MIAMI – The other day, Jordany Valdespin, the New York Mets' Dominican-born utilityman, was struck square by a Justin Verlander fastball. By "square" I mean "in the groin."
At impact – and by "impact" I mean "holy crap it's going to hit me in the groin" – Valdespin collapsed straight downward, at that moment becoming a blinded, gravity-stricken mess of shock and regret.
That's the thing, too. One minute you're sun-bathed, gloriously engaged in the game, young and trusting and soaked in promise. The next, you're covered in dust and lime, maybe bleeding, barely conscious and wearing a custom red-stitched cowhide thong. And you don't even remember drinking tequila.
Which is when I realized, "Oh geez, this is what it's like to be a Marlins fan."
Valdespin was not wearing a cup at the time, which is probably where he and Marlins fans went wrong. A few days later, healthier and wiser, he'd reconsidered his equipment choices, offering with that a quote that may endure with the deepest thoughts of Confucius and Ozzie Guillén.
"I never use a cup," he said, "but I've got to because I'm really scared of the ball hitting me in the balls."
And so I say to Marlins fans, in an admittedly roundabout way, wear a cup. If possible, in case the first one malfunctions, wear two.
On Wednesday night, in the perfectly kitschy ballpark that stands resolutely at the corner of Marlins Way and Avarice Boulevard, 25,787 people came to Marlins Park to watch a World Baseball Classic game between Puerto Rico and Italy. The night before, the U.S. and Puerto Rico played in front of nearly 33,000. The Marlins drew as many fans 39 times last season, and I can only assume that on those nights the Marlins were giving something nice away. Like bobbleheads. Or pieces of their soul. Or bobbleheads of their souls.
We know the story. The Marlins of Jeffrey Loria and David Samson had a ballpark built for them, they loaded up the team, the team started slow, and buyer's regret had the Marlins jettisoning players within months. Maybe they'll be a reasonable team and maybe they won't, which isn't relevant anymore. Because if the Marlins did guess right and did get good players in return, those players will be dumped at the first sign of arbitration. It's the Marlin way. Says so right on the street sign.
Given they opened the doors at the ballpark this week for the first time since Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Heath Bell, John Buck, Omar Infante, Emilio Bonifacio and Anibal Sanchez had all but flicked away, I couldn't help but think about the Marlins fans left behind. Turns out, they've all come back wearing Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Italy and U.S. jerseys.
Strolling the concourses of a beautiful and airy stadium, I searched for some real Marlins fans. The ones wearing Marlins gear. The ones who will – out of loyalty, stubbornness, curiosity, anything – continue to believe in the game and, also, sadly, fund Loria's next trick.
A guy in a Marlins cap.
"I work here."
A kid in the right-field bleachers in a Marlins cap.
"I'm from Boston."
But, a Marlins fan?
Uh, the cap?
"I collect hats."
A young man and his girl on the right-field concourse, beside a breezy bar, overlooking the bullpens, getting their picture taken by a friendly usher.
"He loves all Miami sports," Aly said.
With style, Martiel wore a Marlins jersey and cap, bought, you know, last year. Wednesday was his birthday, his buddy is a fan of Team Puerto Rico, so here they were.
He gestured toward the field, to the ballpark that climbed from its warning tracks.
"Best ballpark in the whole country," he said, smiling, like he could barely believe it. "Worst team. The fire sale just killed it."
Yep, one day you're the talk of baseball, next day … Justin Verlander has taken out the next three generations of Valdespins and you have a pretty good idea how that might feel.
"Just crazy," Martiel said. "It really took the excitement out of coming here. But, I like baseball, so … "
At least they haven't traded Giancarlo Stanton, I offered since I was beginning to feel bad about bringing the whole thing up. (Plus, an usher was beginning to listen in and didn't look too happy about the direction of the conversation with one of the few customers Loria may have left.)
The cup, Martiel. Don't forget the cup.
It would seem Loria's last chance is with nice folks like Aly and Martiel. They love the game. They love the ballpark. It will still be Major League Baseball, certainly in one of the dugouts. They're willing to shrug and move on, if they must.
"We'll come less," Martiel said. "But, just coming to the stadium is enough. Yeah, we're probably going to keep coming."
Just then, a Reyes jersey strolled past. Then another. Soon, a Ramirez jersey. Another Reyes jersey. They must have sold a lot of those.
And ain't that a kick in the pants.
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