Marlins, Rockies still seeking answers
April, 5, 2013
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
I remember watching that first game in Miami Marlins history, 20 years ago today. That the then-Florida Marlins were introducing teal to Major League Baseball was as big a deal at the time as 45-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough drawing the start. The lineup included your usual array of expansion team washouts and hopefuls: one-time prospects Junior Felix and Bret Barberie; veterans Benito Santiago, Dave Magadan and Walt Weiss; a rookie named Jeff Conine, whom the Royals hadn't protected in the expansion draft, kicking off a 20-year run of bad decisions in Kansas City.
Joe DiMaggio threw out the first pitch. In a pregame ceremony, the team honored Carl Barger, the team's first president who had helped secure the franchise but died before the opening game. And there was Hough, fluttering balls past the Dodgers, outpitching Orel Hershiser and thrilling the home crowd in leading the Marlins to a 6-3 victory. "Comes the seventh inning and I notice this baby girl's father stretching her arms, mimicking the whole gone-crazy crowd all around Joe Robbie Stadium," wrote Edwin Pope in the Miami Herald. "I'm thinking there's no way this gorgeous kid won't be a Florida Marlins fan for life."
A fateful description, I suppose.
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyCharlie Hough and the Marlins received a lot support back in 1993.
Like any expansion team, expectations weren't high that year -- the Marlins would finish 64-98 -- but expectations were certainly high that baseball in South Florida would be hugely successful. The Marlins drew more than 3 million fans to Joe Robbie Stadium that season, one of seven teams in the majors to reach the 3 million mark. It would, everyone believed, be the beginning of a long love affair with baseball in Miami.
Leading the majors in attendance that year was the National League's other expansion franchise, the Colorado Rockies. Playing in Mile High Stadium while waiting for Coors Field to be built, the Rockies drew a still-record 4.4 million fans, more than 55,000 per game. Their first game was in New York against the Mets and Dwight Gooden spun a 101-pitch, four-hit shutout. A few days later they played their home opener before more than 80,000 fans. Bryn Smith pitched seven scoreless innings and the Rockies beat the Expos. Smith's start would prove to be a rare occurrence in Rockies history: They've had only 46 starts at home in franchise history where the starter pitched at least seven innings and allowed zero runs -- about two a year.
"The Rockies may be the first team to draw four million fans and give up four million runs," wrote Woody Paige in the Denver Post in 1993. Twenty years later, the Rockies are still trying to figure out how to build a pitching staff in the thin air of Denver.
Those first days offered promise of baseball glory.
Twenty years later, the Marlins and Rockies have yet to finish in first place.
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For the Marlins' home opener, gridlock before the game in the parking lots around Joe Robbie meant many fans arrived late to their seats. Maybe that was an ominous sign for a franchise that would spend the next 20 years trying to make baseball work in Miami.
Have the Marlins been successful? Despite never finishing in first place they've won two World Series titles. Based on that ultimate benchmark -- the only one, some would argue, that matters -- the Marlins have been very successful. Since 1993, only the Yankees have won more World Series titles. Only the Red Sox, Cardinals and Giants can match the Marlins with two championships.
On the other hand, those are the only two playoff appearances the Marlins have made. Their winning percentage of .474 from 1993 to 2012 ranks 22nd in the majors ... just ahead of their expansion mates. After ranking fifth in the National League in attendance three times in their first five seasons, including in 1997 when a team that included free agents Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou won the wild card and then the World Series, the Marlins have struggled ever since to draw fans.
Original owner Wayne Huizenga blew up that team a few days after the World Series ended, throwing a hissy fit over not getting a taxpayer-funded, baseball-only stadium built and complaining of tens in millions in losses (a figure disputed by some). From 2006 to 2011, the Marlins finished last in the NL in attendance each season. Even when a young team came out of nowhere to win the wild card and upset the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, it ranked just 28th in the majors in attendance.
When current owner Jeffrey Loria finally got his new park last year, the Marlins attempted to replicate 1997. We know how that worked out. Attendance increased, but the team was awful. Like his predecessor, Loria chose to blow up the team, creating more tension in an already precarious relationship with Marlins fans. How many more years before they return? Season-ticket sales for 2013 are reportedly less than 5,000 and the team might eventually trade star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton as it rebuilds for ... well, who knows when the Marlins will be competitive again.
Just know that if they do trade Stanton, they better get more than they did when once they traded away another young slugger named Miguel Cabrera
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The Rockies have made the playoffs three times, including one trip to the World Series, in 2007. Three playoff trips in 20 seasons isn't great, but it's more than the Royals (0), Pirates (0), Blue Jays (0), Expos/Nationals (1), Brewers (2) and Marlins (2), and the same number of postseason appearances as the Orioles, Tigers, Reds and Mets.
Despite some modest success, you still get the feeling the Rockies blame the difficulty of playing in thin air for their inability to field consistent winners -- or, at least, consistently decent pitching staffs. At one point last season, they went to a four-man rotation with 75-pitch limits per outing. General manager Dan O'Dowd, who came to the Rockies in 2000, said the move was made in part because "we still haven't solved [Coors Field]."
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesCarlos Gonzalez and many of his fellow Rockies don't produce nearly as well on the road as they do in Denver's thin air.
The complicated part of that suggestion -- that the Rockies haven't solved pitching in Coors Field -- is that that Rockies actually play very well at Coors Field. Over the past 10 years, the Rockies have the largest home-field advantage in baseball; they've won 121 more games at home than on the road (Tampa Bay is second at plus-107). That would suggest the Rockies actually have figured out how to play at Coors Field. What they haven't figured out is how to win on the road.
But it could be that the Rockies don't win on the road because of playing at altitude at home. Let me explain.
Over the past 10 years, the Rockies have averaged 44 wins at home and 32 on the road -- but when you dig into the numbers, the offense is arguably more to blame for this than the pitching.
Rockies' offense, 2003-2012
Home: 5.77 runs per game
Road: 4.00 runs per game
Difference: 31 percent fewer runs scored on the road
Rockies' pitching, 2003-2012
Home: 5.31 runs allowed per 9 innings
Road: 4.90 runs allowed per 9 innings
Difference: 8 percent more runs allowed at home
As you can see, the offense declines much more on the road than the runs allowed increases at home. So while the Rockies are constantly blaming their pitching, it's at least equally fair to wonder why hitters like Carlos Gonzalez suffer such large home/road splits. One theory is Rockies hitters don't see good breaking stuff at Coors Field and thus have problems adjusting when they hit the road. But maybe Rockies pitchers don't pitch as well on the road as they "should" because their arms are fatigued from the pitching in the thin air.
When the Rockies have been successful, however, it's because they score enough runs on the road. The 2007 club that reached the World Series scored 382 runs on the road -- that's more, for example, than the 1999 Blake Street Bombers crew of Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla scored (334). The 2009 playoff team scored 340 runs on the road, not great, but more than they allowed (336).
The Rockies also suggest it's more difficult to keep pitchers healthy. That's harder to quantify. Over the past 10 years, the Rockies have had nine 200-inning seasons -- more than the Padres, Nationals or Pirates; they've had 24 162-plus-inning seasons, more than the Astros or Nationals, same as the Padres, and not that many fewer than a perennial playoff contender like the Phillies or Braves (28 such seasons each). It could be that the Rockies just haven't developed enough good pitchers and enough good hitters.
But, like Huizenga and Loria blaming everyone but themselves for the Marlins' problems, it's easier to blame a ballpark.
Twenty years later, and both franchises are still searching for solutions.