The taxi driver motioned to Marlins Park on the left and shook his head in disgust.
“They spent $1.2 billion to build that place, $1.2 billion, and it looks like a spaceship,” he said on the way from downtown Miami to the airport Wednesday afternoon.
The All-Star Game had been played there the night before. Seattle Mariner second baseman Robinson Cano’s 10th-inning home run gave the American League a dramatic 2-1 victory. That came on the heels of New York Yankee rookie right fielder Aaron Judge putting on an electric performance Monday night in winning the Home Run Derby.
“I bet you 90 percent people in this city could have cared less,” the driver said when it was mentioned that it had been a couple of interesting days inside the “spaceship.”
It is easy to wonder how many people in Florida care about Major League Baseball. While exhibition games remain a good draw for most of the 15 teams which hold spring training in the state, the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays have both historically had trouble.
The Rays have the worst average attendance in the major leagues this season at 15,681, despite being in second place in the AL East, 3.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox, and leading the AL wild card standings by one game over the New York Yankees.
The Marlins have the lowest average in the National League at 20,927.
While the Marlins are nine games out of the second National League wild card spot and 11 ½ games behind division-leading Washington in the NL East, they also have a power-packed lineup that includes a pair of All-Stars in left fielder Marcell Ozuna and right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, as well as first baseman Justin Bour, who shined in the Derby.
The Marlins’ biggest issues is ownership. Even though the franchise won the World Series in 2003 under his stewardship, many fans in South Florida regard Loria as a carpetbagger from New York who came to Miami and made a fortune by convincing local officials to build Marlins Park primarily with taxpayers’ money.
Loria is in the process of selling the team. Miami businessman Jorge Mas, a Cuban-American who is one of the most respected figures in the community, is the front-runner to close a deal as FanRag’s Jon Heyman reported here.
Mas heads one of the three groups vying for the franchise. Another includes former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Massachusetts businessman Tagg Romney. A third is led by retired New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and includes NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
Most of the Miamians I spoke with while spending four days in the city covering the All-Star festivities said they would be much more likely to attend games if Mas was the primary owner.
“The Mas family has been a preeminent family in the Miami community for a very long time,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Obviously one of the things we always like to see in an ownership group is deep, deep roots in the community, and they certainly would satisfy that.”
The Rays have a solid owner in Stuart Sternberg. In addition to being in contention this season, the Rays went to the postseason four times in a six-year span from 2008-13 and reached the World Series in 2008.
However, what the Rays need is a new home to replace outdated Tropicana Field.
Not only is it the last domed stadium without a retractable roof remaining in the major leagues, but it is tucked away from much of the fan base in the southern part of St. Petersburg, Fla. The Rays get excellent local television ratings, but fans cite The Trop as the primary reason they do not attend games.
The Rays have tried for years to get a new home built in Tampa or St. Pete. Many within the game feel the franchise needs to relocate. However, Manfred feels Tampa Bay can be as much of a success story at the gate as on the field in the right situation.
“I continue to believe that Tampa is a viable major league market,” Manfred said. “I also believe it may be better than the alternatives that we have out there, and I am hopeful that we get to a resolution. As I’ve said before, however, there does come a point in time where we have to accept the reality that the market for whatever set of reasons can’t get to the point that they have a major league quality facility, and I am not going to indefinitely leave a club in a market without a major league quality facility.”
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