Twenty years into their history, and there's still something fishy about the Marlins. I don't just say that to be glib. Let's start with a thought exercise. If you were a fan of a team, would you make this deal with the devil: You get 18 years of varying degrees of embarrassment, carpetbagger robbery of the public till to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, a ballpark that looks like it had the Jetsons and Playskool involved as consulting architects ... and two World Series titles?
They say flags fly forever, and it's clear that some people will pay any price to make it so. But has it been worth it, for Marlins fans? I'm sure there are fans in Miami who remember being excited about Cuba's Orestes Destrade coming back from the Japanese leagues to be an original Marlin. I'm sure there are folks who were there to see Charlie Hough beat Orel Hershiser on that first Opening Day. There's no shame in admitting to that.
But after everything that has happened since, can anyone even properly consider themselves a Marlins fan? Is there anyone who has ridden this roller coaster through every up and down, through every fire sale? Would you blame them if the answer was a universal "no?"
The Marlins have been baseball's ultimate fickle rich dude play-thing franchise, as much a dumping ground for one Bud Selig-approved plutocrat after another. First they were the beneficiary of Wayne Huizenga's bottomless garbage pit of cash to finance their first quick World Series title in 1997, then the victim of the trash king's instant disinterest upon acquiring his ring. In and out came all sorts of famous and expensive people to make it so: Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou, the sort of high-profile turnover that makes Taylor Swift's dating life seem sedate by comparison.
Financier John Henry took over in '99, marking time as the franchise caretaker at the same time that Jeffrey Loria spent just $12 million to get in on the Expos and helping baseball drive out the local Montreal ownership stake. Three years later, with big-ledger legerdemain that only an investment banker could love, Loria sells the Expos to baseball, buys the Marlins with that money plus an interest-free loan from the game, and Henry uses that money to help finance the second-largest (and yet winning) offer to buy the Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust.
Never let it be said shenanigans don't pay. A season later, Loria has a ring as the Marlins raise their second flag in just their 11th year of existence. (A year after that, Henry got a ring, too.) For whatever reason, it seems like people are more ready to remember the Evil Empire Yankees losing to the 2001 Diamondbacks than they are to recall the big moments of the Marlins' even more surprising win.
That's a shame, because once you get past the heartburn of the finance pages, the 2003 champs were a fun team to follow. Derrek Lee, Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Lowell were all at the top of their games, Miggy was just breaking in, and the Marlins benefited from one of the best in-season bullpen fixer-upper jobs pulled off by GM Larry Beinfest and ageless skipper Jack McKeon in his last dugout incarnation. From Pudge's back-breaking game-winning hit in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Giants, the Bartman game against the Cubs in the NLCS, or Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano shutting down the Yankees in the World Series, it was the stuff of legend that creates fans for life.
For most franchises, but not for the Marlins. Because that's the funny thing about the Fish: Even with the flags, even with the opportunity to start from scratch so many times during their brief history, nobody's going to try copying them, let alone love them. While the farm system cranked out an all-time great in Miguel Cabrera and a few other top-tier talents in Josh Johnson, Adrian Gonzalez (dealt as a 21-year-old farmhand in 2003 as part of a package for Ugueth Urbina) and Giancarlo Stanton, it has produced little else.
Most of the young prospects the Marlins have succeeded with over time has been the reward reaped from the fire sales they seem to hold with the acrid monotony of slash-and-burn agriculture. Eventually everything of value gets exchanged to provide the next crop of twentysomethings under club control until arbitration or the free agency clock puts them somewhere else, too. The churn at the big-league levels hasn't just been a product of economic necessity, it has had to stand in for a farm system that hasn't produced enough talent. It's a formula that puts Justin Ruggiano on the field as one of your better players.
Try thinking of the all-time great Marlins, if you dare, and mostly you get into a name-check litany of other people's prospects who put in their time in teal or tropical rainbow before departing. Hello and goodbye, Hanley Ramirez, or Anibal Sanchez. It's like the franchise that hasn't outgrown the founding lesson of its own expansion draft: Covet other people's goodies, and try to get them rather than come up with any of your own. Jeff Conine? He's probably still the only legit contender for the title of Mr. Marlin, assuming anyone wants to wear it.
Josh Johnson is atop the franchise's all-time mark for pitching WAR with 25.3. He's already an ex-Marlin after last November's humiliating trade with the Blue Jays. Their most productive homegrown position player in terms of career WAR is Luis Castillo, followed by Cabrera; third is Stanton after less than three full seasons in the majors.
It remains to be seen if Loria's charmed life as a baseball owner will last. Between the $500 million taxpayers had to shell out for his unique new venue -- which might balloon to $800 or $900 million if Neil deMause of FieldofSchemes.com is right, as he usually is -- the resulting scandal has left political careers broken and a municipality broke. It remains to be seen what will come of the SEC investigation over the depths of Loria's and baseball's involvement in what looks like an ugly pay-to-play situation.
Beyond that, much like Charlie Finley of the '70s Oakland A's dynasty before him, Loria is the owner-operator who's easy to hate, pinching pennies while alienating managers and players and fans. Loria is the man who ran off Joe Girardi after the rookie skipper earned Manager of the Year, not unlike Finley had to see Dick Williams scram scant minutes after winning the 1973 World Series.
I wouldn't doubt for a moment that some of the visceral loathing Loria seems to inspire among fans is also fueled by thoroughgoing jealousy. And why not? There's plenty to be jealous of. The man owns a major league team. In Miami. And his team won a World Series.
Which is why the Marlins might be the ultimate representation of the downside of the motto of the late Al Davis, "Just win, baby." Not because the Marlins haven't won -- they have -- or that they just win -- they don't. The problem is that the emphasis in their case is probably on the word "just": They just won. Because beyond those two titles, what have the Marlins given baseball fans in Miami? Just that. And 20 years in, maybe that's a deal with the devil that no fan would make.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.