Black and Brown Blues

NBA Trade Value, Part 3

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Miami’s Blue Period

Who's still going to Marlins games?

About half a block from Marlins Park, a hunchbacked stadium in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, a scalper named Shorty spoke in a stage whisper. “Need a single?” he asked.

I did.

“Give me 10 bucks,” Shorty said, cupping a crumpled ticket in his hand.

Under normal circumstances, a scalper has the advantage in these encounters. Shorty would have massaged the market for that night’s Mets-Marlins game before I even showed up. But I knew all about the Marlins. I knew they had the worst record in baseball. I knew Marlins Park had become an ocean of empty blue seats. I knew Giancarlo ( Mike) Stanton, the only superstar left after the Marlins’ clearance sales, had strained his right hamstring the night before and was out for weeks. Stanton was being replaced in the lineup by a guy named Marcell Ozuna, who jumped straight from Double-A. Ten bucks?

I must have looked skeptical, because Shorty played up the illicitness of our transaction. He pulled me into a parking garage. “There’s a cop over there,” he said.

Let the cop come, I thought. If baseball tickets were narcotics, this thing in his hand would count as “trace amounts.” It had next to no value.

“I got four bucks,” I said.

Shorty took the money and vanished.

That was how I got into Marlins Park on April 30, for the first of two games. Four measly bucks put me in a seat on the lower level, a ways down the third-base line, without a seatmate on any side. It was a perfectly lonely place to think about what happens when Major League Baseball is played in front of nobody, about whether we should go to a stadium in such circumstances, and about the trickle-down effects such a decision has, in turn, on people ranging from the Marlins players to Shorty the scalper.

I was sipping a Diet Pepsi and eating a hot dog when I realized I’d forgotten to look at the actual price on my ticket to see what kind of bargain I’d gotten. I looked. It was … one dollar.

I had overpaid.

The emptiness of Marlins Park pulses through Little Havana like a Martian death ray. As I drove down Northwest Seventh Street, I followed the frantic signal of a man who directed me to turn on Northwest 14th Court. There, I was waved into the front yard of Ina Questa.

Ina had lived in her brown, cinder-block house since the stadium that loomed over her was the Orange Bowl. She had been directing cars into her front yard since the early 1970s. Back then, she charged $3 to park. Three dollars in 1972 is worth more than $16 today. However, these days, Ina can get only $10 from fans. Thanks to the Marlins’ extreme suckiness, Ina’s yard had not kept up with inflation.

Mercedes Hernandez lives across the street from Ina. She, too, took on cars during Marlins games. “Hay muy poco público,” Mercedes said. She then launched into a rant about the team. I didn’t catch all of it, but I heard her repeat the words el dueño — the owner, Jeffrey Loria.

Since the Marlins began to offload their stars last season, Ina and Mercedes had noticed two things. First, of course, there were fewer cars. Second, the drivers did whatever the hell they wanted to. I saw a man pull onto the street, ignore Mercedes’s instructions, and park directly in the middle of her front lawn. The man handed her $10 and made for the stadium.

Inside, Marlins Park was empty in a patchy, disorganized way. Section 7, which is between the visitors’ dugout and right field, was about two-thirds full. Section 8, which is closer to home, was completely full. But Sections 9 and 10, which were even closer to the plate, had only one-quarter of their seats filled with real, carbon-based life forms. (As with all struggling teams, there is a discrepancy between the Marlins’ reported ticket sales and their actual attendance. In April, the official count was thrown into further dispute when a woman managed to smuggle in a live raccoon.)

It was the same at the concessions. Sir Pizza (“Good to the Very Edge!”) had long lines. But the poor woman manning the popcorn refill station — where you apparently could not buy a bucket of popcorn, just get a refill — had balled up her fist and was banging the back of her head to stay awake.

The Marlins have dealt with emptiness since the beginning. The franchise played its first game in 1993 and had the lowest attendance in baseball for its first decade. It was not unusual to find crowds at the old Joe Robbie Stadium as paltry as the 15,018 reported to have showed up April 30. “If this big,” said Jeff Conine, the former outfielder known as “Mr. Marlin,” who’s now an announcer and works in the team’s front office.

“I never gave it a thought,” Conine said. “Obviously, you play off the energy of a bigger crowd. But it didn’t affect me at all.” Conine did remember one weird thing about Joe Robbie: In the emptiness, you could hear an individual heckler’s voice with amazing clarity. It was like you and the heckler were at the same café and he was two tables over.

“I’m a Dominican,” a fan named George Feliz told me, “and when they opened this place all the Dominicans were excited.” Indeed, Marlins Park, which was built with more than $500 million in public financing, opened last April with a bang. The team had signed free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and — what was $27 million more? — Heath Bell. Ozzie Guillen was the manager, and the reality series The Franchise was chronicling the team’s first season in the new park.

Then, the deluge. The Marlins struggled to sell tickets, the team sucked, and Guillen proclaimed his admiration for Fidel Castro. (The mayor who backed the stadium, Carlos Alvarez, had already been removed in a recall election.) The Marlins would dump Reyes, Bell, and Buehrle, along with Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio. After the All-Star break, Marlins Park was as ghostly as Joe Robbie. I could find only two near-sellouts at the 37,442-seat venue this spring. The first was the Dominican Republic–U.S. game at the World Baseball Classic, which came up a few thousand short. The second was the televangelist Joel Osteen’s “Night of Hope,” which packed the joint.

“In Northwest Miami,” George said, “we were buying Jose Reyes shirts, Bonifacio, Hanley. We were spending a hundred and something dollars! Now, we’re stuck with the shirts.” George pointed at his friend, who’d been watching our conversation silently. “Put it this way,” George said. “He came from the Dominican Republic. We came here because he wants to see David Wright.”

Marlins fans had a dilemma. They could protest Loria’s stinginess, and their elected officials’ complicity in the public financing, by staying home. “A lot of people are upset, so they’re kind of boycotting,” said James Grovetzian, who was hanging out at the big bar in center field. But since Marlins tickets were basically worthless — either through the secondary market or promotions from Pepsi, Chevron, and Subway that nearly matched Shorty’s prices — you could argue that fans coming to the game didn’t really fatten Loria’s pocketbook. By this thinking, the superior form of protest was to show up and ignore the Marlins.

That’s what Julio Mallea and Ramsey Abreu had figured. They’d gotten free tickets from a friend, had watched the Mets and Marlins go 1-2-3 in the first, and then hit the concourses. Ramsey said, “We came here to have a few beers and we couldn’t care less about the game.”

I noted that Julio was wearing a Marlins cap. “I’m a Mets fan,” Julio insisted, “but I lost my hat.” Sure.

The crowd around the bar in center — where the TVs were playing TNT’s NBA pregame show — had been three deep last spring. Now, Julio and Ramsey could walk right up and grab a beer. They could admire the leggy female “beauty pageant” in the concourses, which seemed to have been unaffected by the lousiness of the team.

In other words, they could treat Marlins Park like Dolphin Mall. The baseball had an apocryphal quality, and even Loria had become indistinct, like a Bond villain from three movies ago. “I dunno,” Julio said, “he collects art. Let him collect art and leave us alone.” Julio nodded at the giant Red Grooms installation in center, which looks like Shamu had tried her hand at pop art. “How about that hideous monstrosity?” Julio said.

The entire upper deck, an usher told me, was closed that night — a decision the Marlins made official this week. I found myself staring across the expanses of blue seats toward Section 139, in right field. I could see one man there, sitting in the front row. The section rose behind him like a Plinko board.

His name was Jim Varsalone — perfect for a solitary soul. Mr. Varsalone had brought a can of Pepsi to the box office, which got him into the stadium for $5. “This is actually better than the end of last season,” he told me. “Considering what Mr. Loria did, I expected a lot worse.” Varsalone wore a fishing hat with the old, teal Marlins logo, blue jeans, and a cross necklace.

It was the bottom of the ninth inning — the previous eight had played in two hours flat — and the Mets were leading 1-0. Varsalone had been here the night before, when the game lasted 15 innings and more than five and a half hours. (Stanton had gotten hurt in extras.) By the end, the stadium was practically empty.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan led off with a pinch-hit single to left. Coghlan took second on a passed ball. The scoreboard said “Make Some Noise,” and we remaining stragglers put up a pretty good effort. Juan Pierre bunted Coghlan to third and wound up safe at first himself.

The Mets brought out reliever Brandon Lyon, but the Potemkin franchise wouldn’t be denied. Donovan Solano hit a single the other way, tying the game and moving Pierre to third. Lyon intentionally walked Placido Polanco — if you’re looking to intentionally walk a Marlin, I guess Polanco fits the bill. With the bases loaded, and the tiny Marlins fan base screaming, Lyon’s first pitch got by the catcher. Pierre slid into home with the winning run.

I was the only person in Section 139 available for Varsalone to high-five. “That’s three in a row!” he yelled into the emptiness. “That’s three in a row! I never thought I’d say this: We won three in a row!”

The next morning, Eric Dunkley was scalping tickets over on 17th Avenue. How’s business? I asked. “Shitty,” Eric said. “They sold the team, man.” The street was empty but for a police car that had been optimistically assigned for traffic control. A fan in a Reds hat came by clutching a couple of tickets.

“Got any extras?” Eric asked.

“How much will you pay for ’em?” the man asked.

Pay for ’em?” Eric said.

A Marlins scalper, I learned, doesn’t pay for tickets. Or doesn’t pay much. Eric, like my pal Shorty, buys tickets from the Marlins’ website for the group-sales rate of $1 a piece. (This explained my absurdly cheap ticket from the night before.) Then the scalper tries to flip them.

The customer is quoted an initial figure of $10. But the scalper will always take $5. By the start of the game, he will take anything so he doesn’t have to eat the tickets and lose money on the bus fare back home. “Ten bucks is about as much as you can get,” Eric said. “Even behind the plate. That really sucks.” For Osteen’s “Night of Hope,” however, Eric got as much as $40 per ticket.

Besides Heat games, where it costs $150 to walk in the door (more for playoffs), Miami has turned into a scalping sewer. The Dolphins were bad business unless they were playing the Patriots. According to Eric, he’d been flying north to scalp Florida State games on Saturdays and Tampa Bay games on Sundays. The North Florida twofer could net him a couple thousand — that is, in pure profit. Of course, he had to shell out for the plane flights and $70 for a room at the HoJo.

Only tourists fell for the Marlins hustle. They — or me, the night before — would find themselves outside a new major league park and think $10 was a reasonable asking price. “If you get an out-of-towner,” Eric told me, “you can get you something.”

Albert Taylor, another scalper, walked up looking triumphant. Taylor had just unloaded his tickets to a sap near the Marlins’ box office for — he claimed — $10 to $15 each. The box office was where the customers were, Albert said. The problem was, it was surrounded by cops. Eric headed off that way and tried to look nonchalant. “You gotta look like a fan,” Albert told me. He smiled to reveal a mouthful of gold teeth.

With the Marlins, scalping had become a democratized business. While Albert and I were waiting to see how Eric made out, I met a boy named Leslie who was 16 years old but barely looked 12. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I sell tickets, too,” Leslie said.

A man in a Heat jersey wandered over to dump an extra ticket. “I paid $40 for behind the dugout,” he told Leslie. “Give me 10 right now.”

“Two bucks,” Leslie said.

The man grimaced and his face got red. “I’m from the Bronx,” he snarled. “Don’t talk to me like that.”

A few minutes later, the man wandered back over and looked at Leslie. “Five bucks,” he said.

Leslie looked away.

The man felt like a sap. “This owner should be shot,” he told me. “Look at that beautiful stadium. Cheap bastard.”

He looked again at Leslie. “Kid, I’m taking you for free. Come on. You made me feel bad.” I saw Leslie and the man walk into the stadium and ride up the escalator together. The man had been whipped in the negotiation but had consoled himself with a write-off.

Albert and I discovered Eric near the box office. He’d found a mark: A thirtyish guy with two elderly relatives. He was the kind of guy who might not know the arid nature of the Marlins ticket market. The kind of guy who didn’t want a lot of messy haggling in front of his loved ones. “How much?” the guy asked as he looked over the worthless tickets.

“Twenty each,” Eric said optimistically.

The man gave Eric $60 bucks. Eric tried to stifle a grin.

I still needed a ticket. About that time, a man named Corey Sticco approached me. Corey had an extra. It was in Section 15 — lower level, directly behind the plate. Corey did not ask for money. He handed the ticket to me and we walked into Marlins Park together.

My scalping tally: two Marlins games. Two lower-level seats, including a one-in-a-lifetime seat behind the plate. Four bucks. Which seemed about right.

David Samson, the Marlins president, came down to Section 15 after a few innings. Samson, who is Loria’s stepson, is a small, thin marathoner. His shirt was unbuttoned and he was unshaven, like one of the guys hanging in The Clevelander, the club in left field. Samson noted that he had not gone into hiding. “I don’t sit at home in the fetal position sucking my thumb,” he said.

It was Weather Day, where Miami schoolkids filed into the ballpark and listened to meteorologists lecture about hurricanes and other deadly forces. To continue the theme, the students stayed to watch the Marlins. “Weather Day is my least favorite day because of the foul balls,” Samson said nervously. “Look at this kid right here.” A kid from Citrus Grove Middle School was turned around in his seat, talking to some friends behind him. “No one’s paying attention.”

“Do you get emotional when you see empty seats?” I asked Samson.

“No, I’m not very emotional at all,” he said. “My wife would change that about me if she could change one thing. No, it makes me work harder.”

Samson had been roaming the concourses, talking to any Marlins fan who stopped him. (No one yelled, he said; true hate only came from “cyber courage.”) Samson’s message was delicate. No Marlins fan was going to be persuaded that dumping the team’s stars, especially right after the new stadium was built, had been a noble act. So Samson had given that up right away. “I’m not trying to change their mind,” he said. “I’m not even trying to have people understand.”1

What Samson was trying to sell was the virtues of an empty stadium. He remembered going to Yankee Stadium during the lean years of the 1980s, when he regularly got in for 10 bucks. You didn’t have to like the regime to like the access. Similarly, Samson wanted to decouple Marlins Park, which nearly everyone liked, from the Marlins owners, whom everyone hated.

Although Samson did not put it this way, he was trying to perform an exorcism on the park.

“I’m trying to make it OK to come to the ballpark and have a memory with your child,” he said.

It is an opportunity, I admitted, thinking about my two seats.

“Right,” Samson said, “because it’s fun. That’s what makes me feel the worst, if anyone’s not coming because of me.”

I wanted to watch the final inning of Marlins vs. Mets alone. It seemed appropriate. I made my way to Section 141, in right field, where there wasn’t a single Miami bro waving for the T-shirt gun or schoolkid singing along to “Call Me Maybe.” I sat there in a blue seat, without company, while the Marlins recorded their last three outs.

I thought of Ina and Mercedes, Mr. Varsalone, Eric and Shorty, and even David Samson. What a strange corner of baseball they inhabited. They are Marlins people, united by a communal experience that nobody else showed up for.

Filed Under: Miami, Miami Marlins, Teams

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast