Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Absurd Allure of Miami Marlins Baseball

Marlins Park, a monument to absurdity.
There is something morbidly fascinating about the Miami Marlins, baseball's strangest and most anarchic team. 

They play in a cavernous, lurid stadium with no baseball tradition; wear loud, unconventional uniforms that assault your eyeballs; and possess, in Jeffrey Loria, a controversial owner who is often one phone call away from blowing up the entire operation. 

But, strangely, there is a buzz and vibrancy to Marlins baseball quite unlike anything I've ever encountered; an overwhelming sense of happening which makes it impossible to switch off their games. More often than not, you'll feel almost guilty for watching such a capricious and soulless team, but there's nothing you can do. The Marlins, for better or worse, are must-watch TV, because wonderment and bewilderment are guaranteed in equal measure.

The team often resembles an elaborate circus more than a baseball club, but when, for instance, Giancarlo Stanton, the hulking franchise icon, steps to the plate, there's an implacable drama and an irresistible entertainment factor which, I'm rather ashamed to admit, excites us. 

Deep down, we know rooting for the Marlins is sacrilege, because they're just so un-baseball-like, but, aside from the tiresome gimmicks, it's impossible not to admire their play. How can any baseball fan not love watching Stanton, the ultimate freak of nature, or Jose Fernandez, an electric pitching prodigy? How can we not be excited by Dee Gordon, that scampering ball of raw dynamism, or Christian Yelich, a fine young outfielder with a princely air? 

The Marlins' exciting core.
There is a definitive energy and vitality to everything this team does, which gives it that most rare of qualities in baseball: a truly infectious personality. At the bottom line, this team is fun to watch, because you truly never know what is coming next. 

For instance, last week, Stanton joined an exclusive pantheon by hitting a ball entirely out of storied Dodger Stadium. Then, a few days later, he hit one even further back home at Marlins Park, giving him three homers of at least 465 feet in the space of five days. Quite frankly, I try to catch every Stanton plate appearance, because each time he steps into the box, there's a chance we'll witness some kind of obscene, previously unseen feat of brilliance.

Giancarlo has the most expensive contract in the history of North American sports, which, undersigned by such an impulsive owner, makes for a fascinating sideshow in itself. Moreover, assuming good health, the 25-year old slugger has a legitimate shot at 500 or 600 home runs before his career is finished, so there's a realistic sense of watching history in the making.

However, there's always a caveat with the Marlins, always some kind of restriction on hope. On a surface level, I enjoy watching their games. But, deeper, I know it's essentially pointless to invest anything stronger than distant interest in the team, because, sooner or later, Loria will grow impatient and knock it all down. Right now, the Marlins have assembled a legitimately great young core which, I believe, has a World Series championship in its future. Yet, all those years of development and building are constantly in jeopardy, due to the owners' thorough petulance.

Jeffrey Loria, a misguided owner.
We saw it in 1997, when Loria presided over one of the cruellest, most devastating fire sales in baseball history, totally destroying a championship club; and we saw it in 2012, when a host of marquee free agents were signed to seduce fans into buying season tickets at the new ballpark, only to be traded before the ink dried on their contracts. Hell, we even saw it this weekend, when Mike Redmond, a well-respected manager who steered Miami to a 15-win improvement last season, was unceremoniously fired and replaced by Dan Jennings, the team's General Manager, whose only coaching experience came three decades ago on a college team!

This is the septic and unstable environment in which the Miami Marlins operate, and it's a crying shame. It's sad that Stanton, the leading power hitter of his generation, looks set to play the majority of his career in the baseball abyss. It's discouraging that Fernandez and Gordon, two sensational young heroes, are tucked away in that hideous stadium, playing before 20,000 empty seats each night. It's galling that such a galaxy of stars is controlled by Loria, who, by design or complete myopia, makes it practically impossible for them to succeed.

Since forming in 1993, the Marlins have made the postseason only twice, but, on both occasions, they somehow managed to win the World Series. Therefore, despite being almost a century younger than some rival teams, Miami has won just as many championships as the Mets, Indians, Phillies, and Cubs. Moreover, they've enjoyed such young superstars as Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and, of course, the current crop. But, again, even this is tinged with pathos. Just imagine what the Marlins could have been, and what they could have achieved, if the meddlesome owner didn't have a maniacal need to interfere; if, for once, the team could luxuriate in managerial and philosophical continuity.

I've enjoyed the Marlins start to this season, with a lively and appealing brand of baseball making for terrific entertainment. I even began to consider the team possibly venturing back to the postseason for the first time in twelve years. But, then, Loria got mad, and it reminded me anew why, essentially, Miami baseball is a tragic tale destined for eternal damnation. By making such a ludicrous appointment of manager, the owner has basically killed off another season of Marlins hope, wasted another season for a core of tremendous players, and found yet another way to transform his team into the foremost laughingstock in baseball. 

It's the same old story. 

It's why nobody will ever take the Marlins seriously.



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