Marlins, Rockies aging not-so-gracefully

The Rockies and Marlins were expansion brothers 10 years ago. Now, both are paying the price for early glory.

Originally Published: April 16, 2003
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Gone are the days of their infancy, when they were cute if clumsy. Gone are their thrilling first steps. Gone, too, was the quick growth spurts, when they seemed so advanced for their age.

Now, as they celebrate their 10th birthdays this month, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies are merely just two more ordinary baseball franchises, with stadium issues, declining fan interest and murky futures.

World Series 1997
The joy from the 1997 World Series quickly faded for the Marlins and their fans.

Born of such promise, the Marlins and Rockies are now entering baseball adolescence, which finds them confused and uncertain about their respective futures.

Until the Arizona Diamondbacks came along and won a world championship in their fourth year of existence, the Rockies and Marlins set the standard for baseball expansion franchises.

The Rockies shattered attendance records, becoming the first NL franchise ever to draw 4 million fans in a season. By their third season, they had qualified for the playoffs, a far cry from some of baseball's sad-sack expansion experiences like the New York Mets, who personified ineptitude until stunning the game with a championship in 1969.

The Marlins realized even greater success, reaching the postseason as a wild-card entry in 1997, en route to a thrilling Game 7 World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians.

But in many ways, it's been all downhill ever since for both teams. Since being crowned champions, the Marlins have been sold twice and are no closer to realizing their goal of a baseball-only facility in downtown Miami. Along the way, the Marlins saw the core of their championship club auctioned off within weeks of their celebration.

There's been a less dramatic dropoff for the Rockies, but there's no denying the backsliding. Save for occupying first place for a while in the summer of 2000, the Rockies haven't come close to returning to the playoffs. Their forays into the free agent market -- particularly with pitching -- have been unmitigated disasters. Even fan support, strong by the standard of most markets (including south Florida), has slipped.

Where, it's worth asking, do the clubs go from here?

Marlins: A new home would help
The Marlins' problems are more stark and immediate then their expansion brethren despite the championship trophy on display at Pro Player Stadium. It's the very stadium which is at the heart of the Marlins' problems.

Built for the NFL's Miami Dolphins, Pro Player is ill-suited to host baseball. Its sightlines are poor for baseball and its location -- situated just off the Florida Turnpike, removed from Miami's urban beat -- is an obstacle for many city-dwelling fans.

It's difficult for the Marlins to connect to Miami's Latin population situated where they are. It's one thing to make the drive to Pro Player to attend a Dolphins game and tailgate in the massive parking lot. But baseball is better situated in a downtown setting.

Basking in the Sun
The Marlins began playing in the major leagues in 1993. Below is a list of some key dates in club history:

10/23/92: Rene Lachemann named the club's first manager.
3/5/93: Won first spring-training game, 12-8, over Astros.
4/5/93: Defeat Dodgers, 6-3, in first regular-season game.
4/12/93: Benito Santiago hits first home run in Marlins history.
5/11/96: Al Leiter pitches the first no-hitter in club history.
7/7/96: Lachemann fired as manager; John Boles takes over as manager.
10/4/96: Jim Leyland replaces Boles to become third manager in club history.
6/10/97: Kevin Brown tosses second no-hitter in club history.
10/3/97: Defeat Giants, 6-2, to sweep NL Dvision Series.
10/14/97: Defeat Braves, 7-4, to win NLCS in six games.
10/26/97: Defeat Indians, 3-2, in 11 innings to win the World Series in seven games.
10/2/98: Boles begins second tenure as Marlins manager after taking over for Leyland.
1/13/99: MLB approves sale of club from Wayne Huizenga to John Henry.
3/1/00: Dave Dombrowski named club's president and general manager.
6/5/00: Select 16-year-old first baseman Adrian Hernandez with the first overall pick in the draft.
5/12/01: A.J. Burnett fires third no-hitter in club history.
5/28/01: Boles fired as manager; Tony Perez takes over on an interim basis.
11/5/01: Dombrowski resigns to become president of the Tigers.
2/12/02: MLB approves sale of club from Henry to Jeffrey Loria; Larry Beinfest named new general manager; Jeff Torborg named new manager.
6/21/02: Luis Castillo's club-record hitting streak stopped at 35 games.
Source: Marlins media guide.

The weather doesn't help matters. Late afternoon rain can be an almost daily occurrence, and in addition to often depriving players of batting practice, serves as a disincentive for fans contemplating attending a game.

All three of the team's owners -- original owner Wayne Huizenga, John Henry and current owner Jeffrey Loria -- have stressed the need for a new downtown ballpark (preferably one with a retractable roof), but to no avail.

Poor location and a deteriorating on-field product have conspired to drive the Marlins' attendance steadily downward. The franchise, which attracted 3 million fans in its inaugural year, was next-to-last in the NL last year, averaging just over 10,000 per game.

And who can blame the fans? When Huizenga held a fire sale in the immediate aftermath of the championship -- in a fit of pique over not getting public assistance for a new ballpark -- it resulted in a predictable downturn for the on-field product. In recent years, the team has done a nice job stockpiling talented pitchers and its current rotation, which boasts such talents as Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny, is the envy of many teams.

Having experimented with big bats in the past, the Marlins seem intent on stressing pitching, speed and defense -- the same formula which worked so well for the 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom manager Jeff Torborg played.

But unless the Marlins can build a downtown home, connect with the Latin fan base and increase revenues, they seem destined to recall their past glories rather than realizing new ones.

"I don't think there's any secret to the fact that a new ballpark is a key to our long-term success,'' team president David Samson agrees.

That won't be easy in Florida's current economic climate. Nor will it be simple to overcome the perception that Miami is a front-running sports town. The Dolphins own a stronghold on the market thanks to past Super Bowl appearances and a history of contending nearly every season. The NBA's Heat, the NHL's Panthers, and, of course, the Marlins, have far less loyal fan bases. When those teams win, they draw. When they lose, they don't.

It hasn't helped that the Marlins have lacked stability and continuity at the top. The current ownership group is the second since the team won it all just six years ago, and the de-facto franchise swap involving the Montreal Expos and approved by Major League Baseball, had an unseemly air to it.

Loria insists the Marlins are in south Florida to stay and points to recent increases in payroll -- and the $10 million splurge on free agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez -- as evidence of his commitment.

But in some ways, the Marlins now have a longer road to travel than the one which took them from their infancy to a championship. The novelty has worn off.

Rockies: In search of an identity
Two time zones away, the Rockies face altogether different challenges.

Though the Rockies have seen attendance come down from their record-setting 4.5 million high, support is still strong -- the team drew 2.7 million last season.

The club's franchise footing is strong, far better than the Marlins, or that of their fellow NL expansionites, the Diamondbacks, who have a frightening amount of backloaded debt.

"They spend what they earn,'' said a major league executive of the Rockies prudent financial course.

But that hasn't translated into success on the field, where the Rockies have yet to win more than 83 games -- their one playoff appearance came during a strike-shortened season -- and have suffered through four losing seasons in the last five.

"We've all been frustrated that we got off to a fast start and haven't been able to sustain that, as it relates to W's and L's,'' owner Jerry McMorris said. "We haven't achieved as much as a team or an organization as we'd like.''

The Rockies seem to be in a perpetual identity crisis. Originally, they favored offense for the thin area of Denver. When Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette and Andres Galarraga gave them four players with 340 or more homers in their heyday, the club had itself a nickname -- the Blaker Street Bombers -- a fan following in love with the longball.

A Mile High
The Rockies began playing in the major leagues in 1993. Below is a list of some key dates in club history:

3/6/93: Won first spring-training game, 7-2, over Giants.
4/5/93: Played first regular-season game against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Lost the game, 3-0.
4/9/93: Play first regular-season home game against the Expos at Mile High Stadium. Won the game, 11-4.
9/17/93: Surpassed the four million mark in attendance, breaking the single-season record.
10/3/93: Finish inaugural season with most wins (67) by an National League expansion club. Andres Galarraga wins the NL batting title (.370).
4/26/95: Opened Coors Field by beating the Mets, 11-9, in 14 innings.
10/1/95: Defeated Giants, 10-9, to earn the NL wild card.
10/3/95: Played first playoff game, losing to Braves 5-4 in NL Division Series opener.
10/6/95: Won first playoff game, 7-5 over Braves in Game 3 of Division Series.
11/7/95: Don Baylor named NL Manager of the Year.
10/22/97: Larry Walker wins franchise's first Gold Glove.
11/13/97: Walker named NL MVP.
6/10/98: Dante Bichette becomes first player in franchise history to hit for the cycle.
7/7/98: Coors Field hosts first All-Star Game.
9/28/98: Baylor fired as manager.
10/7/98: Jim Leyland named as successor to Baylor.
8/20/99: Bob Gebhard resigns as GM.
9/20/99: Dan O'Dowd named new GM.
10/20/99: Buddy Bell replaces Leyland as manager.
4/26/02: Bell fired as manager, Clint Hurdle named as Bell's successor.
11/4/02: Jason Jennings named NL Rookie of the Year.
Source: Rockies media guide.

When those sluggers aged -- only Walker remains and the Rockies tried unsuccessfully to deal him to Arizona over the winter to rid themselves of his contract -- the approach changes.

For a time, general manager Dan O'Dowd emphasized speed and defense, theorizing that the Rockies needed athletic outfielders to cut balls off in the alleys and limit the number of extra-base hits.

That experiment proved short-lived, however. So, too, was a mandate to obtain big-name free-agent pitchers. Rationalizing that the club would have to overpay established pitchers to entice them to come to hitter-friendly Coors Field, the club overwhelmed Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle.

But after a 9-2 start in his first season, Hampton went into a pitching funk. Last winter, under orders to slash payroll, O'Dowd finally moved Hampton to Atlanta, via Florida. His contract was so onerous -- made even more unattractive by his performance -- that he will be paid this season by two teams not employing him.

The altitude of the Mile High City makes baseball a different game.

"It changes your applicant pool, your bullpen usage, your contractual strategy, how you develop players -- it changes everything," a former Rockies executive said. "There isn't a single facet of baseball operations that isn't affected by the altitude.''

Burned by free agency, the Rockies have turned inward to solve their long-term pitching problems.

"We clearly have to grow our own pitching,'' McMorris said.

They've taken the first steps with NL Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings, a 16-game winner in 2002. High hopes are also in order for Aaron Cook and Chin-Hui Tsao.

In the meantime, to fill out the rest of the staff, the Rockies have to be both diligent and lucky. They've made good (and inexpensive) pickups such as Todd Jones and Nelson Cruz.

Of course, as Hampton demonstrated, not every pitcher is capable of making the necessary adjustments to pitch at Coors. Accordingly, say club sources, the emphasis is on finding and developing pitchers who can command the fastball, provide some deception, and change speeds.

Pitchers who rely too much on breaking pitches find their best stuff depleted or neutralized altogether in the altitude.

At least the Rockies seem to have developed a philosophy and strategy to meet the unique demands of their market.

"I get the sense now that everybody's on the same page,'' said an executive with another team. "It's an evolving culture there, framed against the early success they enjoyed and (the challenge of playing in) a ballpark 5,000 feet above sea level.''

"We've had some great times,'' said manager Clint Hurdle, "but lately they've been meager times.''

In that sense, the Rockies and Marlins are inexorably linked -- charged with finding a winning path again after experiencing early success that, in the long run, may have been more hurtful to the franchises than helpful.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE