MIAMI (AP) — The Miami Marlins generated baseball’s biggest buzz as they prepared for their home opener a year ago, anticipating a playoff bid and nearly nightly sellout crowds in a futuristic new home that was supposed to transform a franchise long accustomed to attracting little attention.
As the Marlins begin year two in their ballpark, they’re back to operating in obscurity. Given the dismal outlook this season, that may be just as well.
Thousands of empty seats are likely for the home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, with a succession of small crowds to follow. Many potential ticket buyers are disenchanted because owner Jeffrey Loria reverted to his frugal payrolls of the past, and the team is widely projected to finish last in NL East for the third year in a row.
Kevin Slowey is scheduled to start the first home game for Miami against Paul Maholm. If fans are on the edge of their seats, it may be only because they’re awaiting a chance to boo Loria, who ordered a roster dismantling when last season went sour.
“I appreciate and am sorry it has been such a tough offseason,” team president David Samson said Sunday before the Marlins’ game against the Mets in New York. “The people who are coming to the game (Monday) hopefully are there to cheer on the players who deserve to get cheered.”
Loria decided the Marlins needed to reboot after losing 93 games last year, and slugger Giancarlo Stanton will be the lone holdover in the lineup from the home opener in 2012.
That night, Miami christened its long-sought ballpark in the major-league opener on national TV against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. Starters were introduced accompanied by women dressed as Latin showgirls, and Muhammad Ali delivered the first pitch.
“It was awesome,” reliever Steve Cishek recalled. “Seeing Muhammad Ali out there, it was crazy.”
Then Kyle Lohse held Miami hitless until the seventh inning, the Marlins lost, and little went right the rest of the year.
“Last season … there’s not much more negative we can get than that,” Stanton said.
But negativity lingers, and many former Marlins supporters pledge to stay away. The team was disappointed to sell only 12,000 season tickets a year ago, and this year sales have declined to about 5,000.
Interest in the home opener was so tepid that a discount coupon company offered reduced-price tickets. The club’s slow start this week on the road didn’t help — Miami totaled one run in the first three games and was the last major-league team to win a game.
Samson said well over 30,000 are expected for the opener. But a sellout is unlikely, and while Samson expects season attendance to surpass the modest goal of 1 million, he conceded it will likely be lower than in 2012.
“We didn’t start from such a high number to start with last year,” he said, “but I think it’ll go down.”
While the Marlins might finish last in the NL in attendance for the eighth time in nine years, Stanton said the team can’t do anything about discontented fans.
“They’re not angry with the players,” he said. “We didn’t lose them, we can’t gain them back from one thing. … We’ve just got to play good.”
And so the games will go on in the still-shiny, new-ish ballpark. While almost everything else went wrong for the Marlins in 2012, their cozy, 36,000-seat stadium was widely praised — the corny, kaleidoscopic home-run sculpture notwithstanding.
The sculpture remains, although few expect the home team to activate it often. Stanton led the NL in slugging last year, but otherwise the Marlins are light on power, and the walls have proven difficult to reach.
Also back are the bobblehead museum, the beer garden beyond left field and the aquariums behind home plate. There are new concession areas, the sound system has been upgraded, and the grass — which grew reluctantly last year — is in much better shape.
The manager’s office is ready for new tenant Mike Redmond after his successor, colorful and controversial Ozzie Guillen, lasted only one season.
“I think they had to do some deep cleaning in there,” a chuckling Redmond said.
For the most forgiving and patient Marlins rooters, the team should hold some interest. Right-hander Jose Fernandez, a top prospect who made his big-league debut Sunday, is scheduled to pitch at home for the first time Saturday against Philadelphia. The prodigious, precocious Stanton remains a favorite with fans, although many fear he might be the next player traded. And Redmond was popular as the backup catcher on the Marlins’ 2003 World Series championship team.
“I have so much pride for this organization,” Redmond said. “Being a player, making my major league debut, winning the World Series here, I love this organization, and it’s going to be neat. Obviously I understand it has been a rough go over the last year. But at the same time, too, we’re turning the page and we’re moving in a new direction, and I’m excited to be in charge and lead this team.”
While fans might stay away, the players — many young and unproven — are excited to get going at home. Cishek said complaints about the dismantling will die down if the team exceeds expectations.
“All people care about is wins,” Cishek said. “If we win ballgames, then everyone will shut up.”
AP Sports Writers Mike Fitzpatrick and Howie Rumberg in New York contributed to this report.