The old Marlins mostly played in sodden oblivion. Subtropical torrents pelted the empty seats at that football field north of town. But look at this place now. Surrounded by Little Havana’s low-slung buildings, their windows covered by black iron bars, brand-new Marlins Park sprouts from the streets like a sleek white sculpture. The concrete walkways sparkle in the South Florida sun. The walls sport artsy accents of rainbow glass. The scoreboard mug shots pop in pastel shades. Fish flit in the two fancy tanks behind home plate. New home, new team: not the Florida Marlins, but the Miami Marlins, from tired ’90s teal to a fresh burst of orange.
Over the winter, owner Jeffrey Loria, president David Samson, and baseball operations boss Larry Beinfest hired as their manager the talk-first, think-later Ozzie Guillen, then sought and bought free agents of a similar grandstanding sort: Carlos Zambrano, the hard thrower with the trigger temper; Heath Bell, the husky ham of a closer; Jose Reyes, the $100 million shortstop from the Mets whose smile shimmers like the silver “7” pendant that hangs from his neck. These Marlins games aren’t games. They’re Friday Night Live. They’re Saturday Spectacular. They’re hyped like shows. This team wasn’t just built to be a winner. It was built to be watched.
And it’s perfect for the second season of the series on Showtime called The Franchise. One team, all access, almost all season. Last year, for their series on the Giants, they won an Emmy for Outstanding Editing. For this season, Showtime and Major League Baseball Productions, the creative partners, targeted the Marlins. No hard sell was needed. Showtime wanted the Marlins. The Marlins wanted to be wanted. The bald desire for people to pretty please pay attention outweighed the possibility of a public relations complication.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” Samson told reporters. “They had me at hello.”
The show’s cameras first showed up at the winter meetings in December. They were there when spring training started a couple months later and Guillen greeted the players with a profane preseason pep talk.
“A lot of people, probably half of you guys, think I’m fucked up and crazy,” he told them, their uniforms as unsmudged as their 0-0 record. No, he said. He’s just honest, he said. He just tells people what he wants to tell them, not what they want to hear, he said. “They like it, they like it; they don’t, fuck it.”
Loria, the owner, sat in a folding chair and listened to his new manager’s speech with a clicker in his hand. He wore a black jacket and a mischievous grin, clutching the clicker, counting the fucks.
In May, I went to Miami to watch the cameras watch the Marlins. In June, I went to Secaucus, New Jersey, the headquarters of the MLB Network and Major League Baseball Productions, to watch on screens in editing studios some of what I’d watched get shot, and also other pieces of the best footage. By now, it’s thousands of hours, spanning the last six-plus months. The best of the best is what makes five hours of air. Hour-long Episode 1 is July 11. Half-hour episodes run the seven Wednesdays after that. Loria and his clicker made the special preview episode that ran in late April. The people holding the cameras saw it happen and got curious and pointed them that way.
This is not Basketball Wives. This is not Shaq’s Big Challenge. This is not Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch. This is not Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design. This is not Deion & Pilar: Prime Time Love. To call this reality TV isn’t fair, or even accurate, given what the term has come to connote. This is not Jersey Shore. “Jersey Shore,” supervising producer Gary Waksman told me in Miami, “is a train wreck.” This is not even Hard Knocks, probably the best-known example of this growing genre, loosely defined as sports reality. That HBO show tracks an NFL team through training camp. But Hard Knocks ends when the stuff gets good. The Franchise is something different.
This is documentary work. Fly on the wall. Immersion reporting. Two dozen people work full-time on The Franchise. It’s admirable in scope and intent. There’s a sincerity of purpose and craft that frankly — I’m sorry — I wasn’t expecting.
They’ve got great stuff.
They have players wired during batting practice. They have players wired during games. They have Zambrano wired during a game in which he pitched. That’s a first. It’s never been done. They have players watching scouting videos before at-bats. They have third baseman Hanley Ramirez feeding Yoplait to his little
daughter son. They have aerial shots taken from high-priced helicopters. They have cameras set up all over the ballpark for attractive time-lapse material. They have what they call “the natural sound of victory.” They have … the opposite. There’s a place in some of the notes of the producers and editors that I picked up in Secaucus in which the following sequence of words appears: “Eccentric team pres … body waxed for double marathon.” The access, at times, is astonishing.
It’s the most compelling kind of nonfiction. Let whatever’s going to happen … happen. Watch and wait. The aim in the end, according to executive producer David Check, is “to be true to the ebb and flow of the season. We document the season as it unfolds.” There’s no picking the plot. Reality comes as is. The reality here is that the Marlins aren’t very good. And it’s not because there’s an extra set of cameras and that’s a distraction. The Marlins aren’t very good because the Marlins aren’t very good. Those thousands of hours have started to look like an all-access archive of reasons.
“I love Fidel Castro.”
That’s how he started.
“I respect Fidel Castro.”
He kept going.
“You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years. But that motherfucker is still here.”
Guillen said what he said to Time. Many cameras recorded many things in those torrid few days. Only the cameras from The Franchise, though, recorded the phone call in which Samson told Guillen to come back to Miami from a road trip to explain himself, and the meeting in Guillen’s office in which Samson suspended him for five games, and Guillen watching in foul-mouthed agony those games on his couch at his house. The footage appeared in the episode in April. It also showed Samson meeting with him in his office before his first game back.
“It’s been the worst week we’ve ever had,” Samson told him. The Marlins had elderly Cuban men outside their shiny stadium theatrically stomping on pennants and signs.
The crisis did what crises do. Came and went.
“Glad you’re back,” Samson told him. “Do everything you do. I hope you’re not changed. I hope that we’ve all learned from this. But I hope that you’re still Ozzie.”
Ozzie is Ozzie as ever. He’s what men in baseball call a “baseball man.” He played the game. He’s one of the guys. He’s been around. He has that intangible dugout intuition. He speaks in the Spanglish mishmash that is the unofficial language of every fratty big league clubhouse. He’s unfiltered and uncouth. He talks too loudly and too much about fucking for a man who’s nearly 50. His reputation is deserved.
But the Castro comment is not unrelated to the reason he was hired in the first place. It could happen again.
“You in the right place?” Loria asked Reyes. “You sure you’re in the right clubhouse?”
This was in April, a couple weeks after the Guillen gaffe, the shortstop’s first game against his former team, in New York, at Citi Field. I watched the scene on a screen in Secaucus.
“Yes,” Reyes said.
“So am I,” Loria said.
The show’s crew had Reyes wired. In the first inning, he walked to the plate, batting leadoff. Mets fans booed.
The crew could hear what the crowd could not. “Give that shit to somebody else, man,” Reyes said, to himself, if not to his former fans, as he stepped into the batter’s box.
He lined a pitch from Johan Santana deep to left, where the Mets outfielder made a running, leaping catch in front of the 385-foot sign. Reyes rounded first and ran across the infield.
“Fuck,” he said walking back to the dugout.
“I told you they wouldn’t cheer for me,” he told teammate Emilio Bonifacio in Spanish.
A couple days later, back in South Florida, Samson, 44, woke up in the early-morning dark to run a double marathon. The route would take him from Pompano Beach all the way down to Miami, a total of 52.4 miles, from seven in the morning to almost seven in the evening. The stated goal was to honor the workers who built the new stadium and to raise half a million dollars for a variety of charities. I watched in Secaucus.
One of Showtime entertainment president David Nevins’s hopes going into this year’s series was to develop the front-office characters as much as the players. There’s Loria, the art-dealer owner in an Art Deco city. There’s the ruddy Beinfest. And then there’s the spindly Samson with the nasally voice. His conspicuously lengthy run offers metaphorical value within the story line of the season. It also let Samson be Samson.
“I’m trying to do something most people won’t do,” he said to the show’s cameras.
He’s done the Ironman before. He’s been skydiving. He enjoys animal comparisons, too, likening himself, on camera, to a bloody salmon swimming upstream to get sex and a greyhound chasing a rabbit in a race that never ends.
“I think every second you’re not doing something is a second you’ve wasted,” he explained. “So I try not to waste any time. Because time is the only thing I can’t control.”
“I don’t fail,” he added.
Samson finished the run, but not before stopping to get an IV and at one point vomiting on the street, which of course the cameras caught.
Nevins is getting what he wants. The accumulated footage is revealing. The Marlins, of course, sit in a state known for tepid fan support, and they’re in an especially flashy, flighty market, this chaotic jumble of a Caribbean capital in which even the NBA champions have to be pimped with PR pleas to please “Fan Up.” Sometimes it feels like reality is losing. But then here comes this show. This is why people like sports. Who are you? The Marlins are the Marlins. They’re what happens when people who make decisions worry too much about branding and too little about building. Watch enough of the footage and Samson emerges as the personification of the franchise, his character an arresting combination of ego and insecurity.
The retractable Marlins Park roof rumbled shut with rain on the way. This was the middle of May. The Mets were in town. Guillen sat in the dugout surrounded by his daily pregame half-moon media scrum. The manager told the reporters that Bell, the closer signed in the winter who had struggled so far in the spring — so much that he had been demoted from the role — was now his closer again. The show’s crew paid only so much attention. I didn’t hear that beat-writer notebook fodder right then, because the crew didn’t, either. They’d get it later. They’d get it better.
The daily routine of the baseball beat is a series of circumscribed availability. Here but not there. Now but not then. Some doors open. More doors close. Where that media access typically ends is where The Franchise begins.
After Guillen’s dugout media session, still about an hour before that night’s game, Loria, Samson, and Beinfest met in an office upstairs. The show’s cameras followed them. I followed the cameras. Beinfest sat at his desk. Samson sat in a chair. Loria sat on a couch. His garish 2003 World Series championship ring made it hard not to stare.
“Adam Katz called,” Samson started, referring to Hanley Ramirez’s agent, “and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in Miami, and I just want to come by and say hi.’ And I said, ‘OK, what’s up?’ And he said, ‘I just want to come by, just a quick hello, because I’m in town and haven’t seen the ballpark.'”
“There’s never nothing,” Loria said.
“So I go confirm,” Samson said, “because I want to confirm, two days ago. ‘Hey, listen, we’ve got to sit down, I think we should talk, let’s talk about Hanley. Because Hanley needs to know I’m advocating for him.'”
“I knew he was coming,” Beinfest said.
“You knew he was coming in, today, for an extension?” Samson said. “Why now?”
“Because he’s doing what his client asked him to do,” Beinfest said.
“You think Hanley thinks … ?” Samson said.
“He’s here because two other guys have signed recently,” Loria said. “And Hanley thinks he’s in the same situation. And if he weren’t hitting .204 he’d probably be in the same situation.”
“I’m just surprised that Hanley at .220 would think that now’s the time,” Samson said. “But anyway.”
New topic: Guillen. Bell.
“So,” Samson said, “[Guillen] in the dugout, doing his thing, his five o’clock meeting with the media, and he said Heath Bell is now our closer, so the media tweeted it, and that’s how we got it. So … ”
“I was with him earlier today,” Beinfest said, “and just asked him what was going on, and he didn’t say a word.”
“By the way,” Samson said, “I’d rather Heath Bell be the closer. I just hope he doesn’t blow another save. Because then we’re really screwed.”
New topic: Attendance.
“This weekend,” Samson said, “it’s good today, better tomorrow, decent Sunday. Monday and Tuesday are mediocre. Monday and Tuesday are in the 20s. Today and tomorrow are 30s. Sunday is Mother’s Day and it sucks. Mother’s Day is the worst day to host a game. It is the fucking worst.
“So we tried everything,” he continued, looking mostly at Loria. “We tried giving away necklaces, rings, certificates. We did a promotion, leave your wife at home to get a spa thing, bring your kids to the game. Every year people apply not to host on Mother’s Day.”
“At least we have nice bracelets for the mothers that come,” Loria said.
“It’s bullshit,” Samson said.
Samson got up.
“Thank you for sitting in with Katz,” he said to Loria, bringing up Ramirez’s agent again. “He likes it better when you’re there.
“It’s all right,” Loria said.
“It makes him feel like he’s important,” Samson said.
Loria turned to Beinfest. More Guillen talk.
“I find it unbelievable that no communication comes about who his closer is,” Loria said.
“He’s, um, he’s — I’m going to go talk to him,” Beinfest said. “Say, ‘Just give me a head’s-up. Tell me what you’re thinking.'”
“He probably made the decision,” Loria said, “as he was going to the bathroom before he went to the dugout.”
“Did I have any second thoughts in relation to the show?” Loria rhetorically asked me after the meeting. “Not a moment’s thought. Whatever comes out comes out. We have interesting players, new players, young players, extremely talented players. Why wouldn’t we want the world to see what we’re all about?”
Guillen? Castro? If nothing else … that?
“That’s a part of the deal,” Loria said. “These are the risks you take. Either you’re born a risk-taker or you’re not. I am. We have this fantastic ballpark and a manager who’s — who’s an exciting guy. I mean it. I mean it in a positive way. We knew when we hired Ozzie that he was outspoken, but he also brings an incredible energy, which I felt we had not had for a long time. Why not us? Why not do it?”
He added to his answer by telling a lie.
“There are no secrets in baseball.”
The next day, a Saturday Spectacular, as one crew went up in a helicopter to get sexy shots of the city, another crew set up Bonifacio on some dugout steps. Waksman wanted to talk to him about “Lo Viste.” Marlins players had taken to making a sort of “V” with two fingers and holding it up to their eyes when they did something good. Lo Viste. See that?
“Talk about how it’s become almost the battle cry,” Waksman said.
Bonifacio wore a black Marlins hoodie and black Marlins shorts and black Marlins socks pulled up to his knees and high-top sneakers the Day-Glo shade of traffic cones. An assistant held a boom microphone above his head. Another assistant held a circular light reflector off to the side. A clubhouse attendant restocked a nearby mini-fridge with bottles of Gatorade, quietly, making sure not to sully the sound.
“What exactly does it mean?” Waksman asked.
“Do you see it?” Bonifacio answered.
“Do you see it?”
We see it.
Waksman asked Bonifacio if he’d wear a wire during the game. He said yes. I stood with Waksman and the crew in the ground-level camera well by the Marlins’ dugout and wore headphones to listen to the feed. It was a unique experience, being down there so close to the dirt, all other noise blocked out, listening to just one player breathe.
Late May. The Giants were in Miami. “Come on, Heath,” a wired-up Loria grumbled from his seats by the dugout, shot in Miami, now on a screen in Secaucus. “You’re better than this.”
More problems for the Marlins’ closer. He came in with a three-run lead, but had surrendered three hits to the first four Giants. Now Guillen was on his way to the mound to take him out before a bad situation turned worse. Boooooooooo.
“It’s a step backwards,” Samson said to Loria in their seats.
“You can’t let him stand out there and kill himself,” Loria said back.
That day, after Bell was taken out, he spoke to reporters about Guillen.
“Ozzie doesn’t talk to me very often,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a language barrier or what. I’m open to talk. I have talked to him in the past. I like him as a manager. I like him as a guy. … But I really haven’t sat down and talked pitching with him.”
And so he did.
And so the show’s cameras followed.
And so there in an editing room in Secaucus, Josh Oshinsky, a senior producer, hit play on what he calls the best access he’s ever seen within the best access he’s ever seen. He’s watched it hundreds of times. Now once more.
Bell walked into Guillen’s office and sat down. Guillen leaned back in his chair and propped his sandaled feet on the top of his desk.
“I kind of feel like that night I was being second-guessed, like there was no confidence in me,” the closer said to the manager. “I went out there and after I gave up a hit I’ll tell you I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I hope they leave me in here.’ And then I walked a guy and I went, ‘Oh, crap, if I walk another guy, I’m out of this game.’
“It’s just in my head,” Bell said. “I’ve never really talked to you about pitching before. You know, I don’t think it’s a good thing or bad thing, but right now I feel like I need to talk to you so you know exactly what I’m thinking, exactly where I’m coming from.”
Guillen said nothing.
“I feel like nobody’s got my back here,” Bell said.
“You’re fucking wrong,” Guillen snapped.
“I’m just, I’m just — I’m speaking to you,” Bell said.
“I’m speaking to you, too,” Guillen said.
“Kid,” the manager said to the 34-year-old, 6-foot-2, 250-pound closer, “you haven’t thrown a breaking ball for a strike … ”
Guillen thought for a beat.
“First month of the season,” Bell admitted.
“Yes,” Guillen said. “OK?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Be my closer.”
“Do you want me to go out there and shove it up their ass?” Bell asked.
Guillen looked at him like he was crazy. Like the answer was obvious.