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A Long Road: Loria and the Fish

Ramp

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credit: Hal Bodley at usatoday.com
MIAMI ? Displayed prominently amid an impressive assortment of Florida Marlins memorabilia is a framed 1991 letter from former National League President Bill White to Wayne Huizenga. The letter tells Huizenga he's been awarded a major league baseball franchise.

In another glistening trophy case, across the carpeted hall in the lobby of the executive suite at Pro Player Stadium, rests the Marlins' World Series trophy, won in 1997.

As I waited for current Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria to appear, the thought occurred to me those two artifacts represent the two most memorable moments in this troubled franchise's history ? the day the franchise was born and the ultimate keepsake for which every team plays.

You can argue the third moment, when Huizenga, in a fit of disgust for not getting a new stadium, ripped apart the '97 championship team in baseball's most celebrated fire sale, belongs up there with the other two. There's a strong belief within baseball the White letter should never have been written. Baseball has struggled here, as well as across the state in St. Petersburg where the Devil Rays also have been a huge disappointment.

Don't mention this to Loria. He's determined to reverse the trend and make baseball in South Florida successful. He refuses to talk about mistakes of the past.

"We're reconnecting with the fans," Loria says. "We're ready to compete. We're an aggressive bunch here, on and off the field. We're convinced we're putting a good product on the field."

A year ago the New York art dealer was in the middle of baseball's most bizarre game of musical chairs.

* John W. Henry, who followed Huizenga as Marlins owner in 1999, purchased controlling interest in the Boston Red Sox.
* Loria, who failed to turn the Montreal Expos into a viable franchise, sold that team to Major League Baseball. With financial aid from MLB coffers, he took over the Marlins.

The transactions weren't completed until the start of spring training, which created chaos. In fact, as late as February, manager Jeff Torborg didn't know whether he'd be wearing a Montreal or Florida uniform.

Loria packed the front-office organization he'd assembled in Montreal and moved it en masse to Florida.

"Last year was hectic," says Loria, who oozes with confidence. "We came to Florida because we really wanted to be here. We see this as one of baseball's marquee cities with huge potential. Pure and simple, we're the guys who are going to make this franchise a long-term success."

At just about every spring training stop players and managers mentioned the Marlins as a team to watch out for this year. Their young players, especially pitchers, are as good as most teams have. And Loria complemented the young players when he signed All-Star catcher Pudge Rodriguez, a free agent, for $10 million.

"We've built this team around pitching, speed and defense," Loria says. "Flamethrowers are the envy in our league. We get calls all the time about Beckett, A. J. Burnett, Brad Penny. We're not going to trade them."

In the opener Monday, the Philadelphia Phillies took advantage of errors to build an 8-0 lead but were forced to hold off the Marlins who closed the gap to 8-5.

"They have a nice lineup," says Phillies manager Admin Bowa. "Even when it was 8-0, I wasn't comfortable. I knew they'd come at us."

The Marlins lost 8-2 in the second game but rebounded on Thursday, blasting three home runs and ripping the Phillies 8-3.

Of more importance is the attendance. The opener was announced as a baseball sellout of 37,137. The second game drew 10,534 and Thursday afternoon's crowd of 14,585 was encouraging. In previous years the drop-off after opening day has been much greater. Only the Expos drew fewer fans last year than the 813,111 who watched the Marlins.

When Loria gained control of the team, rumors were rampant he'd ultimately move the franchise to another city, such as Washington, D.C., and reap a big profit.

"I think we've put those rumors to rest," he says. "We're working hard to build the franchise into a source of community pride. A year ago we started with several hundred season tickets. This year we're over 5,000."

A Yale grad who grew up in New York City as a Yankees fan, Loria is sugar-coating the situation. He has an uphill battle rebuilding fan interest.

Huizenga and Henry gave up because they couldn't get a domed stadium. Loria also wants a new stadium but refuses to alienate fans by bad-mouthing Pro Player, the cavernous football park built for the Dolphins. "We don't get rainouts here, we get delays," Loria says.

David Samson, Loria's stepson and Marlins president, remembering his days at summer camp has devised what Jeffrey calls "rainy day activities. When there's a delay there are activities for the kids and the fans."

To salute our armed forces Loria has created a "Stars and Stripes Program" which provides free admission for anyone in the service.

Loria keeps talking about "reconnecting with the fans." The best way to do that may be just what they did Thursday: winning games.
 

Hotcorner

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Yep, winning is job #1.

But letting people from the armed services free into games, as well as all the kids they brought in for last night's game are two excellent steps.
 

orisha

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bringing in kids is deffinitely an important step. also working with little league baseball is. it helps to create a future fan base, it creates tradition. those kids will always remember they experiences watching the marlins games and 15 years from now and beyond will probably be regular fans who would purchase season tickets or attend 20+ games a year. I think the loria administration has taken the steps in the right direction to bring people to the stadium. We won't be the yankees or the bosox, but 20k+ a game is not an unrealistic goal for next year or so, and that would be a great improvement. let's all pray and hope for the best.
 

Das Texan

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bringing in kids is deffinitely an important step. also working with little league baseball is. it helps to create a future fan base, it creates tradition. those kids will always remember they experiences watching the marlins games and 15 years from now and beyond will probably be regular fans who would purchase season tickets or attend 20+ games a year.
BINGO!
 

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