Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton holds his head after straining… (Joe Rimkus / Associated…)
This weekend's series between the Dodgers and the Miami Marlins matches last-place teams that took wildly divergent routes to the cellar.
New Dodgers ownership splurged for a star-studded roster and the highest payroll in baseball — a $230-million collection of talent that has produced the worst record in the National League West. And yet the Dodgers, despite a 13-20 record before Friday, lead the major leagues in attendance.
Meanwhile, after loading up on high-priced free agents to attract fans to his team's new ballpark in 2012, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria gutted his roster by season's end. The starless Marlins arrived at Dodger Stadium with a 10-25 record, the worst in the National League.
"New ballpark, new players, spent a lot of money and we just didn't play well," Larry Beinfest, the Marlins' president of baseball operations, said this week. "It didn't look like it was going to turn around so we made some tough decisions."
The backlash in Miami has been predictable.
Marlins fans, irate at Loria, have stayed away from $634-million Marlins Park, which reportedly will cost taxpayers $2 billion over the next 40 years.
After drawing 2.2 million fans last season, the Marlins have averaged fewer than 19,000 a game, last in the NL. Sales of season tickets reportedly dropped from 12,000 to 5,000. On Wednesday, the Miami Herald reported that the upper bowl of the stadium would be closed for some weeknight games.
Requests to interview Loria and team President David Samson, Loria's stepson, for this story were declined through a representative of a public relations firm.
As he watched players stretch before a game this week against the Padres in San Diego, Beinfest acknowledged the criticism that has been heaped upon the franchise.
"We understand some of the disdain right now," he said.
But Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett, who started his career with the Marlins and starred in their 2003 World Series championship run, does not question Loria's desire to win.
"Trust me, Jeffrey Loria does not want to lose," Beckett said. "I know him very, very well. He's not that kind of guy. I think if he knew he could win he would spend as much money as he had to. I really believe that."
Many fans, apparently, do not.
During their inaugural season in 1993, the Florida Marlins drew three million fans to Joe Robbie Stadium. Before last season, they had eclipsed the two-million mark only one other time — and that was 16 years ago.
In 1997, a team led by manager Jim Leyland drew 2.4 million fans en route to winning the World Series.
Original owner Wayne Huizenga sold the team to John Henry in 1999. Three years later, Loria, owner of the Montreal Expos, bought the Marlins as part of transactions that included Henry buying the Boston Red Sox.
In 2003, manager Jeff Torborg was fired after a slow start and Jack McKeon guided the Marlins to their second World Series title. The Marlins, however, ranked 28th among 30 major league teams in attendance that year.
The Marlins ranked last in the league 2011, but hopes nevertheless were high for a team that changed its affiliation from Florida to Miami for the 2012 season.
With its retractable-roof, air-conditioned stadium set to open, the Marlins went on a spending spree, bringing in manager Ozzie Guillen and high-priced free agents such as shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle.
But the Marlins stumbled on and off the field almost from the start. Guillen incensed the team's Cuban fan base when he was quoted in a Time magazine story saying "I love Fidel Castro" and other remarks.
Guillen, a native of Venezuela, apologized, but the team suspended him for five games.
On the field, the Marlins failed to win consistently. In late July, the purge began: pitcher Anibal Sanchez and infielder Omar Infante were traded to Detroit for prospects. A few days later, shortstop Hanley Ramirez was shipped to the Dodgers in a four-player deal.
As the team stumbled through the summer, it got worse. In September, the Miami Herald quoted former manager Fredi Gonzalez saying, "There's not a manager dead or alive that Jeffrey thinks is good enough. Not Connie Mack, not anyone."
The next day, Loria said Gonzalez was "classless." The day after that, during a radio interview, Bell said of Guillen, "It's hard to respect a guy that doesn't tell you the truth or doesn't tell you face to face."
The Marlins finished 69-93.
The housecleaning continued in late October, the Marlins trading Bell to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bell, who went from 43 saves with San Diego in 2011 to 19 with the Marlins, will not publicly begrudge Loria. "He didn't tell me what pitches to throw," Bell said Thursday before the Diamondbacks played the Dodgers. "I'm the one who left the pitches up and didn't pitch well."