Gone Fishin

Forgive the Cards if they're feeling a little flush right now. They've just taken three crucial games from their most hated rivals, and simultaneously risen from a tie atop the standings to a kingly three-game lead over the Queen City's Reds. It's a small pond in the National League, and we just benefited from a little catch-and-release.

Enter the Marlins, big game at one time, if sea critters can be called ‘game.' Florida is the last team to bring a championship, and some pride, to the National League. Heck, they're the last National League team to win a game in the World Series.

Their success does not come as a shock to their fans, who barely have time to pay attention to the ups and downs of this team. However, who can blame them? They live in one of the most boisterous great cities of the country. There is no other Miami, just as there is no other New York or Los Angeles. Miami, like all great cities, is home to a great many immigrant populations – Haitians, Cubans, retired New Yorkers and flying cockroaches just to name a few of the most prominent – and some astoundingly improbable architecture. None of Miami's pro teams play in the city proper. If they did, the stadium would have to be built of coral and teal-colored concrete, with mirrored glass corporate boxes and accents of fuchsia neon throughout. This is not the South, this is a cocaine-fueled fantasyland that even Walt Disney couldn't, or wouldn't, have dreamed up.

Miami has also bested the rest of the state of Florida in success on the professional sporting field. And that isn't even counting the high school and college football machines that dominate the Sunshine State, for they somehow retain the "amateur" status that we sports fans wear as blinders. Take the lone championship by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aside, and we see a huge gulf of losing and misery between Miami and the next nearest bastion of civilized sporting life, which I suppose looks like Atlanta, if we dim the lights and squint a bit. The Dolphins appeared and quickly dominated, setting the standard in 1972 by which all other football champions must be measured. The Heat spent a long time suffering from frigid play and a lack of star power, but solved both this past season and hoisted the nets, or cut down the trophy, or whatever it is they do in basketball aside from play dress-up with shiny suits. A hockey club of some kind plays there, which given that water has never naturally frozen in that city, is something of a miracle on its own.

None of those accomplishments compared to what this baseball team has done. The Marlins somehow broke every convention in baseball, the oldest, most aristocratic and most ruthlessly castedriven of all professional sports, winning two championships within ten years of enlisting. If the Mets' 1969 World Series victory was ‘miraculous,' what words are left to describe this double-barreled feat?

And yet, the Marlins are never mentioned in company with the league's storied champions. Their legacy is one of extremes – following each championship the team has been laid bare, brought to essentially the same point as in 1993, when they expansion-drafted their way toward destiny.

We catch them now at one of these dark times in their diurnal cycle.

Re-ju-ve-nate (v)

To make young again, restore to youthful vigor, appearance, etc.

This Marlins team arrives with more fresh young faces than a boy band tryout camp, and a total payroll less than the combined salaries of our firstand third-basemen. In fact, with our payroll, we could field their team six times over, but it's highly doubtful we would be able to reproduce their result: this riches-to-rags team is separated from the mighty Cardinals by less than six games in the standings.

These payroll cuts have been universally excoriated by the Babble-on sports networks as a sign of surrender, a team that can't, or won't commit to competing, and often cited by Selig and his minions as Exhibit A for moving or contracting the team. However, this rapid-fire cycle of renewal is a symptom, not a cause of the team's plight in Miami.

The Marlins' problem in short: despite the team's success, the fans have not flocked. In fact, they and their elected leaders are repeatedly scolded by King Selig for their lack of support, and His Eminence often dangles the franchise as bait for other hopeful metropolises.

But is it the team's fault for not signing massive contracts that couldn't be supported by paltry gate revenues? Or the players' fault for not bringing enough Jeter-esque "star power" to the field? To answer the first question, no. To answer the second requires a few more words.

Baseball, more than other sport, I believe, has its team's identities shaped not by the players on the field, but by the fans in the stands. Derek Jeter is a rare exception of a player who actually embodies the perfect selfimage of the Yankee fan – cocky as hell, but stoic and always up for the game, for the moment. That image of the perfect Yankee is one that has been molded by generations of Yankee fans, by the changing face of baseball itself in the city of its origins. Likewise, what were the Cubs but a reflection of the stumblebums in the bleachers skipping jobs (if they had them to skip) for a cheap pastime and cheaper beer? What are they now but a reflection of generations-long insecurity, overinvested in trying to erase that shame? The Boston Red Sox were once as high-strung as their fans, and transcended that only by declaring themselves "idiots" and shutting their ears to the naysayers within.

That the Marlins lack an identity says as much about their fans. They just aren't there to be defined.

Perhaps the game is simply too slow and too pastoral for Miamians, who appear to like their pursuits to have strong elements of speed and danger, whether they be racing cigarette boats, opening up nightclubs without the necessary kickbacks to the police, or catching hurricanes. Perhaps it's the lack of regional draw – most legal occupants within a hundred mile radius of the city are either swimming in the ocean, lazing in a federallyprotected swamp, or very, very slow drivers. Perhaps it's the phantom nature of the city's inhabitants – too many part-time residents who only appear in late fall and winter, much too late to invest in the boys of summer. Whatever the cause, the effect is paltry fan support for a team that is legitimately exciting, who has just swept a four game set from the Brewers, and is currently only 2 ½ games back in the Wild Card race.

Who are the Marlins?

So if the team's identity is to be shaped, perhaps these young players will have to help the fanbase recognize themselves. And truthfully, there's a lot to like here.

The lineup is anchored by Miguel Cabrera, back at third base after a sojourn in left. Cabrera epitomizes the kind of fearlessness and easy power that predicts fabulous wealth. His defining moment came in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, a pure rookie facing off against the Yankees, the best team of the decade, and Roger Clemens, the single-most fearsome pitcher of the generation. The Yankees had destroyed the Fish in games 2 and 3, and threatened to make the woeful Subway Series look relatively competitive by comparison. In the first inning, Clemens brushed him off the plate with some high cheese, trying to unsettle the kid. Couldn't be done. Cabrera got up and belted an authoritative home run to left to give his team a 2-0 lead in a game they would win 4-3. It was a blow not only against the Empire, but a wake up call for the throngs of transplanted Yankee fans that call the Miami area "home."

Cabrera anchors a lineup fronted by shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who was the bounty from the Josh Beckett trade with the BoSox. While Beckett has been a front-runner in the "most-homeruns- allowed" derby all season, Hanley has jumpstarted this potent young offense. Dan Uggla, a potential rookie of the year candidate at first base, has come from nowhere to become perhaps the best secondbaseman in the majors not named Chase Utley, and Josh Willingham has made the conversion from catcher to outfielder, and is putting up strong power numbers.

At 24 years old, Dontrelle Willis is the wise old man at the top of a surprisingly strong pitching staff, and subject to innumerable trade talks this summer, all of which the team has quashed. Josh Johnson is another strong rookie of the year candidate, vying for the ERA title for much of the summer, and Scott Olsen's ten wins rounds out the team's top three.

Contact: horton@stlouisgametime.com


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