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Back to Base

Lookin' good, Jeff. (Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)
Lookin' good, Jeff. (Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)

Many Mets fans have followed the Marlins' misery with fervent schadenfreude, myself included. (We haven't had much else to cheer lately.) After a miserable first half that not even the injection of Carlos Lee could turn around, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, and Omar Infante have been dealt to the four winds, with Josh Johnson rumored to go next. If the Marlins' recent stab at relevance was a TV series, its total running time would have slotted somewhere between Cop Rock and The Hat Squad.

Anyone surprised by this turn of events has either a painfully short memory or just awoken from a decades-long cryogenic sleep. The only real shocker is that anyone was fooled by Jeff Loria's act this offseason. Many media members and fans were, however, and most of the reactions to these trades--whether angry or Nelson Muntz-y--are the product of people having felt duped.

As counterpoint, less impassioned observers have argued that the Marlins shouldn't be blasted for these moves, that this is precisely what a team in the Marlins' position should do: cut losses, trade away pieces of value, and plan for the future. Matthew Pouliot argued as much at Hardball Talk, as did Dave Cameron at Fangraphs, while Sky Kalkman had a series of the tweets that took the same perspective.

Absent any other factors, I would agree that the Marlins' spate of trades are a reasonable reaction to their current state. You could even argue that what Miami has done barely qualifies as a fire sale. If any other team made the same offseason moves as the Marlins, only to struggle all season and wave the white flag at the trading deadline, the response would be far different.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, however, and the Marlins are not any other team. This "fire sale" makes sense in pure baseball terms. Contextualized in the history of the team, however, it sets them back to square one.

When the Marlins made their big deals for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell this past winter, while chasing many other pricey free agents, this wasn't a mere spending spree. There was a clear subtext to this activity, a subliminal message to the Marlins' fans, both current and prospective: This team's culture has changed. The simple fact that the Marlins were serious players for Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson was meant to signal this change in a far more tangible way than could be expressed by prison-orange jerseys.

The Marlins weren't chasing a 2012 playoff spot so much as they were chasing a fanbase that, 20 seasons into their existence, has failed to materialize. The team has fans, of course, even if the phrase "Marlins fan" is still used as an easy punchline. What they don't have is a solid fanbase that is an entity unto itself, that cares deeply about what they do on and off the field, that will jam phone lines of the local sports talk radio station to yell about trades, that won't vanish even in the worst times.

Virtually every other team has this, no matter how little success they've enjoyed lately. Witness the Pirates. Their new stadium buzz wore off long ago, and they haven't enjoyed a winning season since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw to the plate. Now that they're contending again, Pittsburgh draws an average of around 26,000 fans per game--less than 2,000 fewer per game than the Marlins in their shiny new pad. Witness the Royals, who have been irrelevant for almost as long, but whose fanbase sprang to life when finally given something to cheer for, even if it was only an All Star Game. (And even if they didn't cheer so much as boo Robinson Cano for slighting one of their own.)

Before 2012, the reason most often blamed for the Marlins' failure to cultivate a fanbase was their charmless stadium, ill-suited to baseball and vulnerable to Florida's sudden summer downpours. (The team itself was the loudest voice saying so, mostly ) The logic behind this assertion: Since their homebase was such an undesirable destination, fans stayed away in droves, thus preventing families from forming bonds with the team and then going home to play catch in sepiatone sunsets. Or something.

Playing home games in Soilmaster Stadium suppressed attendance and the intangible feel-goods that go along with it. But in truth, the Marlins have failed to catch on with locals less for their facilities and more for the conga line of players that went through it.

Who is the most beloved Marlin of all time? Ponder that for a moment. Is there any player that the Marlins can lay claim to as theirs and only theirs? Or even mostly theirs? The answer might be Jeff Conine, and that's the Marlins' biggest problem. (No offense to Jeff.)

Fanbases do not form because of championships. These certainly don't hurt the cause, but if World Series rings were the answer to this question, the Marlins' two titles since 1997 should suffice, and clearly they don't. Fanbases form because fans form long-term attachments to groups of players they get to watch on a daily basis for several years. The Marlins have never had a sustained team with a coherent "feel" (for lack of a batter word) that a fan could latch onto. They've never had an "era." Their history is a flatine, broken up by a pair of tantalizing but ultimately fruitless spikes.

Ever since their surprise 1997 World Series victory, the Marlins had been baseball's version of Logan's Run: reach arbitration and adios. Many other small market teams have had to deal with this economic reality; Moneyball would never have been written were it not for this dilemma. These other teams, however, have fanbases who still feel they have some agency in what happens to their favorite franchise. The Marlins do not.

Part of this is due simply to bad timing. The Marlins' entire existence has coincided with the free agent explosion of the post-strike years, and they don't have history to draw on like the Pirates, Royals, or A's that will keep people coming to the ballpark or watching on TV.

This can't explain it all, however, because somehow, their expansion mates the Colorado Rockies have done a much better job of creating and cultivating a fanbase, mostly by hanging on to franchise players like Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Gonzalez. The Arizona Diamondbacks entered the scene later than the Marlins and tried to take a very Marlins-y route to relevancy when they loaded up on free agents for the 1999 season. And yet, Arizona also has done a much better job of weaving a thread through their brief history. The Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling/Luis Gonzalez D-Backs begat the Justin Upton/Stephen Drew/Chris Young D-Backs.

Even Tampa Bay has outstripped the Marlins in this department. Fans don't come out in large numbers to their badly located dome that looks like the inside of a coffee can, but a group of young talent, and the off-beat manager who leads them, has allowed the Rays to forge a real identity, one that remains intact despite the loss of homegrown players like Carl Crawford.

The Marlins don't have this. And I've to come to the conclusion this isn't bad luck or bad timing or economic hardship. The reason they don't have it is they've barely ever tried.

Creating a fanbase is hard. When the Mets arrived, they had the advantage of drawing on fans abandoned by the Dodgers and Giants. For every other expansion team, it takes years before such connections can be made. It often galvanizes around one iconic player or one magical season (Tony Gwynn and the Padres, 1995 and the Mariners), but it has to continue from there. We see a fanbase forming now with the Washington Nationals and their exciting young core of players. It's not simply that the Nats are winning, it's that fans have 1) seen most of these players develop at the major league level for several years, and 2) have a reasonable expectation that they're see them play for many years more.

Washington's transformation took nearly eight seasons, though, and that's on the short end of the scale. Ironically, Washington wouldn't even exist if Jeff Loria hadn't destroyed another franchise, the Montreal Expos. We know Loria can tear down a fanbase, and it's become crystal clear that he hasn't the patience, ability, or even the desire to build one. As we've seen with the Mets, a fanbase will tolerate losing, incompetence, and even Ponzi schemes, but it will never forgive the sin of not trying.