Transformed Marlins should be fun to watch -

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Transformed Marlins should be fun to watch -
Mar 31st 2012, 04:38

MIAMI -- The manager lives to talk, and the left fielder loves to tweet. One pitcher has anger management issues, and another is a jester best known for sliding into the mound. A new ballpark inspired the franchise's frugal owner to go on a free-agent shopping spree that transformed his perennially overlooked team into a contender.

Even if the Miami Marlins flop on the field, they'll be an entertaining bust.

"People say we're all crazy people - the crazy team," manager Ozzie Guillen says.

It's a big change for a franchise that ranked last in NL attendance each of the past seven years when known as the Florida Marlins. Now the team has a new name, new home and new outlook.

"I don't think there can be any more flying under the radar," first baseman Gaby Sanchez says.

The move into a ballpark near downtown rejuvenated the franchise, which spent its first 19 seasons in the Miami Dolphins' stadium, a cavernous place that gave the small crowds plenty of elbow room.

The Marlins' new 36,000-seat home has a cozier atmosphere, a retractable roof and air conditioning, which makes watching baseball in a subtropical setting a more appealing prospect.

"It's like living under a bridge for 20 years, and all of a sudden you win the lottery, and with the money you make in the lottery you buy a new ballpark," Guillen says.

Sellout crowds are expected at the outset, beginning with the season opener Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals. To keep fans coming back, owner Jeffrey Loria wants a team that wins, and he's now willing to pay for one.

Loria once drew complaints from the players' union for his meager payrolls, but the Marlins were big spenders last offseason. They swung deals totaling $191 million to acquire NL batting champion Jose Reyes, All-Star left-hander Mark Buehrle and All-Star closer Heath Bell.

All those dollars make for a lot of change. The Marlins also hired Guillen, the profane chatterbox who led the Chicago White Sox to the 2005 World Series title. They traded for another Chicagoan, Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano, a former All-Star who lately has struggled to control his fastball and temper.

Ignore the Marlins no more.

"Our franchise has undergone a complete transformation, on and off the field," President David Samson says.

Forbes recently estimated the value of the Marlins at $450 million, which ranks 21st in the majors but is a 25 percent increase over a year ago. The payroll is expected to top $100 million, a hike of more than 75 percent from last year's $57 million.

In sum, the Marlins should be worth watching. Newcomer Bell marked the start of the new era on the first day of spring training, when he entered the clubhouse with his pants hitched to his chest and a black ski mask pulled down over his face.

"There are going to be a lot of guys keeping this team loose," he says.

Leading the way will be Bell, a bullpen comedian best known for his pop-up slide into the rubber when he entered last year's All-Star Game. There's also Reyes, whose effervescent personality gives the lineup additional fizz, and holdover left fielder Logan Morrison, whose R-rated wisecracking has earned him nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter.

Former NL batting champion Hanley Ramirez, reluctantly making a switch from shortstop to third base, provides potential for melodrama given his tendency to clash with teammates about his effort and attitude. The lineup also includes precocious slugger Giancarlo (formerly Mike) Stanton, who embraced the spirit of change by opting for a new first name.

"Every type of personality you could ask for is in this locker room," Sanchez says.

The luxurious oval-shaped clubhouse is part of a futuristic ballpark that also includes a carnivalesque home-run sculpture, aquariums behind home plate and dazzling vistas of the downtown skyline.

The Showtime network found the setting and cast sufficiently compelling to make the Marlins the focus of this season's documentary series "The Franchise." The constant presence of a TV camera crew poses a potential distraction, especially for a team unaccustomed to attention, but Samson's not worried.

"When Ozzie is your manager, with the team we have, in the new ballpark, we are a walking distraction," he says. "It's up to our players to get past that."

Guillen anticipates they will.

"I expect to win the division," he says. "It's a pretty balanced, solid ballclub. We've got speed, power and good pitching. Nobody needs to win 30 games or hit .345 or hit 60 home runs to win. If everybody does what they're supposed to do for 162 games, this ballclub should be fine."

The Marlins have an odd history. They've never won a division title but took the World Series title as a wild card team in 1997 and 2003. Those are the only times they made the playoffs.

For the most part, they've competed in the shadow of the Phillies, Braves and Mets in the NL East, and in the shadow of the Heat and Dolphins in South Florida. But times change, and not long ago, LeBron James was spotted wearing a Marlins cap with the team's colorful new logo.

In Miami, there's a buzz about baseball.

"We're going to do amazing things this year," Bell says.

They might even win.

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