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April 11, 2013
Marlins on the Move
Ten years ago today, home became something altogether foreign. Baseball’s already bilingual bunch from la belle province, on this date back in 2003, went Caribbean, playing their first of 43 games over a two-year period in a temporary home in Puerto Rico.
A mainlander hit the first home run, if Brian Schneider’s birthplace of Florida still counts. A Japanese import got the win, as Tomo Ohka pitched eight innings of the 10-0 slaughter of David Cone and the Mets.
Most importantly, people came to the game. An Expos team that drew 10,025 per game in an 83-79 2002 season got a paid figure of 17,906 for the Hiram Bithorn Stadium debut, and the good crowds continued. Over the 22 games played in three waves that season, Los Expos drew 14,222 per game, while the 59 games in Montreal drew 12,081 per game, up 20.5 percent from a year previous.
The Montreal/San Juan experiment ended for obvious reasons, with the Expos finding a permanent 81-game home in Washington and also an owner with an actual face and not just a silhouette about to get hit by a pitch. But it ended on a bit of a downer. Attendance in Puerto Rico, once the novelty factor was gone, dropped 27.3 percent, attendance at Olympic Stadium cratered, again too, and the lame duck franchise was gone.
When one thinks back 10 years about the experiment, there are a lot of parts of it that would seem in theory to work.
Average attendance should go up in both places if we’re thinking about a world where Montrealers are going to x games per year. They have to sell only 59 home dates instead of 81 and can ship off some less attractive matchups if they wanted to. (Why they passed off their lone intra-national series with the Blue Jays on Puerto Rico in 2004 appears beyond reason, but whatever.)
While it has practical implications beyond the gate in a second market for jersey sales and the like, it’s also a chance to commit to the less defined activity of “growing the brand” in a bigger way. The Rangers and Astros, for instance, have both tried to do this in something of a passive race for Mexico, with Texas playing Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos in some exhibitions and the Astros planning their own spring and perhaps even regular season trips to Mexico City or Monterrey starting in 2014.
The only current incarnation of a regular regular season excursion among major American sports takes place in football. The Buffalo Bills play one regular season game a year (the equivalent of 10 baseball games as a proportion of the season) at the other end of the Horseshoe in much larger Toronto. The annual London efforts are also being concentrated around one team—the Jacksonville Jaguars, who aren’t much of a draw at home and will play in the UK annually for four years to give some team continuity to the midseason game.
It’s also not a new thing in sports. Teams used to do this all the time. The Green Bay Packers played a portion of their schedule at Milwaukee’s County Stadium as recently as 1994 in an appeal to their geographic base. It was more common in the NBA, perhaps understandably because of the relatively confined space needed for a game that keeps more cities in play. The Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers used to play games every year in Hershey, PA., where Wilt Chamberlain scored his record 100 points in a game. The Boston Celtics played a chunk of their schedule at the Hartford Civic Center.
The Brooklyn Dodgers played 15 games in Jersey City, N.J. toward the end of their East Coast lifespan in 1956 and 1957, but that was less a trip of marketing goodwill than a threat to New York City when Walter O’Malley wanted a new ballpark. (There’s a fascinating SABR article about that period here.)
The closest thing recently to the Expos’ move came when the 2007 and 2008 Devil and non-Devil Rays, respectively, made a pilgrimage to Disney World for one series in each year in a play for exposure. No matter their attendance foibles, it wasn’t an attendance grab to play in a 9,000-seat home in Orlando. The Interstate-4 corridor extends far beyond Tampa and St. Petersburg into what is outside of a bad NBA team a sports wasteland in the central part of the state, and the Devil Rays wanted to become Orlando’s team too.
But that ended too after their World Series year, and there have been no attempts to replicate it since.
Clearly, San Juan wasn’t going to become a great Expos outpost—it was sold as baseball as much as the team. Jacques Doucet wasn’t going to become available on the island with a turn of your radio dial.
But 10 years later, it makes me wonder what would have happened if Miami had never approved the House That Postmodernism Built and the Marlins were still doing hard time at the football stadium with seemingly no future.
Would turning the Marlins into a pan-Caribbean team have made any sense, and would it start to again if they stop filling their new house? Sell your season ticket packages (stop laughing) as 50s instead of 81s on the mainland, and also consolidate what little demand there is in Miami into fewer days of turning the lights on. Then play a dozen in San Juan, a handful in Santo Domingo, and maybe go down to Caracas and sell the hell out of those games on more than just a yearly trial.
You’d face some issues, the least important but most annoying of which would be a cultural fight like the one that Chivas USA and the Montreal Canadiens—or to a lesser extent “Los Mets” of the Omar Minaya era—have faced about the ethnic, national, or linguistic identities of their teams.
But the first year would be great, as it was in Puerto Rico with Los Expos. After that, the real work would start.