It was 20 years ago today

Expansion teams are linked together like fraternal twins. They come into the world in pairs at the same time and under similar circumstances. From day one, comparisons between the two peers are inevitable, but it must be remembered that they are not identical twins. Their rates of development may vary widely. I offer into evidence Exhibits 1 and 2: the Colorado Rockies and the Miami (née Florida) Marlins who came into the world 20 years ago.

Like human beings, expansion teams have a conception and a birth. In a sense, the Rockies and the Marlins were conceived many years ago by any number of serious baseball folk in Denver and Miami who figured they were ready to move up to major league status. In a formal sense, they were conceived when they were awarded National League franchises in 1991. Actually, “awarded” might not be the right word, as the Rockies and Marlins had to pay $95 million each for the privilege of joining the league.

The 1993 round of expansion can largely be attributed to the Senate Task Force on Major League Expansion during the 1980s. Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth was the point man for the group, which also included future U.S. vice-presidents Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Major League Baseball, ever mindful of maintaining that precious antitrust exemption, sat up and listened when heavy-hitting politicos spoke.

Most fans would designate the birth date of their team as the first regular season game, though an argument could be made for the approval of the franchise application (in this case, June 10, 1991) or the approval of the league owners (July 5, 1991). The expansion draft (Nov. 17, 1992) was another key date— can’t have a team without players! A case could be made for the opening of spring training camp, or the first spring training game—ample proof that a near-term baby can survive outside the womb. In fact, the ultimate preemies might be the minor league teams that started play one season in advance of their major league affiliates.

Thanks to a larger talent pool, fans had greater expectations for the Rockies and the Marlins than fans of previous expansion clubs did. For the first time, the new teams could draft players from both leagues—even though the expansion was strictly a National League affair. The American League was persuaded to go along thanks to a revenue-sharing plan hatched by Commissioner Fay Vincent.

The Rockies were set to play in the seven-team National League West and the Marlins in the seven-team National League East. The National League Central (and an expanded postseason) came into being one year after the Rockies and Marlins debuted, but they remained in their original divisions.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two franchises was climate. The Rockies played in a cool, dry (except when it snowed) climate, the Marlins in a hot, humid one. The altitude and light air made Denver a hitters’ paradise and a pitchers’ hell. The heavy air in South Florida had the opposite effect. The Rockies’ inability to attract free agent pitchers has been a long-term problem.

Free agent pitchers haven’t exactly flocked to South Florida either. I’m thinking climate plays a part in that. The most stifling night I ever spent at a ballpark was a Marlins game in August of 1997, and I’m sure numerous starters readily figured out it was not the most pleasant place to throw 100 pitches or so. The opening of Marlins Park (with its retractable roof) in 2012 may change hurlers’ attitudes.

Climate aside, both new franchises started out with football stadiums for their new homes. Mile High Stadium (76,037 capacity), on the west side of Denver, was best known as the home of the NFL Broncos. Ironically, the edifice had started life as a minor league baseball park in 1948. Even after the arrival of the Broncos in 1960, the minor league Bears/Zephyrs continued playing there.

Mile High Stadium was unique and not just because of the altitude. For one thing, the playing surface had a heating system under the turf to stimulate growth even on the coldest winter days. Even more impressive was the design of the east stands. If you saw it during a football game, it wouldn’t look like anything out of the ordinary, but thanks to hydraulics, the three-level structure—all 9 million pounds of it, from end zone to end zone—was moved back 145 feet, literally at a snail’s pace (two hours), to create the baseball configuration. Virtually all seats available for Broncos games were also available for Rockies games. The enormous seating capacity had already enabled Denver to set a number of minor league attendance records.

The Marlins also moved into an NFL facility, the Miami Dolphins’ home (and later the home of the University of Miami Hurricanes), then known as Joe Robbie Stadium. Technically, it was a football-only stadium, but the architects had made allowances for the possibility of baseball—notably by adding extra space between the sidelines and the first row of the stands, making the stadium floor almost square.

Located in Miami Lakes, 15 miles north of downtown Miami and just south of the boundary between Dade and Broward Counties, the facility held 43,800 for baseball when the Marlins moved in. The neighborhood didn’t offer much in the way of attractions (nearby Calder Race Track might have held some appeal for the horsey set), but it was easy to get to. The stadium was adjacent to the Florida Turnpike and not far from Interstate 95. The parking lot had room for 23,000 cars.

The stadium opened for football in 1987, and the very next spring (on March 11, 1988, to be exact), the Dodgers and the Orioles played an exhibition game there before 43,909. Three years later the Orioles and Yankees played a two-game series. For the Orioles, it was a homecoming of sorts, since they had a long spring training presence (1959-1990) in Miami and still had many year-round fans there. The two games attracted 125,013 fans, including a sellout crowd of 67,654. The stadium didn’t see a baseball crowd of that magnitude till the 1997 World Series. Even so, it took $6 million to $10 million (depending on your source) to make the stadium ready for regular season major league games in 1993.

There was no need to worry about the Marlins or the Rockies poaching on the fans of any neighboring major league franchises. Not one of the states bordering Colorado hosted major league baseball. Actually, the extreme eastern portion of Kansas was in the Kansas City Royals market area, but that was 600 miles east.

The Marlins were also geographically isolated. The nearest major league outpost was Atlanta, some 665 miles north. Like Denver, South Florida had a lengthy minor league history. Thanks to spring training, major league baseball had also left its footprint in Florida. In fact, in 1993 the Yankees were training in Fort Lauderdale, just a few miles north of Joe Robbie Stadium.

In 1993 it was no novelty for a city’s major league football and baseball teams to play at the same facility. But just one year before, the Orioles had opened Camden Yards, simultaneously giving birth to ballpark envy, a contagion that spread throughout both major leagues. Multi-purpose stadiums were suddenly passé, but the Rockies were on top of the situation. They had broken ground on Coors Field almost six months before their 1993 debut. The design was by HOK Sport (now known as Populous), the same architectural firm responsible for Camden Yards.

The Marlins’ plans for the future were, pardon the play on words, less concrete. Yet they could boast they were already on board with HOK Sport, as that firm had also designed Joe Robbie Stadium.

H. Wayne Huizenga, renowned as the Blockbuster Video honcho, was the owner of the Marlins. (For those who seek out locales with baseball connections, albeit tenuous, be sure to visit Huizenga Plaza when in downtown Fort Lauderdale.) Huizenga knew that a baseball-only facility was a must, but he was never able to convince the public to pony up for it. Perhaps the locals noticed that Joe Robbie Stadium had been built with private money and figured a baseball-only facility should follow suit.

Huizenga could be forgiven for putting a new stadium on the back burner. Marlins President Carl Barger, who had served in the same capacity with the Pirates, died of an aneurysm while attending the baseball winter meeting at Louisville a little more than two months before catchers and pitchers were due to report.

Huizenga was so shaken (or touched) by this loss that he left the position vacant through the 1993 season. In addition, the number 5 (worn by Barger’s favorite player, Joe DiMaggio) was retired until the Marlins moved to their new park in 2012. As a result, Logan Morrison was the first player in Marlins’ history to wear the number 5. Carl Barger Drive remains outside the Marlins’ old home, now known as Sun Life Stadium.

It is worth pausing to note that when the Marlins finally got their baseball-only home, it still had a football connection, as it was built on the site of the old Orange Bowl. Seems the Marlins just can’t get out from under the Dolphins and the Hurricanes! Not that baseball was entirely foreign to the site, as Bill Veeck had once arranged for a minor league contest in the Orange Bowl. The charity event was a match-up between the Triple-A Marlins (with Satchel Paige on the mound) against the Columbus Clippers. 51,713 fans witnessed the 6-2 Miami victory on Aug. 7, 1956.

In 1993, once the Rockies and Marlins began spring training, the discrepancy in their facilities was obvious. The Rockies trained at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, long-time spring home of the Indians, who had just shifted spring operations to Florida. Built in 1927, the facility had undergone a $4.5 million facelift to get ready for the Rockies. By contrast, the Marlins trained at a complex in Cocoa, Fla. that had been abandoned by the Astros in 1984 and consigned to amateur sports in the intervening years. True, the Marlins upgraded in 1994 when they moved north to Space Coast Stadium near Melbourne, but during that first year they were clearly slumming.

Both teams started the regular season on April 5, 1993. The Rockies opened against the Mets in New York. Their first game was a disappointment, as Doc Gooden shut them out on four hits. The Mets took the second game of the series, so the Rockies headed for Denver still looking for the first win in franchise history.

The Marlins opened at home against the Dodgers (no doubt a large contingent of Dodgertown faithful from Vero Beach were present). The three-game series drew a total of 126,575, so the Marlins’ front office was likely content with that, as well as the 6-3 victory on Opening Day.

Elder statesman Joe DiMaggio, then 78 years old, threw out the Marlins’ first ball. (Marlins starter Charlie Hough, a knuckleball specialist, observed, “DiMag throws harder than I do.”) While DiMaggio is usually associated with San Francisco and New York, he had also had ties to South Florida. In September the year before, the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital at Memorial Regional Hospital opened in nearby Hollywood, Fla. In a sense, DiMaggio remained involved with the facility right to the end, as he died at Memorial Regional in 1999. The Children’s Hospital opened the Joe DiMaggio Sports Memorabilia Gallery the following year.

The Marlins’ brass could be forgiven if they felt a twinge of envy once they saw the results from the first three games in Denver. For the home opener on Friday, April 9, the Rockies filled up Mile High Stadium and then some, setting a record not just for National League Opening Day games, but for any regular season National League contest (the old record was 78,762, Giants versus Dodgers at the Coliseum on April 18, 1958). Thanks to cavernous Yankee Stadium and Municipal Stadium, the Yankees and Indians sat atop the heap of major league records for single-game attendance.

So 80,227 people listened to Colorado native Dan Fogelberg sing the national anthem, and then witnessed the first major league game in Denver, the first in the state of Colorado, and the first in the Mountain Time Zone. Add to all of that an 11-4 victory over Montreal, and it was indeed a Rocky Mountain High.

Obviously, crowds of that magnitude would not be the norm—but the remaining 80 games weren’t that far behind. The three-game series against the Expos drew a grand total of 212,475. Now that’s an opening weekend! The rest of the home stand included three weekday contests with the Mets. The smallest crowd was on a Tuesday with 52,087.

During that opening home stand, the 374,659 fans consumed 230,000 hot dogs, 22,000 pizzas, 41,000 boxes of popcorn, 37,000 bags of peanuts, and 475,000 beverages. But the season was six months long, and surely that pace couldn’t continue. Or could it? The Rockies had sold 24,000 season tickets; those patrons combined with subsequent demand enabled the team to surpass the million mark after 17 openings.

Even so, there were striking similarities between the home openers for each expansion team. Both teams had players who went four for four: Jeff Conine for the Marlins and Eric Young for the Rockies. Young led off for the Rockies in the bottom of the first and, well, right off the bat, the Rockies had their first-ever home run. Curiously, Young did not hit another home run till the last game of the season at Mile High Stadium (on Sept. 26)—and then he went deep twice.

Souvenir sales were brisk, to put it mildly, at both locales. In Miami, Opening Day souvenirs were sold out an hour before game time. In Denver, the throngs that engulfed the souvenir stands created a fire hazard, forcing the stands to close prematurely.

By the end of the season (79 home dates), the Rockies had drawn a major league record of 4,483,350 fans. That’s an average of 56,751 per game. The crowds forced the Rockies to literally go back to the drawing board to alter the design for Coors Field, then under construction, to accommodate more fans (from 43,800 to 50,381)

Granted, the Rockies had an abundance of cheap seats at Mile High Stadium (the Rockpile seats in center field went for just $1), but it was obvious that the high country was ravenous for major league baseball, despite the often inclement weather in Denver at the beginning and end of the season. The team’s nickname was particularly appropriate; it was truly the team of the Rocky Mountain states.

The Marlins also enjoyed healthy attendance in 1993. They ended up with 3,064,847, an average of 37,838. On the field, they weren’t far behind the Rockies. Both teams finished in sixth place, the Marlins ahead of only the Mets, the Rockies ahead of only the Padres. Both teams had avoided the dreaded 100-loss stigma, suffered by five of the previous expansion teams (the 1961 Senators, the 1962 Mets, the 1969 Padres and Expos, and the 1977 Blue Jays).

The Rockies finished the season at 67-95 (.414 wining percentage) and the Marlins were a few games behind at 64-98 (.395). Most previous expansion teams had done worse, but a few (the 1961 Angels and the 1969 Royals) had done better. The larger talent pool might have made a difference but it wasn’t a dramatic one. Even so, the Rockies’ 67 victories remains the high-water mark for a National League expansion team.

Typically, one doesn’t associate players on expansion teams with league leaders, yet the Marlins’ Chuck Carr led the circuit with 58 stolen bases. Rockies first baseman Andres Galarraga won the NL batting championship with a .370 average. As it turned out, he was the first of many, as the Rockies subsequently won six more batting titles (Todd Helton in 2000, Matt Holliday in 2007, Carlos Gonzalez in 2010, and Larry Walker in 1998, 1999, and 2001).

So in the beginning, it looked as though both teams got off on the right foot. The Marlins might have envied the Rockies’ attendance—but so did every other team in major league baseball! But the two teams were about to diverge.

In 1994 the Rockies and Marlins again had similar records. At the end of the strike-shortened season, the Marlins were 51-64 and the Rockies 53-64 The Rockies’ attendance craze continued, however. Their average attendance was actually higher than in 1993. Had the baseball strike not intervened, they could have surpassed their own attendance record.

Despite the strike, when the 1995 season finally got off to a belated start, the Denver crowds were still enthusiastic. The inaugural season at Coors Field pulled in 3,390,037 fans in 72 dates. The per game average was 47,084, less than at Mile High, but the smaller capacity at Coors Field meant that an even higher percentage of available seats was sold.

The Marlins’ attendance was trending the other way. The inaugural 1993 season was the only year the Marlins topped three million. They were on target to top two million in 1994, but the strike stopped them short at 1,937,467. In 1995, while the Rockies were thriving at Coors Field, the Marlins drew only 1,700,466 – almost 10,000 per game below their 1994 average. In fact, the only other time they topped two million was 1997, their first championship year. They bottomed out in 2002 with a grand total of 813,111 (average 10,038).

As an amusing aside, in the spring of 2003, I attended an Orioles-Mets spring training game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium (8,340 capacity). One of the locals came in, looked around, and bellowed, “Geez, the Marlins could play here!” and his fellow locals responded with a ripple of laughter. He wasn’t far off the mark. Allowing for no-shows, he might have been right on the money. Attendance picked up in 2003, the Marlins’ second championship season, but they were still below the National League average and remained there till the introduction of Marlins Park in 2012.

The reasons for the Marlins’ decline are numerous. First, there is the usual drop-off after a new team comes to town and then becomes part of the woodwork. Second, there are the numerous recreational options in South Florida. The hot, muggy climate likely encouraged the area’s numerous elderly fans to stay home and watch games on TV. Inadequate public transit didn’t help either.

But management must also take some of the blame. The wholesale disposal of players after the 1997 title year was a textbook case in how to alienate a fan base. The Marlins went from a World Series championship in 1997 to 108 losses in 1998. One can readily imagine the disillusionment of fans who purchased season tickets after the World Series euphoria. Once snookered, twice shy.

That the Marlins were able to recover from that 108-loss season and win another title just five years later is a notable achievement. But the fact that attendance was less than robust was likely due to lingering effects from the 1998 debacle.

Also, in its attempts to gain a new ballpark, the Marlins’ management continually complained about the inadequacies of Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Dolphins/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium. Small wonder people stayed home. If the people who work there don’t want to be there, why would fans want to go there? In a retirement and vacation hotbed like South Florida, it’s no surprise that visiting teams often had cheering sections. But they often outnumbered the hometown fans.

Twenty years after expansion, it’s safe to say that MLB has no regrets about placing a team in Denver. Second thoughts about Miami, which might have been allayed somewhat by the opening of the new stadium in 2012, are sure to return in 2013, now that the Marlins management has once again alienated the fan base. Despite two championships, Miami might not have been the best expansion choice in 1993.

As for the Rockies, despite their success at the box office, I think it’s fair to say that their on-field performance has been disappointing. They made the postseason (as the Wild Card team) in the third year of their existence, which was also their first season at Coors Field. Then began a long dry spell of more than two decades.

The Rockies’ finest hour was clearly the stretch run and postseason that led to their only World Series appearance in 2007. Tying the San Diego Padres for the Wild Card spot, they defeated them in a tie-breaker game, swept the Phillies in the National League Division Series, and swept the Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series. Baseball fans in Denver and all across the country were wondering if the Rockies’ perfect postseason could continue. In an abrupt reversal of fortune, the Rockies were swept by the Red Sox.

The Rockies’ only other postseason appearance was in the 2009 Division Series, which they lost, three games to one, to Philadelphia. Note that in all three postseason appearances, the Rockies were the Wild Card team. In 20 years, they have never won the National League West. Given the heady beginning of the franchise, that probably would have surprised a lot of folks in the mid-1990s. As for the Marlins, despite their two World Series championships, they have never won the National League East.

The Marlins, however, have given us a nifty trivia question. They have reached the postseason only twice, but each time they won the World Series. Consequently, they remain the only team in major league history that has never lost an elimination game. That record appears safe for the time being, as the Marlins do not appear to be headed for the postseason any time soon. Same for the Rockies.

So the two teams started off in life with similar records, then went in different directions, and ultimately found that their on-field fortunes had converged in 2012. Both teams finished at the bottom of their divisions, the Marlins at 69-93 and the Rockies at 64-98, dooming them to the franchise’s worst-ever won-lost percentage (.395)

After another round of expansion in 1998, the Marlins and the Rockies are no longer the new kids on the block. In fact, if the Marlins and Rockies were people, they would be one year away from attaining their majority. With adult status comes accountability. Both teams have a decent-size market area, and now both have highly desirable ballparks and spring training complexes. If they fail to compete now, whose fault is it?

Even a talented team can have an off year, but when the guys wearing baseball uniforms continually disappoint, it’s usually the guys wearing the suits who are responsible. In that respect, the Rockies and Marlins are no different from the other 28 teams in major league baseball.

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Comments

  1. Phil said...

    great article.  very interesting history on those teams

    The last point about how it’s time to really judge them only applies to the Rockies, and it is a great one but two World Series is two more than a lot of teams have won.

  2. Jim said...

    Dan Fogelberg is NOT a Colorado native!

    I am still waiting for someone to tell me why, as a condition of getting a team, Denver people had to finance and start building a stadium before the team took the field.  Whereas, Miami didn’t.  I’m still uneducated about that.  Maybe it’s been swept under the rug by now.

  3. gdc said...

    Seems I remember companies in the Denver area buying blocks of tickets for the Denver Zephyrs and encouraging their employees to go to selected home games at Mile High around 1990 to convince MLB they would support a team.  Didn’t go to one but if they actually got butts in seats for all the sold tickets they might have been among the highest attended minor league games as well as being up in the MLB top openers.

  4. Jeff Nix said...

    Jim brings up an interesting question as I still have a Frosted Flakes cereal box for the Colorado Rockies expansion season that states both teams agreed to finance a new stadium.  I guess the difference was people in Colorado were tired of watching the Braves on TBS or Cubs on WGN and wanted their own team. 

    So even before the club application process in June 1991, the six counties in the Denver metro area of in August 1990 area approved a one percent sales tax for funding of a new stadium.

    Obviously, this was not the case for Miami.

    It should be noted in 1998 the tax bill used to pay for Coors Field was extended to pay for the Denver Broncos new stadium by voters of the same six counties surrounding Denver.

  5. Jim said...

    Jeff, but as I recall, it would not be built unless Denver got an expansion team.  And that was part of the application process to show a new stadium was in the works.  Buffalo complied, but I never heard that Miami had to.  I guess Bill White thought Dolphin Stadium was adequate, especially since Huizanga had both teams (or would have) and more money than White.  As they used to say in the 50’s “we wuz robbed!”

    I also guess you are also saying that having access to MLB on tv is all anyone should want and the people of cities without a team should not need anything else.  If that’s true, then we only need one team and I vote for the Yankees and pipe YES network into every home in America and Canada.

    Was the Donkey Stadium approved in 1998?  I thought it was later.  I do know that the Coors Field bill was paid off before the Donkeys got their new digs.

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