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A night behind home plate with Marlins Man, ‘the greatest thing that’s ever happened to baseball’

Marlins Man from his seat behind home plate at Nationals Park on June 18. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Marlins Man is calling me from his rental car.

“I’m here. I landed,” he says. His plane was stuck in St. Louis an extra 2 1/2 hours. He is making a beeline from Reagan National Airport to Nationals Park. It is rush hour. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I don’t like to do it this way.”

You would think a guy who flies as much as Marlins Man — he attends 300-plus sporting events a year — would not be frustrated by routine holdups like this. But he is. He is frustrated at the airlines. He is frustrated if you don’t pick up the phone when he calls about these delays. He is frustrated he is going to miss part of a baseball game, the time to be around his people and preach the virtues of the game to all who will listen.

Twenty minutes later, he has arrived, and calls again: “Where are you? You said you’d meet me at the club. You are not here. You said you would be here.”

When I find him, he is halfway into a hot dog and drinking a Coke. He gives me a half-handshake, half-hug.

“How are the seats? Pretty great, right?” he says, and he pulls me toward the dining tables that overlook Washington’s indoor batting cage. “Look, look. I want to show you something.”

It is June 18, and Marlins Man has agreed to let me follow him around as Washington finishes a suspended game before a full nine innings against the Yankees. He texted me my ticket — section C, row A, seat 10, directly in the line of television cameras — earlier in the day. His delayed flight means he will miss the undercard.

But he will still be on TV. He will still take hundreds of selfies with his fans, still shake hands and tell kids to “make your parents proud, do good in school.”

This is the life of Laurence Leavy, a workers’ compensation attorney from outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a celebrity for showing up again and again in neon orange. He is the sports fan who is winning and knows it.

In 2014, doctors found a large growth on his liver which looked like terminal cancer, says Leavy, 61. They said he likely had six months to live, so he chose to attend in person every sporting event he watched on TV.

After a biopsy revealed the growth was benign, he decided he was having too much fun to give it up. So now he goes to nearly every game he can manage, sometimes planning trips half a year in advance, sometimes with only days notice.

On his longest Washington swing this summer, he had tickets on weeknights for two Nationals games and Games 3 and 4 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals. That Saturday, he went to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. On Sunday, he flew to Houston to see the Astros and Indians on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, again sitting behind home plate.

And now, Nationals Park fans approach him asking for photos and even autographs with greetings such as: “You’re a legend,” and “How does it feel to be famous for nothing?”

Allow Leavy to state clearly for the record: It feels fantastic.

“I think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to baseball,” he says. “I can’t believe it’s me.”

This is the routine that’s made him famous.

He arrives — ideally — at a stadium an hour before the game starts wearing one of 14 bright orange Miami Marlins jerseys and one of 200 matching visors.

He eats, and in many stadiums, the meals are free, either because his ticket includes the cost of food and drink or because franchise owners and event staff have become friends over the years.

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A vendor at Nationals Park offers to hide away a piece of chocolate cake for him after he asked about her children. Another comes over to give him a hug. He shakes hands with ushers in the concourse. He asks one about his community college exams.

“See this man?” another usher asks me as we walked around the upper deck. “This is a good man. You take care of him.”

He takes a lap around each stadium to both explore and meet his fans, who, generally, are variations of the modern bro.

They are white boys or men. They are gregarious. They like to tell jokes. They give firm handshakes.

They love Barstool Sports, on whose podcasts Leavy is a regular guest. They love the respect Leavy shows for military personnel and first responders. They queue up in front of him, sometimes forming a line that rivals those in front of beer vendors.

I ask a group of Yankee fans in their 20s why they wanted selfies. After all, when you get down to it, I say, Leavy is just another fan.

“I mean, but he’s Marlins Man,” answers one fan, his pinstripe jersey unbuttoned to show a white T-shirt beneath it, his Yankee hat on backward. “He’s everywhere. He’s just the man.”

“What he does is so cool,” says his friend in a gray Yankees T-shirt. “I want to be like him.”

“You are Marlins Man!” exclaims a guy in his 40s who gives his name as David when we get back to the club. He offers to buy us beers in exchange for a photo.

“Baseball fans are big kids,” Leavy tells me as he eats an ice cream sundae. David has just walked away. “They’re big kids that never grew up.”

He pauses.

“That’s it. That’s a great quote. You should write that down. Write that down. I’m putting it out there right now. Baseball fans are big kids that never grew up.”

By the sixth inning, we take our seats and Leavy opens Twitter on his phone and refreshes his feed.

“That didn’t take long,” he says, elbowing me.

We are on TV, and the screen shots have begun. Also, fans too shy to take selfies have snapped photos of Leavy walking through the concourse and tagged him on Twitter.

The practice soaks up the sixth inning. He had left to grab a Coke with lemonade between innings but was accosted by Screech, the mascot, who demanded a selfie, then a fan sitting in an aisle of a nearby section, and then another line formed.

By the end of the top of the seventh inning, Giancarlo Stanton, an ex-Marlin, had doubled in New York’s fourth run, and Leavy had procured All-Star Game tickets worth several thousand dollars, not tremendously expensive, given his history.

“I don’t have a budget,” he says. “I don’t.”

He paid $25,000, he says, for a seat behind the Golden State Warriors’ bench for Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. He sat next to the rapper Tyga.

“I go to the games I want to,” he says later. “I work my a– off.”

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His law firm and commercial real estate practice are successful, and he is addicted to them. He checks email between innings, takes calls in the airport, reviews paperwork in the back of cabs. His cellphone case has a built-in charger so his battery never dies.

His home in Davie, Fla., has a pool and tennis court, though he doesn’t spend much time there on account of the travel, he says. He has purchased an entire stadium section to give away tickets to first responders or veterans or teachers, asking only in return they pay the good deed forward. He’ll walk through the rows learning names, then introduce everyone to one another.

Even in his prime seats that put him on television, he spends the game yapping to neighbors and turning around and shaking hands, taking selfies that other spectators don’t always ask for.

“Every stadium I go to,” he says, “all the biggest companies and CEOs, they own all the best seats. They don’t know each other. They never talk to each other. I get them to talk.”

And that’s the thing about going to a baseball game. You can look around, take in the ballpark, talk to your neighbor and then watch the next pitch.

When you watch baseball at home, Leavy says, there isn’t anything like that. There’s a pitch, and then a replay of that pitch, and then a base coach giving signs, and a catcher giving signs and various shots of grown men spitting. And then another pitch.

The game needs more action, and if not action, more entertainment, more personality.

Like an umpire explaining to a manager, “my a– is in the jackpot,” after a pitcher deliberately throws behind a batter. Like hearing what infielders talk about during mound visits. Like seeing the same guy dressed like a traffic cone at the biggest games and wondering, what’s his story?

In the ninth inning, halfway through a bag of peanuts, I asked Leavy what people should get out of Marlins Man. What does his character teach people?

“We’re all on the same team,” he said. “We’re Americans. We have more in common than what divides us. We’re all sports fans.”

I suppose that’s true, but I’m also not sure how the vast majority of Marlins Man’s audience — TV viewers — are supposed to get that message through a screen. What they see, like I did until now, is the same guy at every major sporting event, in great seats, having a great time.

We all sit on our couches and think, wouldn’t that be nice?

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