This year was supposed to be different for the Miami Marlins and their fans.
With a new ballpark, new uniforms, new manager and new philosophy toward spending big money on top free-agent talent, 2012 was supposed to begin a new era for a team that had been content to take revenue sharing money to make a profit.
Ticket sales were almost irrelevant under such circumstances, calling into question whether the Marlins were truly motivated to put a winning team on the field anymore.
But the Marlins needed the people—especially the taxpayers of Miami—to fund that new ballpark. And the inherent understanding in taking taxpayer money to pay for a new ballpark is that the surrounding community would be rewarded with a competitive product reflective of the additional revenues that are coming in.
During the offseason, it appeared that's exactly what Miami was getting. The Marlins made one of the largest splashes in the free-agent market, signing shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitcher Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell to rich contracts.
They chased Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and C.J. Wilson, as well. No one was off limits to the formerly frugal Marlins anymore.
The big-name free agents joined a young core of Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson and Giancarlo Stanton. New manager Ozzie Guillen posted winning records in five of his seven seasons and won a World Series championship with the Chicago White Sox.
It was reminiscent of the 1996 offseason when Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Alex Fernandez joined a veteran core of Gary Sheffield, Devon White, Kevin Brown and Al Leiter. Led by new manager Jim Leyland, the team won a World Series championship in 1997.
However, the aftermath of the 1997 season began the perpetual dismantling that eroded the faith of Marlins fans. All of the top players were traded to other teams in one of the largest fire sales baseball has ever seen.
How could a fanbase and community embrace a team and its players when they would be sold off upon becoming too successful, and therefore expensive?
Perhaps faith was restored when the Marlins made another championship run in 2003, with a roster filled by many of the prospects that came in the post-1997 selloffs, along with impressive home-grown talent such as Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera.
Beating the New York Yankees to win the World Series was surely the beginning of great things to come for the Marlins.
But after two consecutive third-place finishes in 2004 and 2005, ownership again decided to demolish a promising roster. Beckett was traded to the Boston Red Sox. Carlos Delgado—who had signed with the Marlins as a free agent in 2005—was dealt to the New York Mets.
After the 2007 season, Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis—who appeared to be two franchise cornerstones—were traded to the Detroit Tigers.
Again, Marlins fans and the Miami community had no reason to believe in their baseball team. Why invest their time, money and emotion in a roster that would be inevitably be dismantled at the first sign of success?
Why become attached to players that were going to be traded before the Marlins had to pay them big money? Why follow prospects who would develop into major leaguers, then be dealt away to other teams for more prospects, beginning the frustrating cycle all over again?
These sorts of questions were supposed to end for the Marlins and their fans.
But the Marlins have been one of the biggest disappointments of the 2012 season, briefly putting themselves in contention with a 21-8 record in May. Yet the team couldn't sustain that run and quickly slid down the NL East standings.
The front office saw a team that had become lethargic, led by the star that never quite became a superstar, Hanley Ramirez.
Though spending money had added key pieces to the roster, management apparently saw a culture that needed to be changed.
A message had to be sent to the team. If the players weren't going to work hard and try to win, then it was time to look ahead to the next season.
While the team hasn't undertaken a full dismantling over the past week or so, trading away Ramirez, Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez, along with offering ace pitcher Josh Johnson to the highest bidder, certainly had the stench of the familiar for Marlins fans.
The Marlins still have a core of promising young players combined with high-priced veterans and plan to build around them with an eye toward contending next season.
Maybe adding the slugging first baseman they could never get last winter, along with a couple of reliable bullpen arms, will be the tweaks necessary to push this team into contention.
At least, that's presumably the plan. But can Miami fans really buy into that effort? Or have the Marlins already lost the people they hoped to draw in and make into believers this season?
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