Pro Baseball Struggles to Make a Latin Connection in Miami

Despite World Series fever in south Florida, the area was lukewarm on the Marlins before the postseason began.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the Florida Marlins baseball club was founded in 1993, team officials forecast that south Florida's Latin influence would make Miami a baseball mecca. While the Atlanta Braves may well remain "America's Team," they said, the Marlins would be the "Team of the Americas."

On the evidence of the first two games of the World Series, they were right: More than 67,000 fans packed Miami's Pro Player Stadium for each game, and the Marlins' starting lineup included some of the most talented players from Latin America.

But appearances can be deceiving.

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Despite good showings at the ticket office during the postseason, Miami hasn't yet become hooked on the Marlins. The Marlins' average attendance during the regular season was 29,555 - a 36 percent increase over last year - but not enough to recoup the losses of free-spending owner H. Wayne Huizenga. He brought $89 million of talent to Miami in the off-season, and team officials estimate that by the end of this, their most successful season, the organization will be $30 million in the red.

It is a cautionary tale in an era of high-stakes sports that even a "can't miss" market may not be able to draw enough fans to pay for a championship-caliber team.

Mr. Huizenga is treating the Marlins' financial losses this year as a massive gift to the south Florida community. But his generosity has limits, and efforts are already under way to sell the team - unless the bottom line improves. And that means attracting more fans.

The exposure of this World Series against the Cleveland Indians could boost the team's fan base. But it is unclear whether it will be enough to push the team into the black.

The Marlins' fan problems are a mystery to many. While the Marlins' attendance has been respectable, it has languished well below the pace set by the Colorado Rockies, the other expansion team that joined Major League Baseball in 1993. The Rockies have averaged almost 50,000 fans a game since their inception.

While setting goals that high might be unrealistic, the area's large, baseball-loving Cuban-American population seemed to augur huge gate receipts from the start.

But that hasn't happened.

At least not yet.

Instead, the team has received a lesson in fan loyalty. In south Florida, where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else, most baseball fans had a preexisting attachment to another major league team. For many in south Florida that team was, and still is, the New York Yankees.

Alonzo Travino moved to Miami from New York when he was two years old. Today, the ninth-grader lives fewer than 10 miles from the Marlins' stadium and watches Marlins games on television. But deep down he says he's still a Yankees fan.

And he's not alone. "It is a 50-50 chance to have Yankees fans become Marlins fans," says Ernesto Soto, a college sophomore. "In Florida, we lack something that a lot of big cities have: There is no such thing as true fans anymore."

arlins executives hope Mr. Soto is wrong.

In an effort to make sure that's the case, the Marlins have launched a campaign to recruit talented players from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Marlins failed to draft many Hispanic ballplayers in their first few years. But today, the team roster reads more like the membership of a United Nations commission than a United States baseball team. It includes pitcher Alex Fernandez, a Cuban-American from Miami; rookie pitcher Livan Hernandez, who defected from the Cuban national team; third baseman Bobby Bonilla of Puerto Rican heritage; shortstop Edgar Renteria of Colombia; centerfielder Devon White of Jamaica; and three players from the Dominican Republic, leftfielder Moises Alou, and pitchers Felix Heredia and Antonio Alfonseca.

Unlike most other cities with Major League Baseball teams, Miami has ready-made cheering sections for each of those players.

"Miami is a transnational city and these players represent the largest sectors of the city," says Eduardo Camarra, a Latin affairs expert at Florida International University. "Each of these communities has a hero in each of these guys."

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