Dave Hyde: Jimmy Buffett brought an irreverent twist to South Florida sports

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — “Navigate the buoys and set it up,” Jimmy Buffett said.

There was a lyrical lift to his voice over the phone decades ago that said he was smiling. Or maybe I just heard that. The singer and actor Bill Murray bought a sliver of the Miami Marlins, then a minor league baseball team, and the floated idea was to have a young sportswriter sit with them at a game in Key West. Me.

Buffett died Friday night and the obituaries naturally center on the tropical lifestyle of songs that made you want to sail off to the Keys. “Margaritaville”. “A Pirate Looks at Forty”. “Changes in Latitude/Changes in Attitude”.

But Buffett also was a South Florida sports fan in a way that also expressed his fundamental irreverence, passionate search for fun and over the years could leave you snorting in your tropical drink.

His appearances were regular, his glimpses anecdotal. There was a rumor he bought a 5% stake in the minor league Marlins in 1989 when I called his Key West office. His assistant asked how I heard. I didn’t want to tell how.

“Ah, you heard it on the Coconut Telegraph,” said the assistant, Sunshine Smith. Life imitated lyrics.

Buffett came on the phone and explained his interest: “I’ve been a baseball nut for years and thought it would be fun. I like the fact it’s a non-polluting industry with no tall buildings.”

That kind of verbal dexterity was welcome in a sports world often lacking in its fundamental function of fun. The minor league Marlins didn’t work with the planned split of games Key West and the Mark Light Stadium. But that didn’t matter. He took his swing.

Buffett’s perpetual irreverence was never mistaken for lack of passion, as any Miami Heat fan remembers. He was a Heat season-ticket holder for years who showed up to games in a trademark tan and philosophically flowery shirt. He was a friend of the team. He joined team president Pat Riley in singing, “Heard it through the Grapevine” at a charity event. He partied on New Year’s Eve with Heat owner Micky Arison. He could be seen watching a game with Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in 2005 or playing the steel drums during a timeout at the 2013 NBA Finals.

Buffett regularly was a real fan, too, as best represented in a 2001 game against the then-hated New York Knicks. Referee Joe Forte stopped the game in the fourth quarter, called security and pointed for them to remove someone.

It was Buffett.

“He was using profanity,” Forte said afterward. “There was a little boy sitting next to him and a lady sitting by him. He used some words he knows he shouldn’t have used so I asked security to move him to another location. We don’t have to take that kind of thing.”

Riley, then the coach, motioned Forte over to him after Buffett walked up the stairs to a higher-level seat.

“Do you know who that is?” Riley asked the referee, who said he didn’t know. Forte still didn’t know when Riley said it was Jimmy Buffett.

“Do you mean to tell me you’ve never been a ‘Parrothead,’ in your life?’’ Riley said, referring to the nickname of Buffett fans. Riley then said of Forte, “He thought I was insulting him and wanted to give me a technical for calling him a Parrothead.’ ”

For years, it was a wonderfully South Florida subplot to sports scene. The Knicks had Spike Lee. Buffett was ours. All ours. Or so we thought until the Marlins — the major league Marlins by this time — showed up for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series in Chicago in 2003.

There was Buffett in a No. 22 Chicago jersey, the same as Cubs starter Mark Prior. Our Jimmy was theirs. He stretched out of the press box in the seventh inning to sing, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

As a South Florida columnist, I couldn’t allow this to happen without questioning him. I waited in the hallway outside the small booth he sang. When he came out, I asked him, “Jimmy, how could you do this to South Florida?”

He laughed, as he should have and said, “I’ve been a Cubs fan for 32 years.”

So, he really was like many South Florida fans. He had allegiances rooted elsewhere. Buffett also said that night he let Marlins have the rights to his minor league team’s nickname for free.

“As a gift, I gave it to them, let them have it,” he said.

Buffett came to fewer sports events as the years moved on. The last time I saw him was on a Key West stage in January. The idea of going to a minor league game with him in Key West was long forgotten, just as that team was.

But as the world mourned a musician Saturday, South Florida also lost a sports fan. He was irreverent and tropically tanned but genuinely passionate as any son of a son of a Heat fan should remember.