This week, the New York Yankees and the Florida Marlins are battling each other in North American professional baseball's World Series. Marlin fans cannot quite believe their good fortune to be in the World Series. They are also nervous about the future of their team, based on what happened the last time the Marlins won the World Series, in 1997.
Marlin merchandise is flying off the shelves at a kiosk located just outside Pro Player Stadium, about 20 kilometers north of downtown Miami.
Fans of the Florida Marlins are interested again in the World Series. The team won the series in 1997, beating the Cleveland Indians. This year, they find themselves facing the legendary New York Yankees who are seeking their 27th series championship.
Florida Marlins fans have responded, filling the 65,000-seat Pro Player stadium to capacity for every home playoff game.
However, just a few weeks ago, the Marlins were lucky to get 15,000 fans to show up for a game. Last year, only about 10,000 fans showed up for home games, an average which was the second worst in baseball's National League.
The Marlins are a new franchise, created just 10 years ago in baseball's largest expansion in decades. Just four years after they were created, the Marlins won the World Series, sending South Florida fans into delirium. Then, disaster struck. Team owner H. Wayne Huizenga sold off most of the players who had taken the Marlins to the World Series.
Fans like Alfredo Martinez responded by staying away. "They were just dismantling the team, after they built it up," he complained. "It was like they just bought the World Series. I did not like it, so I stopped coming."
Even die-hard fans like Dennis Meade, who attends more than 62 games a year, said the memory of what happened to the '97 Marlins team is still fresh. "Actually, I went in my room - I am a 51-year-old man - and I cried like a baby," he said.
Now, Marlins fans have returned to Pro Player Stadium. The Marlins' current owner, Jeffrey Loria - a wealthy New York art dealer - has pledged to keep the fans interested.
Unlike former owner Wayne Huizenga, Jeffrey Loria makes a point of attending as many games as he can. He has unveiled a slew of promotional activities, such as the Marlin Mermaids - 15 young woman who dance for the crowd on top of the Marlins dugout; and he has published a "contract with the community" which pledges to respect Marlins fans' wishes.
About one-third of Marlins fans are native Spanish speakers, and the Marlins have stepped up marketing activities in Spanish language media outlets. The Marlins have also recruited top Latin players over the past year, such as fan-favorite Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, the team's beloved catcher. Marlin marketing executives say they are trying to build bridges with South Florida's multi-ethnic community and help Marlin fans forget about the past.
Phil Reese, a fan who lives near Pro-Player Stadium, said a successful baseball team could help bring South Florida's multi-ethnic community closer together. "I think that it is interesting that you have guys in the stands who - I think they say about 35 percent do not speak English as their native tongue," he said. "I think that is fascinating, because people who love baseball form together. It is a wonderful thing for us to bond down here in South Florida, in this melting pot."
For now, Marlin fans are focusing on the World Series and hoping that their team can prevail against the mighty New York Yankees. Many say they will be back next year, helping to fill up the vast spaces of Pro-Player Stadium with fans eager to see a Florida Marlins team they can root for.