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THE WORLD SERIES | Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Marlin Perkings

Florida fans have rediscovered their love for the home team

October 21, 2003|Ross Newhan

MIAMI — Mike Lowell, the Florida Marlin third baseman, can be sure about one thing in tonight's Game 3 of the World Series. He won't be able to hear a cellphone ring in the upper deck, as he often could before the bandwagon began making regular trips to Pro Player Stadium recently, raising the noise level and helping fill the empty seats.

"You could not only hear the ring," Lowell said, "it was so quiet you could almost hear the conversation."

He may be reaching a bit, but first baseman Derrek Lee recalled one game amid the sounds of silence in which a fan behind the first base dugout was conversing with a fan behind the third base dugout.

"They were shouting because of the distance," Lee said, "but they otherwise had no problem conducting a sensible conversation."

No, Lowell, Lee and the Marlins won't be able to do any eavesdropping tonight.

Nor will there be room for a fan to carry in a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan, as one did a few years ago to keep him company in the otherwise empty upper deck.

A capacity crowd of more than 65,000, similar to those that attended three games in the league championship series, will welcome the National League champions back to Pro Player.

Owner Jeffrey Loria won't be tempted to do what then-owner John Henry did during an apathetic and rain-drenched doubleheader in September 1999.

Henry introduced himself to every fan in the stadium -- "I counted 91 people, and I think eight of them were scouts," he said at the time -- and led them down to the $110 seats behind home plate.

Now, the Marlins are something of a hot ticket again, slowly catching fire at the gate during the late stages of their unexpected wild-card run as cautious fans set aside a long-simmering sense of betrayal over then-owner Wayne Huizenga's sell-off of his 1997 World Series winner to jump on the 2003 bandwagon.

How far will it roll?

What does the resurgence mean to the long-term viability of a franchise that has had three owners in five years, that surpassed only the homeless Montreal Expos while drawing 1.3 million this year despite producing the best record in baseball since May 23, and that has never come back to the club-record 3 million of its first season in 1993?

There are no guaranteed answers.

Loria wants what Huizenga and Henry wanted -- a retractable-roof baseball stadium that will boost revenue and allow him to escape the landlord's onerous lease.

Who is the landlord?

The infamous Huizenga himself, owner of the Miami Dolphins and Pro Player Stadium, who receives an estimated 62.5% of the Marlins' parking revenue, 30% of profits from concessions and $2 million a year from the state as a cut of the $60 million in tax incentives he initially received to base the Marlins in Miami.

"I assume our landlord is very happy that we've made it to the World Series," said club President David Samson, Loria's son-in-law.

He referred to the fact that Huizenga will continue to take his bite out of every game while refusing to renegotiate a lease that must be renewed for 2005 by Dec. 31.

"He's operated the way any landlord would operate who has all the power," Samson said. "We're not complaining. Pro Player is our home, and we're working on ways to increase the revenue within the constraints of the lease."

He and Loria also are conducting back-channel efforts in regard to a new ballpark but are reluctant to talk about it, privately thinking that Huizenga and Henry turned off fans and politicians by continually hammering the issue.

"The renewed public acceptance has certainly helped efforts to secure the franchise's future," Samson said, "and the success of the team has helped ignite the reengagement process while not completing it.

"Obviously, we have to increase our revenue to a point where we can be competitive in the market on a yearly basis and competitive as we should be given the size and growth of the [South Florida] market."

All of that, of course, is code for the need for a new stadium, and all Samson would say in that regard is that he now believes the "feasibility is very high."

Commissioner Bud Selig put it another way, saying Loria and Samson are "quite optimistic, and I hope they're right. They believe [the club's current success] is really helping them to get the stadium they obviously need."

Sources familiar with the situation say that the Marlins are willing to commit $100 million to a project that would probably cost four times that.

Otherwise, it's difficult to say where the optimism comes from.

The state is not expected to help, and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, talking about the team's current success, told the Miami Herald: "From an emotional perspective, I think it helps. People are excited and supportive of the team.

"You ride the wave of good feelings and goodwill. But from a financial perspective, the numbers don't change."

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