There was a time when baseball team owners used to plead their case for new ballparks by insisting they couldn’t win in their old ballparks. I don’t think any team owner will make that argument again, as it is demonstrably false.
Look at the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays, whose ballparks generally occupy Nos. 29 and 30 when ballpark mavens rank major league venues. As further evidence, look at the Florida Marlins, who closed out their tenure at Sun Life Stadium by finishing last in the National League East in 2011. They opened Marlins Park the next year—as the Miami Marlins—and finished last again. This year, they had the worst record in the NL.
Owner Jeffrey Loria was roundly roasted for purging his roster after 2012, but it’s not the first mass exodus in Marlins history. After the 1997 World Series championship, most of the players who achieved same were dispatched, leaving the 1998 team to drop off to a record of 54-108 (a mere .333 winning percentage), and stiffing the season ticket holders
The 1998 debacle wasn’t Loria’s doing, however; it was the handiwork of his predecessor, Wayne Huizenga. Still, the Marlins won another World Series five years after bottoming out, so you can’t say their policy was a failure. Loria may have had a similar turnaround timetable in mind, but it meant that 2013 was destined to be a lost season, and the fans responded accordingly.
One year after it opened, the new ballpark was plagued with empty seats. It is not unheard of for a team to close off the top deck of the stadium when attendance is poor—but doing so when the stadium is only one year old lets you know there’s something seriously wrong. Bear in mind that the capacity of the park is only 36,742, so shutting down the upper deck effectively means that most nights the Marlins might as well be playing in a Triple-A ballpark.
When it came time for me to plan a fall vacation, however, Miami was the logical choice. I’d seen the stadium while it was under construction and wanted to see the finished product… and I knew getting tickets would be no problem whatsoever.
Marlins Park resides in Little Havana on the site of the old Orange Bowl, which was torn down in 2008. Oddly, this is not the first time baseball was played on this site. The gridiron was converted for baseball on Aug. 7, 1956, so Satchel Paige and the (minor league) Marlins could play a charity game. A crowd of 51,7813 turned out for that contest. Also, in 1990, the Orange Bowl was the host of the Caribbean Series.
While Miami offers no shortage of scenic settings, the immediate area around Marlins Park is not one of them. One suspects that burglar bar installation vies with air conditioning repair for best local job security.
Marlins Park did fill the void left by the demolition of the Orange Bowl, and I’m sure the city hoped a new ballpark would be a major economic stimulus. To that end, the parking garages built on the north side of the stadium feature retail space on the street level. After two seasons of Marlins baseball, there are still no tenants, though one sign promises a Subway sandwich shop will be coming soon.
From what I could see, the fans park their cars, go to the game, and then leave. There’s nothing in the immediate area of interest, other than neighborhood entrepreneurs who rent out cut-rate parking spaces. Miami’s Metrorail has a trolley bus that shuttles fans back and forth from the Civic Center station; post-game service is reliable, but pre-game service is hit or miss. Once you gain a little knowledge of the public transit system, it’s actually easier to take the No. 7, 12 or 17 buses to the park.
Location aside, Marlins Park has much to recommend it. Start with the retractable roof. Miami is hot and humid in the summertime—no news flash there. That alone would make indoor, air-conditioned baseball a selling point. In 1997 I saw a Marlins game at Joe Robbie Stadium, or Pro Player Stadium, or whatever it was called in those days. It was the muggiest, most stifling, most uncomfortable night I had ever spent at a ballpark. And nothing has surpassed it in the years since.
Also, during the summer, Miami is subject to afternoon showers on an almost daily basis. This keeps everything green and fresh, but can play havoc with a major league baseball team. So, sorry, traditionalists, but indoor baseball is a big plus in South Florida. In a sense, it’s highly appropriate, as air conditioning plays as big a part in Miami as sun, sand, surf and drug deals. The grass is real, if that makes you feel better.
The retractable roof has one feature you don’t see in similar facilities. The first base (west) side of the stadium has a vast plaza for pre-game entertainment. When the roof is opened, it slides from east to west (the process takes 13-15 minutes, depending on the wind) and covers the plaza from sun and rain, making it an attractive pre-game hangout or venue for non-baseball events.
Beyond the left field wall is an enormous sliding glass picture window. Like the roof, this can be open to let in the elements, or closed to keep them out. Either way, it provides a decent view of the Miami skyline, just as there used to be at the open (east) end of the Orange Bowl.
Directly beneath the picture window is the ballpark branch of the Clevelander, a renowned Miami Beach hotel/night club. For the young and the restless (also the well-heeled), this appears to be Party Central. The patrons likely score more than the Marlins. If you must watch baseball, the seating section behind the see-through outfield fence does provide a unique perspective.
The salt water aquariums behind home plate have probably received more attention than any other feature in the ballpark. It’s a great video op for roving TV cameramen, but not for the fans, other than those sitting in the front row behind the aquariums. Actually, the on-deck batter is in the best position to appreciate the feature, and I suspect that more than a few players have experienced a Zen moment in front of the tanks before stepping up to the plate.
The Home Run Sculpture in left center field is much more accessible. Basically, it’s a piece of kinetic kitsch composed of all things Florida… dolphins, palm trees, flamingos, seagulls and pelicans. Whenever a Marlin hits a home run, the darned thing lights up and springs into action. But the only way to make sure you see this thingamajig do its thing is to buy a season ticket. The Marlins hit only 95 home runs in 2013. That was good for last place in the majors. They were the only team that didn’t reach triple digits.
For nostalgia buffs, there is an Orange Bowl exhibit on the third-base side of the concourse. Also, one of the parking garages on the south side of the stadium features three murals salvaged from the old stadium.
A more bizarre tribute can be seen outside beyond left field, where a bunch of large block letters are strewn around the east plaza. Some are partially buried in the ground. It all looks like some sort of abstract sculpture garden, but according to the Marlins program, the objects are mock-ups of the 10-foot high letters from the old “MIAMI ORANGE BOWL” sign that sat atop the old stadium. According to the program, “Their [the letters’] positions capture an ambiguous moment between destruction and rebuilding.” Sure glad they cleared that up for me.
The real showstopper at Marlins Park, however, is the Bobblehead Museum on the third base side of the main concourse. Before I left for Miami, I mentioned to a friend that I was looking forward to visiting this exhibit. “Bobbleheads are stupid,” was the curt response. I concur. They are stupid. So are Moe, Larry and Curly, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.
The collection consists of some 600 bobblehead dolls representing players, past and present, from every team in major league baseball. The shelving vibrates so the bobbleheads do what they were designed to do. If one were a rich, eccentric baseball fan, this is exactly the sort of thing one would have in one’s man cave.
Most museums display only a fraction of their holdings, and I suspect this is also the case with the Bobblehead Museum. Certainly, new ones are coming out all the time, so I’m guessing there is a storage room somewhere in the stadium where the second-string bobbleheads are stored. Perhaps one day a second museum will appear on the first base side.
The field of play itself is also noteworthy. The outfield walls are painted green, as is the case in most ballparks, but it is a shade of green I’ve never seen at a ballpark before. At first, I couldn’t place this pigment, but eventually I realized it was lime green—perhaps a tribute to the citrus industry and key lime pie, a regional favorite.
The distances displayed on those outfield walls (left to right: 344, 386, 418, 392 and 335) offer clues as to why the Marlins hit so few home runs. Beyond the outfield walls, the Marlins have distance markers in the stands, so if anybody hits a tape-measure job, you can estimate for yourself how far it flew.
Another unique feature is the Marlins’ display of the opening lineup. Most college and minor league teams post their starting lineups in the concourse, but it’s not as common in the big leagues. The Marlins do so—but with one big difference. They display two sets of posters of each starting player, one through nine in the order, starting near home plate and extending down the concourse on each side.
The scoreboard graphics also gets high marks. Most ballparks have exhortations that say merely “Noise,” “Get loud,” or something to that effect. When the Marlins want to rev up the crowd, they flash “Scream!” on the video board, then show a knock-off of Edvard Munch’s famed painting “The Scream” with the subject wearing a Marlins jersey.
As promos for Star Wars Night on the final Friday night of the season, the team mascot, Billy the Marlin, was cleverly inserted into clips from the Star Wars movies. When Star Wars night arrived, the scoreboard showed a montage of Marlins hitters thwacking the baseball with light sabers. Very smooth graphic work!
As for live action entertainment, high marks to the Marlins’ energy team, a troupe of dancers and acrobats who entertain between innings. Usually, I don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing, but these folks were impressive. I mean, how often do you see a guy do a one-hand handstand, hopping up and down while rotating 360 degrees?
Then there’s the mascot race involving sea creatures. One was an octopus, another was a shark. A third entrant was, I think, a crab, and the fourth I wasn’t sure about.
The identity of the mystery mascot was just one of many questions I was saving for the stadium tour guide. Unfortunately, they weren’t conducting any tours while I was in town, so my questions remained unasked. My most pressing question was how Billy the Marlin acquired his name. My theory was that it was a corruption of Billy Martin.
All in all, I was duly impressed with the Marlins’ new home, but I really wasn’t expecting much from the games themselves. Yet as it turned out, they were not devoid of interest.
First up was the Phillies, in town for three games from Sept. 23-25. Like the Marlins, the Phillies were going nowhere, but more had been expected of them. As the series started, the Marlins were sitting on 99 losses with six games to go. The Marlins won the first game of the series but succumbed in the second game. The local sportswriters dutifully pointed out that it was only the second time in Marlins history that the team had lost 100 games. The first time, of course, was in 1998, after the post-championship purge.
After the loss-o-meter hit triple digits, however, the Marlins could not be reeled in again; in fact, they reeled off four straight victories, one against the Phillies, and three against the vastly superior Detroit Tigers.
If the drama of the Marlins’ quest to stave off 100 losses was over, the sportswriters still had something to write about. On the morning of Friday, Sept. 27, Loria fired the director of baseball operations, Larry Beinfest (as well as his assistant, Jim Fleming). Beinfest had been with the team since 2001, so it was not a move to be taken lightly, even though rumors about his dismissal had been rampant.
Then there was the matter of the return of Miguel Cabrera. Thanks to season-long interleague scheduling, the Marlins and Tigers were chosen to close out the season together. The Tigers had just clinched their division, so there was nothing at stake for them, but when Cabrera stepped up to the plate (his first at-bat in Miami since the Marlins traded him away in 2007), he got a louder ovation than any Marlin.
The Marlins not only won that Friday night game (thanks to one swing of the bat by Giancarlo Stanton, who drove in all the runs with a three-run double), they also won Saturday night. Then, on Sunday, Sept. 29, the Marlins’ Henderson Alvarez threw a no-hitter—and a rare walk-off no-hitter at that. You couldn’t order up a more ironic way to wind up an otherwise disastrous season!
I wish I could say I was there… but I had left Miami the day before. It would have been especially sweet, as I was present for Mike Witt’s perfect game against the Rangers on the final day of the 1984 season. I could have been, quite possibly the only fan in history who saw two final-game no-hitters in person… but it was not to be.
On the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 29, while Alvarez was finishing up his gem, I was sitting at the World of Beer in Dallas watching the last few innings of the Rangers-Angels game. As it turned out, the guy sitting next to me was from Jupiter, Fla., (the spring training home of the Marlins and Cardinals), just up the coast from Miami. I happened to mention my theory about how Billy the Marlin got his name, and he replied that marlins, sailfish, swordfish, and other denizens of the deep with similar snouts were known as billfish. Just like birds, these fish had bills. So his theory was that Billy was so named because he was a billfish.
Well, it’s hard to part with a pet theory, but I had to admit his theory was better than mine regarding Billy Martin/Marlin. Maybe I didn’t get to see Henderson Alvarez’s no-hitter, but at least I solved the mystery of Billy the Marlin—while at home in landlocked Dallas, no less! The baseball gods indeed work in mysterious ways.