Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Every sport’s fans and observers prioritize the best teams and players; none do so with quite the same level of commitment as those in baseball. In this statistically inclined era, players are discussed in terms of their personal style only after lengthy considerations of their productive value. It’s rarely mentioned, for instance, that most of the game’s best hitters are boring to watch.
A power hitter who also gets on base plays a largely conservative style, one based on waiting for the right pitch and taking walks if necessary. Contrary to the terminology of the sport, it’s a defensive approach, similar to that of the tennis player who cajoles the opponent into unforced errors. If this idea sounds like bullshit, ask yourself what it’s like to watch no-brainer greats like Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, and Albert Pujols. The answer will be, in so many words, that they hit home runs and draw walks—the “what” always takes precedence over the “how.” It’s not that fans and observers dislike style, but that they sometimes forget that it’s there.
This environment is partially related to the form of baseball: it takes weeks, if not longer, to assess exactly what that “how” looks like for any particular player. Only a special talent can communicate those qualities immediately, and it’s even rarer for an entire team to announce itself as worth watching when their projections indicate they’ll finish in the middle of the pack. (Prospect-laden groups like the 2011 Kansas City Royals qualify, but that’s more a matter of curiosity than anything else.)
Yet the Miami Marlins have become a must-watch team without even earning interest as a World Series dark horse. At a time when a franchise’s long-term plans increasingly depend on sound financial assessments and the power of patience, the Marlins seem to have adopted “making a splash” as an organizational ethos. What they’ve created, even if largely by accident, is a team of obvious talent, led by strong personalities, playing for an organization that has disregarded expectations of what a baseball game should look like for fans. The Marlins scream to be considered as an experience in a way that no MLB team has for a long time.
The starting point of the franchise’s new look has been the forthcoming opening of Marlins Park, a state-of-the-art retractable-roof stadium located in Little Havana on the site of the now-demolished Orange Bowl. (Please note that the Marlins have not eschewed corporate naming rights for the stadium. They’ve just had difficulty securing a sponsor, presumably because the franchise, led by inveterate scumbag owner Jeffrey Loria, is under SEC investigation for questionable activities related to the team’s stadium funding deal with Miami-Dade County.) For nearly two decades, stadium design has skewed retro, with all manner of brick facades and overdetermined quirks like “knotholes” along the outfield fence for non-paying fans that supposedly inject character. But the exterior of Marlins Park looks more like a really nice airport terminal than a baseball stadium. Inside, its quirks are legitimate, ideas so bizarre that they might not have gone through any kind of corporate decision-making process, let alone the usual assortment of focus groups. First, they have installed a real working fish tank behind home plate, complete with coral. Somehow, this addition seems normal when compared to the home run celebration contraption beyond the outfield fence, a set of moving cutouts apparently inspired by Tommy Bahama’s first acid trip. To usher in this new era, the franchise has also made more superficial changes, changing their geographic designation from too-broad “Florida” to glitzy “Miami” and opting for new world-turned-Day-Glo uniforms that incorporate socially unacceptable amounts of orange.
To avoid coming across as a baseball version of Candy Land, the Marlins set about improving their team this offseason. Except, instead of hewing to modern standards of acceptable roster management, they made moves reliant on conspicuous individuality. New manager Ozzie Guillen, procured from the Chicago White Sox for minimal compensation during the postseason, is one of the game’s best characters, a loudmouth with the world’s most entertaining Twitter account and a contradictorily conservative to lineup selection and in-game management.
Guillen’s presence was mere prelude to the hot-stove onslaught to come. Despite their uncertain financial future, the Marlins pursued virtually every impact player on the market, lobbing huge deals at top prizes Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. While they didn’t nab either player, in part because of a perceived lack of organizational gravitas, Miami brought in three All-Stars with greater reputations as showmen. Reigning batting champion, and human hamstring strain Jose Reyes joined the squad for six years at $108 million, creating a situation in which previous shortstop Hanley Ramirez had to be moved to third base, which both alienated a supposed franchise player and created the awesome person’s alternative to the Yankees’ Jeter/A-Rod combo. To shore up the rotation, they gave $58 million over four years to 32-year-old quasi-ace Mark Buehrle, a workmanlike All-Star who might read as dull if he weren’t also responsible for many of the best defensive plays ever by a pitcher. As if these contracts weren’t enough, the Marlins also obtained closer Heath Bell, who slid into the mound as he entered last summer’s All-Star Game, for three years and $27 million, defying conventional wisdom that it’s bad business to shell out big money for a relief pitcher. Last, in a move that ventured towards self-parody, they traded for Krakatoan starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano, hoping that playing for fellow Venezuelan Guillen would turn him back into one of the best power arms in the league.
Calling this offseason approach a strategy implies a level of control that might well have been absent. Yet no matter their intent or recklessness, the Marlins now have a team that will prove fascinating no matter how many games they win. There’s talent here, to be sure, with the new pickups combining with a strong core of Ramirez, young outfielder Logan Morrison, and rehabbing ace Josh Johnson. It’s entirely possible that Miami will take the league by storm and come across as a variation of Angels in the Outfield guided by the spirits of Bill Veeck and a comatose Rickey Henderson. They might also devolve into a mess, with Ramirez and Reyes both going out to play shortstop to start an inning or Zambrano exploding after a bad outing and taking a bat to the fish tank.
But even if they steer clear of clubhouse tussles and play .500 ball, the Marlins cannot help but be watched. They’re a talented team rife with possibility, an orange-festooned band of marauders with little care for decency and the unwritten rules of the sport. In a league where consistency and steadiness turn players into stars, they’re a potential playoff team that demands qualitative rather than quantitative consideration. They’ll be notable not just for how many games they win, but what those games look like.
That’s why the most telling moment of the Marlins’ offseason wasn’t when they brought in Guillen, signed Reyes, or first teased the home run celebration machine, but when star outfielder Mike Stanton told everyone he’d now like to be known as “Giancarlo,” his given name. Last year, at an age when most can’t-miss prospects haven’t figured out how to hit Double-A pitching, the now-22-year-old Stanton mashed 34 home runs and slugged .537, putting in a season that rivaled that of Arizona Diamondbacks star and MVP runner-up Justin Upton. Yet Stanton stands out for reasons other than his numbers. More than anything, he’s an abjectly terrifying presence at the plate, the sort of guy whose singles and outs are often hit as hard as the upper-deck home runs that accelerate like line drives. Unlike most other great power hitters, Stanton attacks. He’s the rare baseball player who proves his stardom in a single game regardless of his line in the box score. The worry isn’t so much that he’ll ruin a pitcher’s ERA as that he’ll end a career.
Stanton is far from a perfect player; he struck out a whopping 166 times and walked merely 70 times in 2011. Standard baseball logic advises that it would behoove him to shorten his stroke and sacrifice some of his considerable power to increase his contact percentage and draw more walks. However, Stanton’s name change suggests that he’ll progress as a player on his own terms. “Giancarlo” doesn’t honor his family heritage or parental wishes—the Stantons are not Italian, and everyone has called him “Mike” since middle school. Stanton has given notice that he’s his own man and won’t be confused with a journeyman ‘90s relief pitcher anymore. Like Vladimir Guerrero before him, Stanton can show that being one of the best hitters in baseball doesn’t have to involve a fundamental-driven approach at the plate.
It’s irresponsible to talk about Stanton strengths and weaknesses as a ballplayer without first mentioning that he’s the sort of athlete who reconfigures our conception of what people can do on the diamond. Along with the Marlins as a whole, he reminds baseball fans that style of play and personality can mean more to the game than the outcomes of the at-bats and games. Rejecting them as a sideshow, or turning their record into a referendum on their importance, would serve as a profound statement on exactly what we want baseball to be.