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Washington Diarist: Home Base

The Florida Marlins threw out their first pitch in 1993, five years after I moved away from Fort Lauderdale to attend college. I had no connection to the team then, nor do I now. I've attended only one Marlins game in my life, and I spent most of it in the stadium bathroom with a four-year-old nephew, answering the kind of questions only a four-year-old would ask. (He wanted to know why the toilet water was blue; I told him the Marlins dyed it that way to match their uniforms.) So while I was excited to see my "home" team win the World Series last Sunday, I also felt pangs of--how shall I put it?--ambivalence. And while I strutted around the office on Monday, wearing a Marlins shirt and accepting the congratulations of my colleagues, deep down I knew I wasn't really entitled. The Marlins aren't really my team, and South Florida isn't really my community.

Forensically speaking, I'm not "from" South Florida. I was born in Philadelphia; I've spent more years in Boston (two when I was very young, eight more beginning with college) than anywhere else. But I call Fort Lauderdale home because it is where I spent the bulk of my boyhood, and by Floridian standards that practically makes me a native. Miami and Fort Lauderdale are essentially refugee enclaves: some of the refugees came from Latin America, seeking relief from tyranny; others, like my parents and grandparents, came from Brooklyn, seeking relief from Brooklyn. Each group speaks with a foreign tongue. (Bilingualism came to Miami the day Henry Flagler built a railroad to bring winter-weary New Yorkers south.) And each has come to the same conclusion about South Florida: it's a nice place to spend the rest of your life, but you wouldn't want to live there.

The popular image of South Florida emphasizes the region's exoticism: the outlandish fashions, the macabre crimes, the melange of cultures; the paganism, the hedonism, the capitalism. But South Florida is predominantly a suburban place, and save for the tropical adornments--palm trees and a pastel neon skyline--the landscape looks pretty much like any other sprawling Sunbelt community. The South Florida I know best isn't as gripping as a "Miami Vice" rerun or as quirky as Dave Barry. It is just another landscape of Sheetrock strip malls and screened-in patios, of congested eight-lane highways and mediocre Chinese food. There is construction everywhere: as my father used to say, the sun never sets on the cement mixer in Florida. In the brief span of my life there, several small cities morphed from swampy boondocks to high-rise boomtowns to inner-city busts. There is constant building and there is also constant rebuilding. South Florida is forever reinventing South Florida.

Yet even transients need some symbol of belonging, and like many South Floridians I found it in the local team. During my childhood, that meant the Miami Dolphins, who until 1987 played their home games in the Orange Bowl--a decrepit, overcrowded dish of rusting steel whose lone virtue was to provide the region's best setting (maybe its only setting) for the casual mixing of races and classes. The Dolphins were the closest thing Miami had to an ancient institution: the team traced its lineage all the way back to 1966! The more removed from Florida I became, the more I clung to the team, even if it meant no more than using a T-shirt as an instrument of identity. Even today, I try to cluster my visits during football season, much to the consternation of my parents, who would like to think that they are the local team that commands my most fervent allegiance.

But nothing like that is possible with the Marlins. If the Dolphins represent a rare example of Floridian permanence, the Marlins embody the region's ephemeral character. The championship roster that triumphed last week included just two players who had been on the team five years ago, when the expansion club first began playing at what was then called Joe Robbie Stadium, after the Dolphins' former owner, but is now known as Pro Player Stadium, after an apparel company that simply paid for the right to put its name on the building. (Tacky, I know, but it could have been worse: Pro Player is a licensed subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom.) To be sure, the Marlins' transient roster--like the stadium sponsorship--is typical of baseball today. A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a portrait of every Major Leaguer who had played for the same team over the last decade. There were just 15 ballplayers in the picture. Yet it took a South Floridian--Marlins' owner H. Wayne Huizenga--to deliver this trend to its reductio ad absurdum. Huizenga is no stranger to change. He has built, run, and sold two separate corporate empires in the last 20 years. So when he set out to build a champion, he did it by forking over $80 million to lure baseball's best free agents. At the time, naysayers said his team would lack chemistry, that you can't build a championship squad simply by buying up all the talent. Obviously, Wayne knows something about baseball traditionalists don't.

Alas, in South Florida, even a championship baseball team can't last. There will be no Marlins dynasty: Wayne has had his fun, and now he's selling his asset. It's not clear who will buy it, but chances are the new ownership will trim the Marlins' heavy payroll. Huizenga says that to make the team profitable, total salaries must come down to something near $20 million, unless, of course, the city will build a new, retractable-dome, baseball-only stadium, in which case he'd consider holding on to the franchise. Obviously Wayne knows a little something about pressure tactics, too. Jim Leyland, the highly talented Marlins' manager who arrived just this year, is rumored to be contemplating a move to another team, or retirement--but not in South Florida.

It used to be that the drifters in America were at the bottom of the social ladder. Now they're at the top. There is, of course, an upside to such volatility: it has allowed at least some ethnic communities to flourish in a way that would be impossible in cities with older traditions--or more deeply rooted prejudices. When Marlins' rookie Livan Hernandez--a 22-year-old Cuban defector-- accepted the award as the Series' Most Valuable Player, he used a translator to address the fans. But the cheers followed his own Spanish, not the translator's delayed English. South Florida's Anglo community has always feared that the influx of Hispanic immigrants would forever change the city's character, and, of course, it has. But is the change really something to fear? Many Cuban-Americans born in this country would rather not return to the island. They really are from Florida. If that holds, and if the sons and daughters of other refugees--even the huddled masses from New York--really plant roots, then I think South Florida's future may finally live up to the hype of its past. And then it might be the kind of place worth calling home.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.