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Time to moon over Miami?

11/12/2011

The unique history of the Marlins franchise took its latest twist in the singular trail they’ve been blazing since they were launched as a big-league concern back in 1993. On Friday night, they officially made the long-anticipated switch from being the Florida to the Miami Marlins, with new uniforms to match, and a Pitbull mini-concert to mark the occasion.

In barely two decades of existence, theirs has been perhaps the strangest franchise saga in the game’s history. Two-time world champs in 1997 and 2003, but otherwise averaging 10 games below .500 per 162-game season over the rest of their existence, the Marlins have become the game’s enduring rags-to-riches-to-rags story. But where that sort of on-again, off-again relationship with success might inspire some sort of enthusiasm from their fan base -- unlike many older teams, they have actually won the World Series -- attendance has become reliably terrible. In the past 13 seasons, they’ve finished last or next-to-last in attendance a dozen times.

The hope is that the new, retractable-roof stadium they’ll open up in the Little Havana neighborhood next spring will bring their attendance issue to an end. They’ve already brought in the reliably engaging Ozzie Guillen to manage the team, a face transplant from the White Sox that will help forge an identity for a franchise that has long lacked any defining characteristic beyond a vague sense of vagrancy.

That sensibility has only been exacerbated by transience in the owners’ suite, with the switch from Wayne Huizenga to John Henry to Jeffrey Loria in their brief existence. Huizenga clearly gunned to buy a pennant, then dumped salaries once the players had won him his ring. Henry was a temp, perhaps merely biding his time for the franchise swap to come. And Loria’s outfit arrived after seemingly sabotaging any attempt to keep the Expos in Montreal. There has also been a ton of attendant controversy to the Marlins and their place in the surrounding community, especially after the leaks of their reported profitability while annually crying poor, which triggered a successful initiative to recall Miami’s mayor, Carlos Alvarez.

But with a new park and a new identity, it seems like the Lorians are setting down roots and the Marlins are gearing up to become a Miami institution. They seem to have money to spend, creating the additional expectation is that they’ll be able to make a play for major free agents for extended stays. They’ve already met with Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Albert Pujols, three of the top six players on Keith Law’s list of the best free agents available. They’ve also been attached to rumored bid for spurned Phillies relief ace Ryan Madson, another one of the best available players at his position on the market.

They’re clearly playing for higher stakes, but to their credit they’ve also been building up to this for a while. They got their best players signed up long-term in plenty of time. Hanley Ramirez was signed to a long-term commitment in May 2008, and they made a multi-year commitment to Josh Johnson in January 2010. It was only after coming up short on their bid to keep Dan Uggla in Miami with a long-term deal that they dealt him away to Atlanta, where his contract might wind up helping the Marlins by handicapping the Braves’ bottom line.

With all of that buildup, and questions about their new uniforms aside, the Marlins could be prepped for another wild ride to postseason glory after throwing around some money this winter. Whether or not they sign one or all of Pujols, Reyes, Buehrle and Madson, this year’s bid for winning with free-agent talent will be meant to achieve more than another rented hello-and-good-bye championship. If they deliver on that promise, it’ll be Miami mooning over them instead of the other way 'round.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.