MIAMI — The World Baseball Classic hosted by Miami has seen a packed stadium rocking with excitement this month, before and including the United States facing Japan in the championship game Tuesday night.
The crowd and ambiance have been everything Marlins Park is not when the home team plays in its home ballpark 81 times a year. That would be the team that finished 29th of 30 in MLB attendance last season and could not even sell out opening day. A team whose ballpark, seating 37,446, was more than two-thirds empty on average.
The WBC here has been a festival, a noisy party.
For Marlins games it’s a mortuary by comparison.
The crowds for this international tournament nourish the hope that Miami can be a baseball town. But how can the Marlins unlock the mystery of why it is not for the local big league team?
It is Caroline O’Connor’s job to find out. She is in her first season as Marlins president of business operations.
“Big part of my job. Huge part of our overall success,” she said, amplifying herself above the din around the batting cage two hours before Tuesday’s first pitch. “We want our players to play in a great atmosphere.”
Dominican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan fans supporting their national teams here have been a big part of the WBC’s enormous success in Miami. Japanese fans here to watch Shohei Ohtani and company play for the championship were bountiful in the park, as were the hundreds of Japanese media.
And the ballpark, of course, is in the heart of the Little Havana area of Miami brimming with baseball-loving Cubans, many of them exiles who chanted “Patria y vida” (Homeland and life), the anti-Cuban government sentiment, as the U.S. eliminated Cuba Sunday night.
But the global flavor of South Florida has not been enough to fill this place for the Marlins, or anything close.
It has to start with consistent winning. That is the only way. And the clearest path to that is big spending, a path untrod.
O’Connor must work with the constraints of an ownership that has spent more than last year, but still well below the MLB average and fourth-most in the five-team NL East.
So O’Connor said what she must when I proposed it starts with winning.
“It’s more than that. It’s the whole experience,” she said. “Winning is great, but we can’t rely on that on the business side.”
Fifteen of the Marlins’ current 40-man roster is foreign-born. More notably, 10 of the 14 Miami players in the projected starting lineup or starting pitching rotation are from elsewhere, too, including five Dominicans, two Venezuelans, and one player each from Cuba, Peru and the Bahamas.
That diversity is good, and smart for the market. But it still does not replace winning.
Having Sandy Alcantara start all 81 home games and cloning the flash and personality of Jazz Chisholm Jr. might help fill the place, but reality presents a tougher task.
Crowds in Miami for the WBC prove the love of baseball here is sufficient if properly wooed, if properly earned.
For this international tournament, it’s been easy. This was only the fifth WBC, but the players have made it a big event getting bigger.
A season-ending injury to Mets closer Edwin Diaz (Puerto Rico) and a serious injury to Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (Venezuela) have some questioning the value in the risk of playing in the WBC, but the participating players have been as enthusiastic as the fans.
Mets star Francisco Lindor said Diaz’s injury “broke my heart” but made clear he “100 percent” plans to play for Puerto Rico again in the next WBC and called it “a blessing and an honor and a privilege” to represent his country.
The U.S. this year drew its best roster ever, including three-time MVP Mike Trout of the Angels. In all the American roster had 18 MLB all-stars representing 47 all-star appearances.
Japan had four major leaguers led by the incomparable Ohtani, the two-way star from the Angels — the notion of his pitching against his teammate Trout Tuesday night a delicious subplot to the title game.
(How an Angels team with Ohtani and Trout can be so lousy is one of life’s great mysteries, but that’s for another column.)
Japanese flags were waving in the outfield bleachers like bull’s-eyes Tuesday as Ohtani took batting practice. Venerable Joe Torre, 82, came out to watch. Fox baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal and his bowtie were here. U.S. hitting coach Ken Griffey Jr. chatted in the American dugout with Pedro Martinez. Trout ambled to the batting cage as the Japanese finished.
The ballpark was beginning to fill up, and fill it would.
I asked O’Connor, the Marlins’ business-side president, if it was frustrating to see the stadium full, but not for her team. What she saw was a stadium full but the glass half-full.
“I see it as an opportunity,” she said.