But José Fernández had actually died. That José Fernández.
The next day the Mets had to compete with a team that was wearing one number on their jerseys and openly crying on the field. Dee Gordon, leading off, hit his only home run of 2016 in his first at-bat. The opponents embraced. The Marlins won, a burst of inspiration before the fight went out of them, and they limped through the last week of the season. It was a special night, a tribute to the franchise’s most beloved player, but still the shadowy recesses of Marlins Park remained largely empty.
Everyone who thinks about baseball could clearly see the game-side implications of the loss of Fernández, though it felt and still feels a little crass to speak of them. His death betrays the peculiar volatility of the baseball economy, where the fortunes of a franchise can be locked within the mortal sinews of a single man. The Marlins, in their current iteration, were done. If it had at some point been a rebuild, it had failed. Bobbing just below .500 for years, with Fernández at the front of the rotation the franchise could at least uphold the pretense that they contend. Without Fernández, they were a ship without an engine, an utterly unique and irreplaceable one, tied to the dock.
And so it is odd watching the Marlins in 2017, a middling team that perhaps I alone will remember fondly, a ship abandoned by its neglectful and capricious owner, waiting to be dismantled and sold piece by piece. On the surface the Marlins may seem unremarkable, but watching as closely as I have, I see a team that is more than the ratio of their wins and losses. I see a group of guys, bonded by tragedy, who genuinely like each other, who huddle together under the cloud that shadows their franchise, and seem to have created a space for themselves in which that cloud doesn’t exist. The season so far has been a shifting mosaic of highs and lows that is alternately tedious and fascinating to watch, out of which poingant moments emerge like rainbows: Ichiro’s home run in Seattle, Edinson Volquez’s no hitter, the six-run comeback and walk-off win against the Nationals, watching Giancarlo Stanton cheer on Justin Bour in the Home Run Derby. I never meant to become a Marlins fan, but I got hung up on the big, black doe-eyes of a lanky outfielder, and now I have a soft spot for all of them. Soon they’ll be parting ways to allow for a desperately needed transformation, so consider this my signature in their yearbook.
On May 3 Marcell Ozuna hit a home run that soared in an arc parallel to the artificial firmament of Tropicana Field and splashed against a banner reading “2011 Wild Card” before dropping into the seats to end its 468-foot expedition. This feat of athleticism took place during the “Citrus Series,” four games between the Marlins and Rays that straddled Miami and Tampa Bay and showcased the peculiarly Floridian indifference to major league baseball. Marcell Ozuna, though handsome and huge and athletic, has been something of the Ringo of the Marlins outfield (in a scenario in which Stanton is John, Yelich is Paul, and Ichiro is George), but in 2017 he is an elite player (so…Mick Jagger, I guess). A contending team could really use an outfielder like Marcell Ozuna, and the Marlins aren’t contending this year. I doubt they’re contending any year before 2020, barring some swift turnaround after the team is sold. And while the opacity of the franchise’s ownership future makes it hard to predict what transactions the team may or may not make, it seems inevitable (and justified) that Ozuna will be wearing a different jersey very soon.
On June 9, in another anomalous display of power by a Marlins outfielder, Stanton hit a home run at PNC Park that reached the top of the towering batter’s eye, and would have cleared the stadium entirely if not for a metal railing, which it dented. Such ridiculous feats are the reason he garnered a 13-year, $325 million contract. If any franchise could bear the weight of a contract that guarantees a player a $25 million salary in his age 37 season, you’d think it’d be the Yankees, or the Dodgers, or maybe a fictitious team owned by an Emir. But would any team, even a fictional one, deem it wise to take on such a contract? It seems likely that the Marlins will be paying Stanton through 2028 regardless of where he plays, so would it be better for them to keep his bat to themselves? Is it even an option in the South Florida market?
Stanton’s mystique has always been his raw power and his size, but I can’t help but wonder how much value these qualities actually contribute to a lineup. A home run that leaves the park is worth no more in the currency of runs than one that barely clears the fence, and there are plenty of players whose slugging statistics approach or exceed Stanton’s. (At the All-Star break, for instance, Stanton is slugging .572. The much-less heralded Travis Shaw is slugging .570.)
If it is the spectacle of Stanton’s home runs at the heart of his value, in Miami, at least, spectacle isn’t translating into revenue. Not enough fans are buying tickets to justify such an expensive headliner. Coors Field seems like a more suitable venue for his act, but it’s hard to imagine him in a setting less glamorous than Miami. (I’ve never been to Miami, but I understand it to be a kind of nudist colony for Instagram models.) Even his prodigious size has been one-upped now that Aaron Judge has arrived. Not only is Judge bigger, but he plays in the City at the Center of the Universe, in the Market to End All Markets, under the lights of Yankee Stadium. Stanton has never been celebrated in Miami the way Judge already is in New York. There’s no equivalent to the Judge’s Chambers in Marlins Park. If he does leave Miami, New York and Los Angeles seem to be the only places big enough to hold him, but for the Yankees he would only be an exorbitant redundancy, so that narrows the options even further. And yet, the situation isn’t as vexing as it once was, because since Stanton’s MLB debut they’ve been grooming another darling to step into the spotlight.
Babyface of the Franchise?
Christian Yelich returned with Stanton to Marlins spring training from the World Baseball Classic like a kid who had just gone to Space Camp. Say what you will about whether the American public cared about Team USA’s WBC win, the players loved it deeply. They reveled in it like puppies rubbing their necks on something they found in the yard, and none more enthusiastically than Yelich, an all-American boy with a little brother in the Marines. For a should-be star who has never made it to the playoffs, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger trophies dulled in comparison to putting on a pair of goggles and bathing in champagne with a victorious team.
The denouement was like an abyss. At least for Yeli. Giancarlo was there too, but he’s too cool and a little jaded. Just being Giancarlo Stanton is like winning the WBC every time he passes a mirror, so it’s understandable. But Yelich, whoever he may actually be, can’t quite shake the appearance of a freshman hanging with a group of seniors, as if a speech bubble with the words “Hey guys, wait up!” should be fixed above his head. After the win, he was giddy and more talkative than he’s been in his career. Earnest, boyish joy radiating from his dewy complexion, saying to anyone who would listen that it was the most fun he’d ever had playing baseball.
Translation: Way more fun that playing for the Marlins.
Cut to April, and Yelich is slumping. Even now, at the All-Star break, his production is not up to his usual standards (though he did heat up as the calendar turned to July). If you were to question him directly and extensively as to the source of his lackluster (for him) production from April through June, he himself probably couldn’t tell you. Journalists have tried to discuss his game with him, his approach, his mechanics, and he never has much to say, though I don’t think he’s being willfully obtuse. Yelich’s baseball knowledge doesn’t reside in his conscious mind, but in his bones and muscles and gut. They’d have more luck directing their questions to his ligaments and neurons. His state of mind is even harder to discern. When the camera catches him in candid moments, a smile or a gesture to one of his teammates will betray a personality and an innate comic timing that virtually never come through in interviews. His social media presence is sparse and fairly bland. For me, he’s an awkward kid who’s trying not to be noticed. He keeps his true self well-protected, and who can blame him for that? He doesn’t have to give up his privacy, but if Christian could learn to be a little more comfortable in his own skin in front of a camera his career would doubtlessly benefit.
He could become the face of the franchise, but Yelich is a bit of a Rorschach test—different people see drastically different things when they look at him. He has the kind of looks that girls love but guys love to make fun of. His viability as a leading man is hard to predict, though with my vantage point from one of the demographic inefficiencies MLB needs to exploit, the fact this article is threatening to become a Russian novel about him should tell you something. He is marketable, but so far his 2017 is not the All-Star season it should have been.
Inevitably I have theories as to what is wrong with him. It might be that the attention and expectations he earned with his 2016 breakout and his role in the WBC win shook his foundation. It could be something simple and superficial like the pitches he’s choosing to swing at, or the timing of that swing. But more than anything he seems to be suffering from a general malaise, a diffuse ennui. Barry Bonds, though he may have butted heads with Stanton, was a good hitting coach for Yelich, but Bonds is gone. Christian came up through the minors side by side with José Fernández, and now Jose’s locker is glassed over like a macabre shop window, a constant clubhouse reminder of the specter of death, of a chaotic and meaningless waste of greatness. Yelich is in center field now, but his big brothers in the corners, consciously or not, often step in front of him and backhand balls that he is ready to catch. At every opportunity he flings himself against the outfield wall, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, as if trying to atone for something. Marlins park is an echoing void. Christian Yelich is no longer having the most fun he’s ever had playing baseball.
I can’t help but feel he might be playing better on a different team. I imagine him back in his hometown, hitting leadoff and playing center field for the Dodgers, thriving as a medium fish in a big pond. That might be the cure, but it’s hard to imagine anyone running a baseball team wanting to give up Yelich. He may be on a quieter and more traditional career trajectory than the Kris Bryants and Cody Bellingers of the league—filling out so gradually that at 25 he still only looks about halfway there—but his patient growth portends a long, steady, productive career. He waits upon the whims of ownership for at least another five years, and he’s an incredible bargain. And perhaps he only needs the big trees cut down around him to spread out and flourish in Miami. Or perhaps his hot start to July is a harbinger for a torrid hot streak for the rest of the season, Miami or not. Perhaps he just took longer to get started this season. Baseball seasons don’t always follow a linear path after all. Perhaps this is just the year that Christian has a second half for the ages.
If Christian stays then so should his buddy Justin Bour, the Hardy to his Laurel, a creature from the other end of the spectrum of major league players. Nothing like the ethereal and reserved first-round talent who leapt nimbly from high school to the major leagues, Bour a burly, earthy, college slugger and 25th-round grinder, plowed his way through the Cubs system and might have never made it past AAA if the Marlins hadn’t taken him in the minor league Rule 5 draft. Self deprecating and quick-witted, infinitely likable and natural in front of the camera, with a name so fitting and descriptive you’d think Dickens gave it to him, you can tell Bour made it to the big leagues on the force of his personality. One can only imagine the value he brings in clubhouse charisma and fan affection, but the value he brings with his bat is becoming undeniable. He’s living up to his big, beefy potential as a left-handed power hitter, and they’re paying him peanuts.
An ace is the most elusive quarry in the baseball universe, but almost as elusive is his counterpart at the other end of the battery, a catcher like JT Realmuto. Realmuto’s biggest strength may be his pop time, but it isn’t shocking to see a major league catcher make a good throw to second base. What is shocking is his running ability. It’s weird seeing a catcher so catlike on the basepaths. And you witness this phenomenon often because he’s also good at getting on base. Taken in the third round of the same draft as Christian, he’s only in his fourth big league season and owed a fraction of what he’s actually worth. It would be utterly insane to give up JT Realmuto. I fully expect him to remain a Marlin.
When shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria went on the DL in April and again in May with an oblique strain, another JT surfaced in his wake, and has been doing just fine. JT Riddle has made some rookie mistakes, but he’s also had some clutch hits. (I know clutch isn’t a thing. It seems like it is, though.) He was and is plenty good enough to clear Hechavarria from the payroll, and so that’s what the Marlins did, trading him to Tampa Bay at the end of June. Another initialed player who may be ticketed out of town is closer A.J. Ramos. I can’t claim to know much about how much of a closer’s distinction from the rest of the bullpen is psychological or superstitious or based on actual skill. Ramos though, on pace for his third straight 30-save season, seems to have handled the transition just fine. Some front office will probably see him as a lucky charm they need to put on their keychain.
The mind-bending sum of money Loria is demanding for the franchise he’s mishandled for the past 15 years has been explained as the price tag for what the Marlins could be, not what they currently are. If the baseball-loving Latino population of south Florida were engaged rather than alienated, if the team were backed by benefactors who were driven to create excellent baseball and put a meaningful product on the field rather than run an overblown Ponzi scheme, if the fans and taxpayers weren’t made to feel like fools for their loyalty and hard work, it could be a very lucrative enterprise. It’s too bad that Marlins Park is too big to fail, because I hate it. When I think of the old-world beauty of Cuban style, the rich wood-tones of cigar boxes, the elegant intricacies of wrought iron balconies, the meticulous gloss of perfectly preserved vintage cars, and the organic vibrance of tropical plants, the missed architectural opportunity pains me.
Marlins Park is built in a style that I can only describe as “dystopian.” It creates a backdrop to Marlins home games that makes them look like they’re taking place on the set of a low-budget Tron reboot (or perhaps, just the original Tron, which upon rewatching was an exceedingly low-budget affair by today’s standards). And Marlins Park was anything but low-budget; in fact, it was excruciatingly expensive. But it’s not nearly as ugly when there are fans in the seats. Miami is bursting with money and youth and beautiful people. If a Marlins game were an attractive proposition, the cobalt seats of Marlins park could be as star studded as those in Dodger Stadium. I hope that whomever buys the Marlins has the makeup to go along with their vast wealth. Only with passion, sincerity, and a bone-deep feel for the game and the culture of Miami can the ship be remade, and pushed from shore onto the right course.
Flawed though it’s always been, even the ship that’s ended its voyage has not been worthless. Major League Baseball, even in its unlit corners, is a thing of beauty, where average is extraordinary, and cheap is worth a fortune, and the Miami Marlins have been no exception. If you don’t believe me, pull up that game from Sept. 26, 2016, and see if you don’t catch Marlins fever, just a little.