What the Marlins represent to Major League Baseball heading into 2017 seemed clear until last week. The story of a team attempting to recover from the loss of a true franchise talent writes itself. Jose Fernandez’s death on September 25, 2016 will continue to be the subtext behind the Marlins’ season, but that subtext has changed. Investigators have determined Fernandez was recklessly driving the boat under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, killing him, Emilio Jesus Macias, and Eduardo Rivero. This news has clouded the conversation around Fernandez’s death, which had previously been a tragedy of a young hero for the sport cut down before his prime.
Baseball used to work as a pastime because it makes the heroes and villains as obvious as an old western movie. The home team are the good guys. The villains are myriad: the brash hot heads who don’t respect the unwritten rules of the game, the underperforming multimillionaire veterans who don’t deliver the clutch moment when that’s what they’re paid to do, the fans who don’t represent “class” the way we want to see it, the owners who crassly sacrifice this year’s victories to save pennies.
For years the Marlins organization has been defined at the intersection of hero and villain. The players–including occasional superstars like Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton–perform valiantly despite the meddling of team owner Jeffrey Loria. Sometimes the Marlins win it all, only to have management hit the reset button like a fantasy team owner more interested in playing efficiently than winning.
In 2016 the Marlins played themselves nearly into a Wild Card spot on the strength of their newest crop of heroes including Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, AJ Ramos, Kyle Barraclough and Jose Fernandez. Ichiro Suzuki, arguably the most famous non-Tebow baseball player in the world, reached his 3000th hit wearing a Marlins uniform and cemented his spot in the Hall of Fame. At the same time, their 2015 star Dee Gordon missed a substantial portion of the season due to a PED suspension. Giancarlo Stanton underperformed after signing a massive contract and question marks surround his ability to ever reach his potential as he heads into his age-27 season. Marlins Man was conspicuously absent during some moments of the 2016 playoffs but his gauche, in-your-face fandom continues to rub those who do fandom “right” the wrong way. Though Jeffrey Loria didn’t do anything as crazy as make his GM into the team’s manager in the middle of the season, he did continue to exist which continued to be good enough to make him a villain.
Then, on September 25, 2016, the Marlins’ season suffered a collapse more existential than their slip out of wild card contention in the final weeks of the season could possibly communicate. That this cannot easily be painted as a James Dean-esque accident does nothing to detract from the tragedy in the most pure and literary sense of the word. If anything, the news that Fernandez was not only not blameless, but the direct actor, in his death and the death of two others forces us to recognize that baseball is, at its core, a part of real life. In real life you can’t always count on heroes to behave heroically.
The Marlins have long been the franchise that best represents the intersection between baseball on the field and real life. Refusing to “stick to baseball” has been called a form of intersectionality before, and it should be now surprise that the franchise that literally Changed The Name Of The Team in 2011 is the one that forces the conversation around the sport to stray farther and farther off-field.
The Miami Marlins, seen through the intersectional prism, are of course not simply heroes or villains because nothing can be so simply defined. It can be difficult to watch the game or read the news and not revert to thinking in this black and white binary. We crave the excuse to see past players as humans, and instead see them only as heroes or obstacles to heroism.
We look for heroism in the exciting production of arguably the best outfield in the national league as Christian Yelich seeks to repeat his breakout, Giancarlo Stanton seeks to prove he can justify a $300 million salary, and Marcell Ozuna seeks to confirm that his abilities warrant suffering through the occasional cold streak. We will look for heroism in a pitching staff seeking to replace an irreplaceable talent with an unexciting mix of veterans like Brad Ziegler and Edinson Volquez, where every victory will be celebrated as if it were a tribute to the ‘16’ patch they will wear on their uniforms. We will look for heroism in every base Dee Gordon steals, every pinch hit Ichiro tacks on to the twilight of his illustrious career, every time Martin Prado does that weird batting warmup routine where he doodles in the dirt.
It’s possible the Marlins could repeat the surprise successes of 2016 and talk themselves into acting as underdog contenders, baseball’s favorite type of hero. The offense is predominantly young and gifted, even if outside of the outfield and Dee Gordon it is fairly anonymous and not-too-exciting. The rotation is shallow and mostly a conglomerate of number 3 starters, but having multiple SP3-types available as your SP4 and 5 can help during the long slog of the regular season. The bullpen has some real talent that can help save close games in pitchers like Kyle Barraclough, Junichi Tazawa, and Brad Ziegler.
It might even be possible to look past the biggest obstacle to the Marlins’ hero narrative: the garish villainy of Jeffrey Loria. Should he finally sell the team and walk away from his Scooby Doo villain approach to team ownership, every fan’s favorite enemy of the sport could finally be gone. That the most actively interested buyer is deeply connected to the Trump family adds a layer of complexity that we might even be able to talk ourselves out of caring too much about, since this is just a game and the actions of billionaire owners really only bug us when they interfere with the product on the field.
But all the neon orange the Marlins wear makes seeing them in black and white nearly impossible. When we look between the black-and-white analysis we see a team that is both greater and less than its third order winning percentage; instead seeing one whose every victory and defeat will resonate with the community that embraced Jose Fernandez’s true American-by-way-of-Miami story of Cuban defection, raucous rise to success, and careless fall. We see a team that is both greater and less than its players, manager, front office, or ownership; haunted by the memory of what they could be if a last minute pitching change didn’t end in a series of awful decisions that left three people dead. We see a team that is neither hero nor villain. We see a team that has been confronted with devastating and morally challenging loss, and will confront that loss every day by playing a game 162 times.
We don’t need heroes and villains onto whom we can project our values and anxieties. We need the Marlins to remind us that no one, nothing, can be pure. We need the Marlins to remind us that the game of baseball can’t be a distraction from our march toward death, because it is a reminder that even the best among us will ultimately be undone by human fallibility. We need the Marlins to help us realize impurity won’t take away the pain of loss. We need the Marlins to teach us how to stand up and keep playing. Even, especially if it feels pointless. Because we only have one chance to play this game and come the end, win or lose, the most we get to take away are the brief moments of joy we get to share with each other. We need the Marlins for that.Next post: 2017 Season Preview Series: The Hard Luck Texas Rangers
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