Troubles At Home
The Marlins are winning, but abysmal attendance signals an iffy
future in Miami
Marlins owner John Henry has built his career on eliminating
uncertainties. He made a fortune in commodities trading after
devising a formula to predict market behavior, and he wrote a
book detailing a system for winning at blackjack. But he's still
searching for a way to guarantee his $150 million wager that the
Marlins can succeed in Florida. "It's difficult without political
support," Henry says of his crusade to get his team a new
ballpark, without which, he argues, the Marlins cannot survive.
"And elected officials point to the lack of attendance as reason
not to support the stadium. It's a Catch-22."
South Florida fans, still stung by the dismantling that followed
the Marlins' 1997 World Series win, have been slow to embrace a
team that deserves their support. At the All-Star break the
Marlins, who had won seven of their last nine, were 45-43 (the
latest they've been above .500 since '97) and trailed the Mets by
only four games in the National League wild-card race. Florida
also had the league's third-best staff ERA (4.43) and the major
league leader in saves (Antonio Alfonseca, 28) and coleader in
steals (Luis Castillo, 36). "They're a good team," Mets manager
Bobby Valentine said after his team lost two of three to Florida
last week. "They're going to wreak havoc with people who play
them the rest of the year."
Still, the Marlins' average attendance of 14,741 was third-worst
in the majors before the break. Despite uncommonly cooperative
weather--there had been no rainouts and just three games delayed
by bad weather at Pro Player Stadium, compared with two
postponements and eight rain delays at the same point last
season--they had drawn 14 crowds of less than 10,000. The
much-anticipated series against the Mets attracted an average of
Even on those rare occasions when fans do show up, they're often
not there to see the Marlins. The players still bristle at the
memory of two games against Boston last month, when at least half
the crowd was on its feet with Florida trailing in the bottom of
the ninth, rooting for the Red Sox to win. "You see guys laughing
in the other team's bullpen," says Marlins outfielder Cliff Floyd
of the home field disadvantage. "It kind of hurts."
Manager John Boles hopes increased stability will bring fans back
to the ballpark. "A lot of our players are becoming more visible,
and when the fans see they're coming back next year and not being
traded, they'll start to say, O.K., it's safe to support the
Marlins." But that may not be enough, Boles acknowledges: "For us
to draw well, we have to be perceived as a real contender."
Henry says this team, which had an Opening Day payroll of $19.87
million, won't suffer the same fate as the much-higher-priced
1997 team. Yet, hamstrung by a stadium lease that grants the
Marlins little revenue from luxury suites, concessions and
parking at Pro Player, neither can he afford to increase payroll
by much. "If attendance doubled to 30,000, we could probably
afford a payroll of around $30 million," says Henry. "That's
still not enough to compete in the National League East."
With plans for a new park stalled--Florida governor Jeb Bush, who
in April quashed the team's proposal to raise stadium money with
a tax on cruise-ship passengers, last month signed a bill
creating a nine-member authority to plan how to pay for a
stadium--the Marlins are left between an ugly past and an
uncertain future. "We get down, especially when we come back from
a big road trip and 8,000 people are in the stands," says Floyd,
"but maybe come August, if we're in the wild-card race, they'll
come out to see us."
Braves' Kiwi Comer
Fast Climb from Fast-Pitch
The dugouts for Sunday's Futures Game--the annual All-Star weekend
matchup between top U.S. and international prospects held this
year in Atlanta--overflowed with draft picks and high-priced
signees, players whose dreams of making it to the major leagues
have been fueled by stardom at virtually every level they've
played. Then there was Braves prospect Travis Wilson, the World
Team's starting second baseman. "I had never touched a baseball
or stepped on a baseball field before the Braves talked to me,"
says Wilson, 23, who plays for the Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans
of the Carolina League and is the only New Zealander playing pro
baseball in the U.S. "If someone told me three years ago I'd be
playing in an all-star game, I'd have thought he was kidding."
The Braves spotted Wilson in 1996 while he was starring at second
base for New Zealand's national softball team in the fast-pitch
World Series in Midland, Mich. When he returned to his hometown
of Christchurch, he got a call from Phil Dale, Atlanta's
Australia scout, asking him to work out. After an infield session
and a turn in the cage, Dale offered Wilson a contract. "In two
weeks I went from being one of the world's best fast-pitch
softball players to one of the worst baseball players," says
Wilson hit .215 for the rookie league Danville Braves in 1997,
his first season as a pro. He hit .323 for Danville and led the
Appalachian League with 25 doubles the next year, however, and
last season he hit .309 with 11 home runs and 63 RBIs in 90 games
at Class A Macon before breaking his wrist in July. This year,
through Sunday, he was hitting .275 with nine homers for the
Pelicans, a higher-level Class A team. He was named the Carolina
League Player of the Month for June after hitting .370 and
driving in 18 runs. "I could hit the fastball right away because
that doesn't get to the plate any faster than the ball does in
fast-pitch," says Wilson. "It took awhile to feel comfortable
hitting curveballs, though."
"He can hit, that's his strength," says Braves general manager
John Schuerholz. "He has great determination to be successful at
Wilson, who went 1 for 2 on Sunday, might have to beat out
another Futures Games participant to get back to Atlanta. U.S.
Team second baseman Marcus Giles is ahead of him in the Braves
system. "I know I'm behind in experience," says Wilson, "but I
feel if I keep playing, I'll make it to the major leagues."
July 16-18: A's at Rockies
Whose house will it be? The A's have made themselves at home just
about everywhere they've gone this season; only the White Sox
(30) and the Blue Jays (26) had more road wins at the All-Star
break than Oakland (25). The Rockies had the majors' best home
record (28-9) and were hitting .358 and averaging 9.4 runs per
game at Coors Field. Don't expect the A's to be cowed, though.
They had scored 6.6 runs per game on the road--a full run more
than they'd averaged in Oakland--and had hit .282, 29 points
higher than at home.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO With 19 homers and 53 runs, Preston Wilson has been a big part of Florida's first-half success.
the HOT corner
Astros leftfielder Moises Alou said last week that he would
consider waiving his no-trade clause if Houston arranged a deal
to his liking, but he also made a case for why he should not be
moved. "It's going to be a big mistake if they trade me," said
Alou, who's making $5.25 million this season. "Guys like me, who
can drive in runs, are going for $10 million to $12 million. I'm
fairly cheap for what I bring to the table."...
One sign that the Indians' offense isn't getting the respect it
once did: Through Sunday, Cleveland had drawn nine intentional
walks, fewest in the majors. Last season they received 41, the
American League's second-highest total....
Several Mariners were angered by the team's sudden--and
unexplained--firing of Safeco Field's head groundskeeper, Steve
Peeler. "It was rough out there, but it's a new field, and you
expect those things," said Seattle rightfielder Jay Buhner,
referring to portions of the outfield grass that have been
replaced by sod patches. "It wasn't Steve's fault." Added
shortstop Alex Rodriguez, "I am deeply disappointed in this
decision, as are a lot of my teammates. Safeco's infield is the
best infield I ever played on."...
Mets manager Bobby Valentine says the fact that New York second
baseman Edgardo Alfonzo was the National League's backup
All-Star shortstop speaks volumes about the league's depth at
short. "It tells you what teams are made of at that position,"
says Valentine. "No one deserves to win a Gold Glove right now."