Saturday, July 19, 2008

Déjà vu all over again

When I read Barry Jackson's story in Friday’s Miami Herald on the failure of the Florida Marlins to attract fans my first reaction was: “Been there, done that.”

Jackson’s story appeared in the Herald almost 7 years to the day a similarly themed story appeared on the front page of the NY Times on July 28, 2001.

Back then my friend Rick Bragg, who wrote the Times story, called me up and asked me if I’d like to shoot the pictures to go with the story.

It was a pretty simple assignment, Rick said. He was going to do a piece on the fact that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Florida Marlins had the lowest attendance of any major league baseball team. All I had to do was get a picture that showed that.

I showed up at the stadium an hour or so before the game.

I walked out on the field and scanned the seats and saw a sea of orange.

Once the game started I was confined to a small photographers’ pit along the third base line. In a few minutes I had all the pictures I could get from that location. With a wide angle lens I’d shot the section of the field from the pitcher’s mound to home plate with a large expanse of empty seats behind. The resulting images were OK but I wanted something more dramatic.

I looked around for a different vantage point. Looking up I spied a lone figure up in the cheap seats overlooking right field. I made my way through the tunnel and up towards the lonely fan.

Once there I met Marlins fan Michael Lawson. I shot a lot of images of him from different angles showing him watching the game with lots of empty seats between him and the field.

After getting all the pictures I needed I sat down and chatted with Lawson. He told me he was a big baseball fan. I learned that he lived just 10 minutes away and that he often came to the ball park on days when his wife was shopping or out with friends.

So, I asked him, why do you sit way up here? Lawson responded that sometimes he just liked to get away from it all. Coming to the park afforded him solitude and it gave him time to think. And he was able to do all this while watching the game he loves in a nearly empty stadium.
Marlins fan Michael Lawson enjoys the solitude of Dolphins Stadium, July, 2001.

The photo editors loved the picture and it ended up running on the front page of the Times along with Rick’s story.

Jackson’s Herald story is essentially an updated version of the same story that others have written over the years: Why can’t the Marlins draw crowds? Why are they playing in an empty stadium year after year?

We know there are "sports fans" in Miami. They should be attending the games. Right? After all the Marlins are only 1½ games behind the National League East-leading Philadelphia Phillies.

Sports stories on the Herald’s website are some of the most widely read and those stories always seem to generate pages and pages of reader comments. So why don't these "fans" show up at the ballpark?

Jackson talked to people who ticked off all the reasons the Marlins can‘t fill seats; reasons we’ve heard a thousand times before: It’s too hot, it rains too much, it’s too humid, the stadium is in the middle of nowhere, it costs too much to park, the concession prices are too high and yadda, yadda, yadda. And of course now there is one more excuse on the list: gas prices are too high.

My friend Elliott Rodriguez, the CBS4 anchor, told me yesterday that people don’t attend the games because Dolphins Stadium wasn’t built for baseball.

There are plenty of excuses to go around.

Marlins president David Samson told Jackson “….given the climate and weather and other mitigating factors, we certainly understand [why attendance isn‘t higher.]”

Seems to me that this was concern #1 when the idea to bring baseball to South Florida was first proposed.

But in spite of all the evidence that South Florida fans just won't attend games, those in charge at the Marlins are saying: “Just give this new stadium and everything will be just fine; you’ll see.”

It’s pretty plain that after 15 years we know all we need to know about how popular baseball is in South Florida. It isn't.

Linda Robertson put it so succinctly in her Herald column this morning: “15 years, three owners and a parade of entertaining players, baseball has not caught on here.”

So why, in the face off all this evidence, do the Marlins and local politicians think that a new $500 million stadium in Little Havana will solve all the problems? The answer, of course is, it won’t.

The Marlins’ fan base, on paper, is in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties that combined have a population somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 million, give or take a few hundred thousand.

But for all of the reasons listed above the Marlins can’t attract more than 15,000 or 20,000 fans, even when they’re playing well. Miami is a town and South Florida is a place that’s full of people who love to roll with winners. If you’re not winning they can’t be bothered.

The people who are pushing the new stadium say the taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill; that it will be built with tourist tax money. That, of course, is another lie; a variation on the old shell game or three-card monte. The taxpayers will end up paying for things that the tourist tax dollars would have paid for.

Hopefully Norman Braman will prevail and Miami-Dade voters and taxpayers will get to vote on whether or not they want to pay for a stadium that only 15,000+ people will use.

But if it is built, Michael Lawson, that lonely baseball fan I photographed 7 years ago, will still be able to find that summer solitude in the cheap seats on weekends. He’ll just have to drive down to the brand-new empty stadium Little Havana.

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