COLUMN: Say it ain’t so, Marlins — not again

Herald High School Writer Mike Phillips

Herald High School Writer Mike Phillips

I used to be a taxpayer in Miami.

I used to be a beat writer covering the Marlins.

Today, I’m glad I’m neither.

When I covered the team, I used to kid around and say I was going to write a book some day titled “There used to a team called the Marlins.”

It won’t be long now.

Who is going to watch this team play? Who is going to want to play for them? Who cares?

Not baseball. Nope, the owners and commissioner of baseball have never cared much about what went on in South Florida. If the powers that be did, Major League Baseball would have stepped in when Wayne Huizenga gutted the 1997 World Series champs. That was the worst day in baseball since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. At least the White Sox threw away the World Series for money. Huizenga gave the Marlins away. Baseball did nothing then, and it will sit silent on this latest Marlins’ disgrace to the fans and the game itself.

Integrity — they can’t even spell it in Miami.

There has never been a franchise in all of sports like the Marlins. Hopefully, there will never be another. Marlins fans — and yes they had them — have been kicked in the stomach too many times. They talked about boycotting the team in April when then-manager Ozzie Guillen praised Fidel Castro. They won’t need a boycott this time. They simply won’t care, won’t come.

Baseball is dead there.

Most teams break your heart when they lose on the field. The Marlins do it off the field.

This latest salary dump — the sending of Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck to Toronto for and shortstop Yunel Escobar (by the way, he hit a whopping .253 last year) and prospects — should be the last heartbreak. Nobody will care after this one. The word “betrayed” isn’t even harsh enough to fit what owner Jeffrey Loria has done to Marlins fans. I think there’s another word for it.

Loria started dumping salary in midseason, unloading franchise player Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and others. The Marlins’ payroll in April was $111 million. It’s about $16 million today.

Hello, Bud Selig! Hello!

Dumping on baseball fans in South Florida is nothing new, except this time it came right after picking their pockets for a $515 million ballpark. Taxpayers were held up for 80 percent of the costs, and no one even wore a mask.

How do you think the politicians in Miami and Miami-Dade County feel today? It’s just lucky for them there’s no crime, poverty or debt there.

The Marlins had been waiting for the ballpark with a roof for years. This was going to be the answer to all their problems. For years the mantra was always, “We can’t compete without a new ballpark with a retractable roof.” They got the ballpark. They got the roof. They forgot to compete.

They went on a spending spree last winter signing Reyes, Buehrle, Heath Bell and flirted with the idea of signing Albert Pujols, then by July they started unloading players — and by the end of the year had no one left in the stands to watch them. They drew the smallest first-season attendance of any team with a new ballpark in this century.

They were such a joke that Showtime actually canceled its weekly docu-series about the up-close look at the team two episodes short of the contract — the same show that drew rave reviews with the Giants a year earlier. They fired Guillen and hired Mike Redmond, a former Marlins catcher who had managed in Toronto’s minor-league system. Now he gets to manage Toronto minor-leaguers again.

The Marlins have one star left, Giancarlo Stanton, who is climbing the walls looking for a way out. He tweeted his obscenity-laced feelings about the trade and changed his avatar from wearing a Marlins jersey to wearing a black shirt. He should be in mourning.

Give me one reason why Miami should be allowed to have a baseball franchise with this ownership? Just one …The National League would be a lot better off with one less team.

It’s just such a sad day, and this is why: Believe it or not, Miami was going to be a great baseball town. Not a good one, but a great one.

I know you won’t believe this, but when the Marlins opened in 1993, all of South Florida was on fire for this team, and you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing that stupid teal color. Everyone was a Marlins fan — everyone.

The day they opened with Charlie Hough on the mound, Joe Robbie Stadium’s baseball seats were filled with optimism and fans. The word “Paradise” was seen in headlines, and everyone was in baseball heaven. Five years later, they won the Series, and it was heavenly again.

Then Huizenga took it all away. He cut the heart out of Marlin fans. People spit and cursed the Marlins, and many vowed never to come back. Huizenga’s parting gift was the 1998 Marlins, a team that lost 108 games in a season that felt like they lost 808. I don’t know how many people told me they would never be Marlins fans again.

John Henry then bought that team, and along with Marlins president Dave Dombrowski — who was heartbroken when he was ordered to dismantle the 1997 team — built the Marlins back up into a decent club. Henry not only spent money, but he gave young stars such as Mike Lowell and others long-term contracts to try to instill faith that the franchise was not going anywhere. He paid Josh Beckett an unheard amount (at the time) of $7 million out of high school, and he beat the Yankees’ deep pockets on signing a skinny 16-year-old shortstop from Venezuela named Miguel Cabrera, who got a record-breaking bonus for a free agent from Latin America.

Henry promised that if he got a ballpark with a roof that the payroll would increase each year and even released projections of how the team would grow once a deal was in place for a new stadium. Those payroll projections would have made the Marlins competitive for years.

He never got his ballpark. Henry thought he had a done deal in 2001 but lost the votes at the last minute in Tallahassee. He was crushed, and many owners came to Henry and told him he needed to get out of Miami. MLB made a deal with Henry to sell the team to Loria, who owned the Montreal Expos at the time.

Loria got the Marlins, and MLB took over the Expos, moved them to Washington and found an owner later. Henry came close to buying the Angels, but after talking with the prospective owners of the Red Sox, joined the ownership group and eventually became the principal owner. He has won the World Series twice, the last coming in 2007 when Beckett was the MVP of the ALCS and Lowell was the MVP of the World Series.

Dombrowski went to Detroit to take over an abysmal Tigers team, which has now been to the World Series twice. Cabrera led them to the Series this year.

Henry and Dombrowski left the cupboard stuffed when they left Miami, and the bulk of that team won the 2003 World Series. Beckett was the MVP, and Cabrera was called up in midseason to help the run to the title. Loria’s front office made some key moves, bringing in Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Pierre and bringing back Jeff Conine in the stretch. Dontrelle Willis helped get the Marlins to the Series, although he was not in the rotation against the Yankees.

Brad Penny, who came in a Dombrowski trade earlier, won two games for a team with a gold glove infield of Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez and Lowell — all Dombrowski products.

That was the last hurrah.

Somehow, Henry and Dombrowski rebuilt the franchise back up after the horrible dismantling. But they couldn’t stay there. Loria dumped Beckett and Lowell and others during what Marlins president David Samson called “market correction” and by 2006 the Marlins were a team of prospects again. Ironically, during the 2006 salary dump, the Marlins turned down a trade that would have brought Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson to South Florida for Willis.

That salary dump hit fans hard. The Marlins have led the league in cheap payrolls and empty seats for years.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who grew up in Miami and was a local favorite, managed to win there with the lowest payroll in baseball, but he was fired 70 games into the 2010 season after having back-to-back winning seasons and finishing second in the NL East in 2009.

That’s the last time the Marlins had a winning year. They won 69 games this past season.

Fans have lost trust so many times with this franchise, it’s hard to believe any were left, and after this catastrophe, it’s doubtful they will return. They waited for years to get a new ballpark, and less than a year after getting it, there’s no one who will want to go there.

There has never been a franchise in all of sports like the Marlins. Hopefully, there will never be another.