Playoff games make Marlins a hot ticket for a change

Friday, October 10th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ For most of the past six seasons, the stands at Pro Player Stadium have been so deserted you could hear a foul pop drop.

Not this weekend.

The Florida Marlins, long accustomed to playing in front of more empty seats than perhaps any team in sports, expect sellout crowds of 65,000 for each of their three home games against the Chicago Cubs in the NL championship series.

That means some 200,000 fans Friday night through Sunday for a team that drew 813,111 at Pro Player Stadium all last season.

``Most of the big crowds we've played in front of have been on the road, where people are telling us how bad we are,'' center fielder Juan Pierre said. ``So it's good to get a lot of people cheering us on.''

With the series tied 1-all, the Game 3 matchup Friday is the talk of South Florida. The Marlins' Mark Redman is scheduled to pitch against Kerry Wood.

``If you had told me in Florida you wouldn't be able to find a ticket to a game, like in Boston or Chicago _ it's unbelievable,'' Marlins reliever Braden Looper said. ``Ticket just aren't available, even for players.''

With only the second winning team in franchise history and a popular rookie pitcher in Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins improved their home attendance by 62 percent this season. But their average of 16,290 was still second-worst in the NL to the Montreal Expos, and in early September they were struggling to draw 10,000 a game.

A tight wild-card race produced Marlins mania, with crowds growing progressively larger as Florida closed in on its improbable postseason berth. Two playoff games in Miami last weekend against San Francisco drew crowds of 61,488 and 65,464, the latter a record for a division series.

``That was as loud as I've ever seen a stadium,'' Looper said. ``The atmosphere felt like a college football game at the University of Florida or something. You had so many people there, and it was so loud and so festive.''

The attendance pattern was similar during the Marlins' only other winning season in 1997. Owner Wayne Huizenga was so upset about skimpy regular-season crowds that he put the franchise up for sale. But when the Marlins advanced to the World Series, they drew record crowds of more than 67,000 for all four home games.

Then came the roster dismantling ordered by Huizenga, followed by five consecutive losing seasons and steadily declining attendance.

``The fans of Miami are a fickle fan,'' said former Cubs great Andre Dawson, a Miami native and special assistant to the Marlins. ``It's a football town. They're spoiled in a sense.

``What's transpiring right now is winning a lot of fans back. Making it to the league championship series and having the possibility to get back to the World Series will change things in a hurry.''

The Marlins need only three more victories to reach the Series again. And with the largest crowds of any playoff team, they'll be tough to beat at home.

``We need a new ballpark,'' Redman said. ``We're playing in a football stadium, not a baseball stadium. But it's nice, in these circumstances, to have the 70,000 seats available for our fans. It's really going to boost our team this weekend.''