Meet the Florida Marlins, er, Riddlers

The team is back for another year but questions abound

It must have felt more like open season than opening night for the Florida Marlins' new top brass this past Monday at Pro Player Stadium. Indeed so cold was the reception from the media and fans that new owner Jeffrey Loria and team president David Samson might have thought they were still north of the border with the Montreal Expos, the team Loria sold in order to buy the Marlins.

While Marlins players took turns in the batting cage and shagged fly balls prior to the game -- which, ironically, was against the Expos -- Samson fielded questions from reporters regarding the team's trade two weeks ago of Antonio Alfonseca, its popular and reliable relief pitcher. Without their former bullpen ace, the Marlins have blown two late-inning leads to the Philadelphia Phillies and Expos during the season's first week, coming home with a record of three wins and three losses.

"Look," explained the youthful Samson, "we'll take [an equal number of wins and losses] on the road all season. We're marketing patience." Loria, emerging from the firstbase dugout and drawing the crowd of notebooks and cameras, echoed Samson's sentiment. "We're going to take this season day to day," he said, leaning so hard on the hackneyed phrase one could almost hear it creak.

The tenth edition of the Florida Marlins should probably change its uniform from the traditional black and teal to something approaching the outfit worn by the Riddler on the old Batman television series: one covered from head to toe in question marks. The speculation is that the franchise, short on money, attendance, and civic support, is outta here after the season, on its way to Virginia or some other community with an itch for major-league baseball, or possibly into history, a victim of the contraction plan recently unveiled by major-league owners. (Believing the industry is suffering from oversaturation, team owners have agreed to consider eliminating two of the majors' 30 teams. The Marlins and Expos, perennial also-rans in terms of paid attendance, are likely candidates.)

That's off the field. On the field some believe the Marlins have enough talent to make a serious run at the playoffs for the first time since winning the 1997 World Series, a victory that was followed, unexpectedly, by the wholesale liquidation of the team's star players.

Hence the question that, as much as any other, will hang in the humid air over Pro Player this season: Will South Florida fans, famous for their indifference, still smarting over the team's dismantling four years ago, and suspicious of the new owner's intentions, embrace the Marlins, or will they stay away, afraid the fish will take their love and leave them?

On opening night the would-be Marlins faithful mostly do the latter. "On the [prep sheet] the Marlins gave us," comments Hal, an usher in the handicapped seating section just behind home plate, "it says they sold 24,000 tickets for tonight's game, but to expect only about 18,000 fans, not counting the walkups." The estimate is, roughly, half the size of the Marlins' previous smallest-ever opening-day crowd.

And the fans here are not happy. "This place has all the excitement of a used-car lot," exclaims one man with his son in tow. "They didn't even bother to print up programs. Can you believe that? No program on opening day!"

"Wait'll you go to the concession stand," offers another man, sitting close by. "I was just down there. They've got no pizza, no hot dogs. Nothing's ready. I said to them, What the hell have you guys been doing until now?'"

Hal and his ushering partner, Stanley, who have worked at the stadium for most of the Marlins' existence, take it all in stride, preferring to accentuate the positive. "Isn't it great to be out here?" asks Stanley, surveying the field. "I don't know why we didn't sell those out," the 78-year-old wonders, looking at the empty upper-tier seats around the park. "Those were only four dollars tonight."

Hal shakes his head. "I used to go to Ebbets Field all the time," he remembers. "Sometimes they'd have promotions where you could get in by showing a Popsicle stick or a bottle cap." Hal doesn't mention what everyone knows: Ebbets Field was torn down more than 40 years ago, after the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles.

"Hey, fellas!" shouts a man in a wheelchair, who like Hal is thinking back to happier days. "Remember the film of the '97 World Series? Right before Bobby Bonilla came up to bat in the seventh inning, you see some guy in a wheelchair saying, I hope he doesn't hit it on the ground because I can run to first faster than he can.' That was me!" He grins. "I saw all four [home] games of that World Series from this very spot."

Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett retires the Expos in order in the first inning and the crowd, what there is of it, responds with a loud cheer. "It's like everything else," observes Hal. "If they put a good team on the field, people will come."

On this evening the Marlins manage to put a good team on the field -- for the first three innings. In the top of the fourth Burnett and the Marlins surrender three runs to the opposition. "C'mon, let's hear it for the home team!" Stanley exhorts his section between innings. "We can come back."

For a minute it looks as if he may be right. In the bottom of the fourth, with two men on base, Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell hits a pitch down the left-field line, over the wall, for a home run. Except that after Lowell has already rounded the bases, seemingly tying the game, the umpires rule that it isn't a home run. Foul ball. Marlins skipper Jeff Torborg argues the call and is promptly thrown out of the game by the umps. The crowd rushes to his defense, or perhaps just takes the opportunity to vent its frustration at what may just be the saddest opening day anyone could have imagined, by hurling everything from Marlins refrigerator magnets -- handed out as a premium before the game -- to plastic beer bottles. It's an ugly and dangerous scene. Play is suspended for ten minutes while ballplayers scurry for cover and ground crews clear garbage from the field.

When the game resumes, Lowell completes his at-bat, grounding into an inning-ending and rally-killing double play. The Marlins will go on to lose big, 10-2. Stanley, who has seen it all before, is philosophical, if a little biased. "You know," he says, still thinking about Lowell's home-run bid, "it looked good to me."

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