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Marlins Fever


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Marlins fever sweeps Miami again


Memories of '97 championship rekindled


By Alan Snel



MIAMI -- After the Marlins' champagne corks popped and the wild-card celebration hangovers ended, Alina Diaz's sign at her Pro Player Stadium box seat said it all: "Bring on the Giants."


So, the resuscitated Florida Marlins -- ridiculed for feeble attendance in 2002 and sporting a won-loss record that was 10 games under .500 back in May -- packed their wild card flag and flew to San Francisco on Sunday night to take on the defending National League champs in a best-of-five division series.


"I'm a teacher and even the kids in the schools are following the games," said diehard fan Diaz, of Kendall, who was holding her placard at her first-level seat behind first base. "I'm not a fair-weather fan. The players have hung in there all season and we have to hang in there with them, too."


Indeed, the last weekend of the 2003 season was a love affair between a ball club written off for dead only a year ago and born-again Marlins fans, who scrounged the bottom of their bedroom drawer to retrieve their faded 1997 World Series champs T-shirts.


The first pitch was still more than three hours away, but 10:20 a.m. Saturday wasn't too early for a beat-up van painted in teal and sprouting Marlins flags out of both side windows to pull into Pro Player Stadium's mammoth parking lot.


In fact, hundreds of delirious Marlins fans were back at the football stadium-turned-ballpark this past weekend to soak up the playoff fever that turned the Marlins infield into a mass celebration pit only 12 hours earlier.


This team is very different from the 1997 champion Marlins, which had a pricey payroll that allowed former owner Wayne Huizenga to stock a lineup with veteran players. The young 2003 squad is already two owners removed from the 1997 titlists and has a $50 million payroll that's less than a one-third of the powerful New York Yankees.


Attendance bottomed out in 2002 after John Henry sold the team the year before to buy the Boston Red Sox. The Marlins attendance was second to last in the majors last year.


"Basically, the team was in a comatose state. Now we're fighting for the World Series," said Julius Brown, 39, of Hallandale, who was peddling Marlins black and teal ball caps outside the parking lot fence. "The crowds have been phenomenal this last week."


Ten years ago, when the Marlins were born, the franchise started by Fort Lauderdale billionaire Huizenga drew a staggering 3 million fans to suburban northwest Miami-Dade County during their inaugural season. The club still was averaging an impressive 33,695 fans per game in 1994, when the players strike hit.


But the labor action and Huizenga's dismantling of the 1997 championship roster in 1998 crippled the fan base. The Marlins drew a pathetic 10,000 fans a game last year -- slightly more than 800,000 a year -- and ESPN's "SportsCenter" mocked the Marlins by playing the sounds of crickets during their game highlights last season.


It took a bunch of young and talented players who were mere teenagers when the franchise was created to rekindle the kind of enthusiasm you see at college football games. Attendance is well over a million this season.


"I caught a lot of flak for dressing like this when we were losing," said super fan Ernie Gorwood, 42, of Fort Lauderdale, a Broward County Fire Rescue worker who donned teal and black paint and head-to-toe clothing at games. "Now you can't use losing as an excuse not to come out."


While the New York Mets and Marlins played a pair of weekend games that had the feel of an exhibition match in light of Friday night's wild-card clinching, fans tapped into a palpable buzz that hasn't been around the stadium since 1997, when another wild-card Marlins club beat the Giants, Braves and Indians in succession to set off an October celebration in South Florida.


Charlie Maurer traded in his Arizona Diamondbacks cap for a crisp, new 10-year anniversary Marlins cap at the stadium "conversion" table, where fans swapped their ball caps of other teams in exchange for the Marlins hat. Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles caps were traded in and fans sported wide smiles with their new Marlins headgear.


"We've been coming all year and even during the summer, the stadium was empty," said Maurer, who lives in Taramac. "We would come and get any great seat we wanted. Now you got lines everywhere."


Some fans would welcome the Boston Red Sox as a World Series opponent since Sox owner Henry used to run the Marlins. But one usher would love to see the New York Yankees come to town.


"If the Yankees come here, fans would rock this place. It would be a beauty," said usher Moses Lima Adin, a Fort Lauderdale resident who is from San Francisco but will root for the Marlins when the South Florida Nine takes on superstar Barry Bonds and the Giants this week. "These days, the Marlins guys are playing with heart."

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oh definitely. It is absolutely horrible how terrible their Marlins coverage is. Heck, the only reason I read the paper instead of just reading stuff online, is for the local high school sports...and that coverage blows too.


They are on the bandwagon...I bet they feel real special being the last to jump on. I guess it helps us though.

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