“This is the best team in South Florida pro sports until another volunteers itself,” writes the Miami Herald’s Greg Cote of the Florida Marlins, “despite the continuing and sad lack of witnesses.”  And while the Marlins enter play this evening trailing the Mets and Phillies by a mere half game, Cote can hardly believe “the Marlins are closer to the playoffs right now than to a sellout crowd.”

How is it possible? How can it be that, deep into summer, two-thirds through the long baseball season, Florida would be a sliver’s one game out of first place even after bats slept in Monday’s 4-0 home loss to Atlanta?

The Phillies are better, the Mets are hotter, and yet the young, unloved Marlins continue to fight like believers, even if nobody believes but them.

This team can’t draw a crowd (the usual 14,155 trickled in Monday).

This team can’t get a new stadium (even when it seems they had).

This group is at times mindful of a men’s softball team in a beer-keg league, a bunch of bruisers who uppercut a bunch of home runs and do not much else right.

Opponents have outscored the Marlins by 29 runs this season. Florida is on its fourth catcher. It has the league’s worst starting rotation ERA, the third-most walks allowed, the most strikeouts by their own batters and the majors’ worst fielding percentage — by far.

No starting staff in the bigs is younger, less experienced, and with less on the résumé other than glowing potential.

There isn’t a Marlins starter out there who probably hasn’t been carded in a bar in the past month. Only Nolasco is old enough to legally rent a car. Barely.

With the possible (and obvious) exception of the Tampa Rays, Cote is justified in hailing the ’08 Marlins as baseball’s best story. But the routine griping about the lack of paying customers also begs the question, how many Marlins games has Cote ever paid to attend?  It’s very tempting to buy into the notion of Florida’s plucky, over-achieving, econo-kiddies, but no matter how terrific a baseball fable it might be, the fact remains that every penny spent on tickets, parking, concessions, etc. supports the business interests of Jeffrey Loria and the Diminutive Accu-Jack Enthusiast.