I only have disappointment, a best friend and a wife to show for 20 years of Marlins fandom

The Miami Marlins started to shape my life when they were still the Florida Marlins. I was in third grade. I was packing up my books at the end of the day, at the beginning of a new school year at St. Brendan Elementary in Westchester. I was 8 years old, and I had just recently been introduced to the game of baseball. My dad had been swept up in the wave of post-2003 World Series hysteria, and he impulsively decided to purchase a 20-game season-ticket package for the 2004 season. Most of those games were on Sunday, which meant lots of kid-focused giveaways. One was a back-to-school binder featuring the team’s big names: Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera. Mike Lowell and Dontrelle Willis. I was about to put that binder away when I felt a tap on the shoulder.

That’s how real fandom is born: Not in the victory parades or the shutouts or the grand slams, but in the small interactions that wind their way through communities and bond them in a way few other forces can. I turned around to find a new kid whose name I didn’t know, holding the same binder. I smiled, and I probably said something to him, though the exact words have been lost to time. What I know for sure is that single moment led to a 20-year friendship, brought to you by the Marlins and the sponsor of back-to-school day, the fine folks at Office Depot.

In 1975, the legendary New Yorker baseball scribe Roger Angell observed that despite the “contrived and commercially exploitative” nature of professional sports — characteristics that have ballooned from children’s party decor to blimp-sized since then; look no further than the Office Depot binder, or to the Marlins’ home stadium, “loanDepot park” — what makes a game, what makes fandom, so unique and worthwhile is one simple emotion that we tend to shut out in other contexts: caring. “It seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved,” Angell wrote. “Naïveté … seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

Not only naïveté, but in the case of Marlins fandom in particular, also thorough, grinding, crushing disappointment, year after year. As Miami sports fans know, that 2003 World Series run turned out to be an aberration. Starting with the 2004 season, the Marlins have a winning percentage of 45.7. It’s even worse since they moved to Miami in 2012, at 43 percent. The longest playoff droughts in Major League Baseball currently belong to the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels, at eight years each. But that stat is misleading; the Marlins made the playoffs in 2020, yes — but that was the Covid-shortened campaign, when they finished the regular season 31-29. As thrilling as that was, it wasn’t the same as triumphing over a full 162-game schedule. If you remove that year, the Marlins haven’t made the playoffs in 20 years. They’re literally lapping the field. Their fan base knows a unique suffering.

On this Opening Day, 30 years since the franchise’s first and 20 years since their most recent World Series, the Marlins appear poised for more of the same. They invested in new players in the offseason, but the rest of the National League East invested more, making the Marlins a dark horse contender at best and, if their Spring Training performance carries into the regular season, a laughingstock at worst. But that’s OK. For as long as I’ve followed the team, that’s what they have always been. And that’s always been fine.

In 2004, for example, when the Marlins finished third in the division despite a winning record and missed the playoffs as the defending champs, all I remember is my very first game, on a Wednesday against the Montreal Expos, when I walked into what was then Pro Player Stadium and confronted the Great Wall of Orange. In 2005, when they finished with an identical record and identical standing, all I recall is a single game I went to that summer where I left early because of rain, only to miss a Carlos Delgado grand slam once play resumed. In 2007, when Billy the Marlin and two fringe relievers — Renyel Pinto and Henry Owens — visited St. Brendan Elementary, I didn’t care that they posted ERAs of 3.68 and 1.96, respectively, that season, and I didn’t care that they probably didn’t care to be there; I cared that they showed up. I probably didn’t care about anything more that entire school year.

My caring reached a crescendo in 2012, in anticipation of the team’s new stadium and new name. I vividly remember sitting in Mr. Alexander’s AP English Language class at Belen Jesuit Prep when they unveiled their new logo. A part of me recognized that it looked really weird and bad, but another part of me didn’t care. It was new and exciting regardless. My enthusiasm dimmed, along with the rest of the city’s, when the team’s spending spree that brought in Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle turned out to be a farce, and they unleashed the most infamous fire sale in team history — an impressive feat in a history full of them. Yet, in defiance of reasoned judgment, I kept coming back for more. Marlins baseball had become a cultural experience. How could I stop when, in spite of the overwhelming mediocrity, my dad’s desk overflowed with pictures of me posing alongside the Marlins Mermaids — or, perhaps more poignantly, alongside the ill-fated, overweight, all-male dance squad known for its brief, shimmering existence as the “Marlins Manatees?”

One of the divine things about baseball is that even if your team is absolutely terrible, the 162-game schedule means that it can also still win any given game. Such was the case on July 28, 2014, when my binder friend and I attended a contest against the Washington Nationals. We were 18 then, and we were both leaving for college in the coming weeks, so it was something like a last hurrah to the thing that had brought us together. The Marlins, in typical Marlins fashion, were down 6-0 by the seventh-inning stretch. But, on this night, the team fought back. Two runs in the seventh, another in the eighth, and four against Washington closer Rafael Soriano in the ninth to walk it off. In the aftermath, I tweeted something inane involving the walk-off win and SpongeBob SquarePants. In hindsight, I’ve probably never done anything more important in my life.

That night, I stayed over at my friend’s house in Kendall. I noticed that my tweet had been favorited and retweeted by a young woman whose bio proclaimed she was a Marlins fan and was an incoming freshman at the University of Florida — same as me. I messaged her, and by some cosmic fluke in the otherwise sadistic, uncaring fabric of the universe, we happened to have a class together freshman year. By our third week of college, we were dating. In 2021, we got married. The kid with the Marlins binder was my best man. He even procured that same tattered folder from beneath a table during his speech. And the next day, as part of our brief “mini-moon,” my wife and I, along with my friend and his now-fiancee, attended a game at loanDepot park.

I wish I could say when that will happen again, but I can’t. These days I live in Provo, Utah, where my wife is pursuing a Ph .D in clinical psychology and where I’m working as a full-time magazine writer. We don’t get to Miami all that much. Especially now that my parents have relocated to Gainesville. And my friend lives in Tampa — so closer, but still not close enough to make a casual trip to see a game. Yet hardly a day goes by where we don’t at least send each other a text about the team’s latest free agent acquisition or spring training blunder. So I can at least say that this Opening Day, me, him and my wife will all be watching together. Over FaceTime, perhaps, or maybe even just through a constant steam of texts. But we’ll all be watching.

Because this Opening Day and every Opening Day, hope springs eternal. Hope for a winning season, yes — but also for new experiences and relationships you can’t predict. “This belonging and caring is what our games are all about,” Angell wrote. “This is what we come for.” The emotions. The unpredictability. The shared and all-too-rare human connection that even a gaffe-prone, uninspired franchise can cultivate given time and serendipity. As another great baseball scribe, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, once put it, anyone who roots for a team, good or bad, is “bound by the timeless hope of what another season might bring.”

Ethan Bauer is a former Miami Herald sports intern who is a staff writer for Deseret Magazine.