Edward Overend: This week’s ‘Conversation’ is with Erik Petersen. I came across Erik, funnily enough, through cricket. He lives in Florida and we’re going to talk about possibly the most ‘different’ franchise in MLB, the Marlins. Erik, first of all welcome. Let’s cut to the chase, how irritating to a South Florida native are the Marlins?
Erik Petersen: Irritating? Like a rash. And we get interesting rashes down here in the sub-tropics.
It’s funny with the Marlins – they’ve been around for about a quarter century, and in that time they’ve been in the middle of some existential crisis. When you’re a Marlins fan, you wish for boring problems. Baseball problems. With the Marlins, we’ve always had “Can this team even exist?” problems. For many years it was the stadium – or more specifically, the fact that they rented space in a football stadium. Financially unsustainable and not great for baseball with no roof in a place where summer’s the rainy season. Finally we got a new ballpark, which is an entire discussion on its own. But at least the new place has a roof and means the team has a home of their own. But of course by the time the new ballpark opened, the Marlins also had owner Jeffrey Loria.
Here’s the thing about baseball problems versus existential crisis problems. Every fan moans about his or her team’s owner sometimes. “That idiot, he should have traded for Player A instead of Player B,” that sort of thing. With Marlins fans, particularly towards the beginning of the Loria tenure, the questions were more along the lines of “Does he even care if this team succeeds or not? Is that part of his business model?” And that’s a problem. When most teams lose, fans debate baseball. Seattle’s a good organization that happens to be underachieving on the field now. Philadelphia’s in the toilet, but the solution lies in coming up with a coherent rebuilding strategy, not figuring out whether the owners care or not. The Marlins have often been a unique case.
Having said all that, we now seem to be entering a new phase of the Loria experience. He no longer seems cheap, just deeply, deeply weird.
EO: One weird thing Loria has done this season, of course, was firing Mike Redmond and replacing him with GM Dan Jennings. There’s certainly been no discernible difference since Jennings took over but it’s still very early. After all the inevitable national mocking, how has he gone about his job and gaining the respect of the clubhouse?
EP: That’s exactly what I mean by weird rather than cheap. I didn’t like the firing or the hiring, but sacking somebody whose contract you’d extended through 2017 is not the inexpensive option.
In terms of how Jennings has done, it’s tough to say. The Marlins, to put it mildly, have struggled to keep pitchers healthy this season. At one point several weeks ago, four of the team’s top five pitchers were on the disabled list. I don’t care if your manager is Mike Redmond, Dan Jennings or the ghost of Casey Stengel, if your pitching rotation is an America’s Got Talent tryout for triple-A has-beens, you’re not going very far. Jennings did get criticised early on for basic game-management issues – after an interleague series in Baltimore, Buck Showalter took a slightly veiled shot at the way he was using relievers. But again, with so many pitchers on the DL it’s not like he’s got a massive amount of options.
In terms of how he’s done in the clubhouse, that’s so tough to gauge. By all accounts he’s been liked and respected by the players – but liked and respected in a very different role. The players have said all the right things, but there seems to be some damning with faint praise too.
In the end, the pitching will get healthier and Jennings will get judged by the same brutally simple formula every manager gets judged by. My pet theory is that even though Jennings wasn’t given the “interim” title, Loria’s thinking a move or two ahead. (Loria may make Machiavelli look like a cuddly social worker, but he’s not stupid.) The manager at AAA New Orleans is Andy Haines, who has risen quickly through the minor league coaching ranks, and the AA Jacksonville manager is former Marlin and University of Miami player Dave Berg. That’s worth remembering.
EO: It’s such a shame the starting pitching has been injured as much as it has. I thought, going into the season, that the Marlins might be able to hang around .500 in the weak NL East and then get a boost from the return of Jose Fernandez. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Dan Haren has been very good but Mat Latos, Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart have been out for extended periods.
Fernandez looks as if he’s going to be back sooner rather than later, Jose Urena has been up about a month and has done ok and Justin Nicolino made a highly promising MLB debut over the weekend.
There is some young pitching talent, which when allied to the likes of Stanton, Yelich and Hechevarria should provide a core moving forward. Stanton is locked up but you just never know what any team might look like in the future yet alone one owned by Loria.
EP: See, here’s how sick I am. Part of me enjoys that we’re having boring old baseball problems like all our pitchers getting hurt. This is so refreshing for the Marlins. Look, we’ve got the sorts of problems everybody else has!
That said, yeah, this year’s been a frustration. The team they built is one that, with everybody healthy, should have been able to at least win 85 or so games and take a weak division. But hey, injuries happen.
I really hope Fernandez hangs around. Whether it’s a position player or a pitcher, one of the saddest things to see is the guy who has so much talent, who has such a great story and is so good for the game, but who just can’t stay on the park. My dad’s from Seattle, so when I was a kid before the Marlins existed I was a massive Mariners fan. The electricity generated for a (then uniformly terrible) team by 19-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. was amazing. Then he started running into walls, slipping in the shower and … well, it was still quite a career, but you know. Likewise, it would be terrible not just for the Marlins but for baseball if Fernandez became one of those “Could’ve been, shame about the arm” stories.
In terms of the lineup overall, Marlins fans have learned over 24 years to never trust hope or the building process, but against my better judgement I have some optimism. In addition to the guys you mentioned, I’d point out that A.J. Ramos has really taken to the closer role, and J.T. Realmuto is making the decision to part ways with Jarrod Saltamacchia look savvy after all. And you’ve even got a guy like Derek Dietrich, who was really just called up to add infield depth, doing some good things with the bat. Through all the crazy times this has always been a good organization for developing young talent, and they’re actually pretty well stocked now.
Then there’s Loria. I mean, who knows. He’ll probably never be everybody’s favorite owner, and his decision-making can be so scattergun that it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking. That said, he didn’t have to go out and get Haren. He didn’t have to give Giancarlo a GDP-of-Lichtenstein-type salary. He still comes off like an unhinged king in Game of Thrones, but at least he’s not as cheap as he used to be.
EO: A big issue in Miami is attendance. Whilst this was entirely understandable for years, now there is a brand new ballpark, it’s extremely disappointing. No longer do you get the endless rainouts or have to suffer the intense heat of the sun. There’s a huge Latin population in Miami with baseball in their blood. The park is in Little Havana, only a couple of miles from the centre of Miami, so transport shouldn’t be the issue. When Jose Fernandez was mowing down the league, he’d managed to do the almost impossible and added numbers on the nights he was pitching.
Other than winning, and even then who knows if that will have a big impact, what can the Marlins do to get the numbers in, or is it just so much of an event and party town it’s almost a lost cause?
EP: First off, I love the new ballpark. I love the atmosphere in Little Havana, I love the style of the place. (And I like that it’s modern; I was getting tired of all these new ballparks with all that fake 19th-century twee whimsy.) I even like the big, ridiculous sculpture that lights up and does its whole thing whenever there’s a home run. For better or worse, it’s very Miami.
And of course, part of me likes that I can arrive at the ballpark 10 minutes before the first pitch and get a ticket behind home plate. It’s funny. You could get half a dozen South Florida sports fans together for a discussion of attendance issues, and you’d get half a dozen different explanations. It’s not just baseball – even the Dolphins, who have the most history here, often struggle to sell out. I like to think it’s because, you know, we have other things to do. Places like Buffalo or Derby will always have really loyal fans because, seriously now, what the heck else are you going to do?
But the Marlins are a special case. I think it comes down again to that simple fact that the Marlins have never been normal. They’ve never just had baseball problems, and their fans have never been able to trust them. It will take time. It’s not enough for Loria to build this team, he has to keep it together. He can say he’s going to do that all he wants. Other owners have said the same things before.
One thing you can’t say about Marlins fans is that we’re fair-weather fans. Fair-weather fans show up when the team is winning. In recent years, even when the team has looked half-decent, fans stay away. That’s because we still don’t think it’s real. We don’t want to support another bunch of players who look half decent, only to watch them all leave again. The only thing that will work is time. My prediction: if the Marlins get healthy, go on a tear and get into the playoff race this year, you’ll still see tiny crowds. If the team continues building and in three or so years this nucleus is still together and winning – that’s when you might start to see a change.
EO: We can’t chat about the Marlins without bringing up Giancarlo Stanton. Having suffered that nasty injury after being hit in the face by a pitch at the end of last season, I wondered whether it might take him a while to get his confidence back. I thought it a very bold move from the club to sign him to that mega deal in the offseason and he has continued to be the biggest hitter in all of baseball. He is wearing an adapted helmet but he’s been superb so far. Talk me through what it’s like to witness in person one of those home runs that, seemingly, only he can produce, certainly with the regularity he does.
EP: Oh my lord, Stanton. It’s like watching one of those mutant 1980s home run hitters – only without the, ahem, extra help.
It’s hard to really impress the modern sport fan. We see everything 27 times on hi-def instant replay. It’s all broken down and analyzed, which can be cool, but can also suck the life and mystery out of it. It’s tough to recapture what it felt like to walk into a ballpark or a cricket ground at nine years old.
A massive Stanton shot makes me feel like a nine-year old. I don’t want the thing dissected or explained, I just want to watch as is flies out like it’s going to take out a window in the Miami skyline beyond the leftfield fence.
And yeah, turns out he can still do it with his Phantom of the Opera batting helmet after one of the most genuinely frightening baseball injuries in recent memory. He’s silenced all the offseason questions in the most effective way possible.
That said, the contract they gave him was fairly ridiculous. But if you’re going to double down on a franchise player, I have no problem with that player being Giancarlo Stanton.
EO: All in all, therefore, should this season be looked upon as a building one? Injuries have prevented a playoff challenge but, unless Loria does something stupid, the core is there for proper progress moving forward.
EP: Anytime your pitching looks this much like a Saturday night A&E in Middlesborough, you’ve got to start thinking in terms of next year. And yet …
I want this to be a holding pattern year, not a building year. In a building year, maybe you trade-off veteran talent to stock up on youngsters. That’s not where this team’s at. They’ve got the nucleus, and in a less injury-prone year they would be expected to compete. And beyond that, the Marlins aren’t like other teams. I think that in their front office, there’s an understanding that even one or two big veterans-for-minor-leaguers trades would really damage the trust they’re trying to build.
Basically, we want to moan about how unfair it is that all our pitchers got hurt and we couldn’t compete this year. Baseball problems. We want baseball problems.