Miami has always been known as the “Magic City.” That’s because at any moment, a great moment can occur just about anywhere here.
This week, the baseball world converges on Miami, which after 25 seasons as a Major League Baseball city is finally hosting its first All-Star Game. This is a complex city, unparalleled in the United States. Nowhere in the U.S. can you find a truly bilingual city other than Miami.
Sure, other places have pockets of bilingualism, but none can match Miami when it comes to a nearly 50-50 citywide breakdown between English and Spanish. This is the area where I was born and spent so much of my youth. It’s a place that was always starved for big league baseball, which finally arrived in 1993 with the Florida Marlins.
Before then, we had spring training in South Florida with the Orioles in Miami and the Yankees not far away in Fort Lauderdale. Otherwise, we had Yankees games once a week from WPIX in New York and Braves games on Atlanta’s old WTBS Superstation, also once a week. For baseball fans, those nights were sent to us from the heavens.
Major League Baseball in these parts hasn’t come without controversy. The Marlins have had three owners, and by the looks of things, a fourth might be on the way within months. Along with the lack of consistency in ownership, roller-coaster seasons have been the norm.
Sure, a pair of World Series championship banners hang at Marlins Park, but so do the painful memories of each of those clubs being quickly dismantled for financial reasons.
The 1997 championship club followed up that amazing campaign by losing 108 games the next season after a fire sale ordered by then-owner Wayne Huizenga. A rival front office executive once told me that if the Marlins had kept that club together, the late 1990s Yankees would not have been able to win three straight World Series from 1998 to 2000. That’s how good that Marlins team was.
As a side note, the destruction of the 1997 team is one of the reasons Miami has had to wait so long for an All-Star Game. Miami had been awarded the 2000 Midsummer Classic by then-commissioner Bud Selig. But Selig was so put off by the ugliness of the tearing apart of the franchise that he switched the 2000 game to Atlanta.
The Marlins’ 2003 champions weren’t torn apart quite as vigorously, but nonetheless followed up their championship year with 79 losses before star players were sent away. Despite the two championship clubs, this franchise has never managed to win a division title, reaching the postseason only twice in its existence via the wild card. The Marlins also hold the distinction of never having lost a postseason series, going a perfect 6-0 so far.
Jeffrey Loria has owned the Marlins since 2002. To his credit, the Marlins won it all in 2003 and finally moved out of the Dolphins football stadium to Marlins Park, a baseball-only facility located in Little Havana. But along with both accomplishments came headaches for the locals.
Local taxpayers and politicians believe they were bamboozled into building the ballpark through shady, less-than-truthful negotiations on Loria’s part. It’s one of the biggest reasons local fans are among the most loyal when it comes to television ratings but refuse to attend games; they don’t want to put money in Loria’s pocket. The Marlins have been among the worst in major league attendance for years.
But given the possibility of a local buyer, one with strong ties to the local Cuban community, all that could shift dramatically, many locals believe. Jorge Mas, born and raised in Miami and a business titan in the area, has emerged as a serious candidate to purchase the Marlins.
This potential sale could be the elixir for the Marlins. Unlike Loria, who was born and raised in New York, Mas would be viewed as a local who cares about the community. Miami has two distinct strong communities: the Latin American one, where Cubans are the overwhelming majority, and (as they’re referred to here) the American community.
The two have coexisted for decades since Cubans began arriving en masse in Miami in the early 1960s. Sports has always helped bridge most difficulties. I can remember kids of my generation absolutely falling in love with the Don Shula-coached Super Bowl championship teams of the early ’70s and our parents not understanding a single thing about American football, simply calling it el juego de los golpes (the game of hitting).
But those great Dolphins teams meant we Cuban kids were suddenly wearing Larry Csonka and Bob Griese football jerseys. It also meant we now had something in common with our American classmates, and lifelong friendships were borne out of those days.
It’s one of the reasons the sudden death of Marlins star Jose Fernandez in September caused such overwhelming heartache across the entire area. Here was a Cuban-born superstar who was able to bridge both communities because of his overpowering charm and command of both languages.
Miami, like all major cities, has its problems, but the love affair with its sports teams isn’t one of them. It’s just that the Marlins have always been viewed as divisive, mostly because of problems off the field, but rarely, if ever, with those in uniform.
It’s time for Miami to truly embrace Major League Baseball, and this week’s All-Star Game and surrounding festivities — and a potential ownership change — could finally be the launching point.