Loria's money. "Are they going to blow it up and start over?"
Of course they are. Believing in the Marlins is a sucker's game. Mattingly is being paid to play along and even he can't quite bring himself to suspend his disbelief. Everyone else has a choice—and they've already made it.