The Impulsive Traveler: Miami’s Marlins Park, a big hit in Little Havana
By Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel,
For us, the combination was irresistible: Guava pastries and mojitos in Little Havana and baseball’s newest major league stadium.
We’d seen the stadium under construction last year, looking as though an enormous space ship had landed near Miami’s famed Calle Ocho neighborhood, home to Cuban coffee bars, tropical fruit markets and Spanish-only stores and restaurants. Anxious to see the finished $515 million product, we watched the Yankees play the Marlins in a preseason game last month.
Miami is the latest city to build a fan-friendly new ballpark. These stadiums have cropped up in 20 Major League Baseball cities over the past two decades, ever since Baltimore started the revolution. But the new Marlins Park isn’t another red brick retro number.
Hey, this is Miami. Marlins Park is futuristic, sun-bleached white and in your face. It’s like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum on steroids, with ground-floor plazas of palm trees.
The city has been exploding with out-there architecture, from designer parking garages to its New World Symphony hall. The park is a stellar addition to the skyline. It sits on the site of the legendary Orange Bowl and was created by Populous, an offshoot of HOK, the famed stadium builder.
On its east plaza, you can climb and sit on 10-foot “Orange Bowl” letters, looking as if they’d spilled during the 2008 demolition. The retractable roof on the 37,000-seat park protects fans from the sudden showers and high humidity of baseball season in Miami.
Happily, unlike at its cross-state rival in Tampa Bay, the roof moves and the games are played on real Bermuda grass. There’s a view of the Miami skyline past left and center fields. You can walk the promenade level around the park without missing a pitch. But inside, there’s a heavy concrete feel because of the structure needed to carry the enormous roof.
As we explored the park, we found less art than we’d hoped to see, given that owner Jeffrey Loria is an art dealer. An impressive ceramic of a Joan Miro painting tops one escalator. Kenny Scharf’s fun mixed media “Play Ball!” is crammed into a corner behind the team store. The most significant piece of art is the $2.5 million home run sculpture by pop artist Red Grooms. It stands more than 70feet tall in left center field and looks like a flamingo pinball machine, with marlins that jump when a Marlin hits a home run. Gaudy, but hey, this is Miami.
There’s live organ music, but we just don’t get the two 22-foot-long, 450-gallon fish tanks behind home plate. Unless you’re sitting right there with Miami’s 1 percent or are watching on television, they look like blank walls.
The Bobblehead Museum on the promenade behind home plate is a display, not a museum, but it’s a laugh to see hundreds of bobbleheads wired to jiggle in unison. There’s also an Orange Bowl tribute, with reproductions of gorgeous program covers on the promenade level beyond third base.
Good luck finding the local Latin food that the Marlins are promoting. In inexcusably bad judgment, the three stands of local food are literally hidden behind a wall beyond the left-field foul pole near Section 28. Make a beeline there, because it’s where you’ll find the best and least-expensive food in the park. The owner of the beloved Miami sandwich shop Papo Llega y Pon has brought her superlative roasted pork sandwiches and mojo criollo sauce. Skip the bread and get an overflowing portion of the crackled pork for just $5. Neighboring stands sell $10 ceviche and midnight Cuban sandwiches with great chips for $9. Contrast that with skimpy fish tacos for $12 at the standard concession stands.
The Marlins have adopted the Atlanta Braves’ practice of featuring food from their out-of-town rivals, served at Burger 305 near the Section 40 right-field foul pole. They had knishes to honor the Yankees when we visited. There are also a kosher concession, a gluten-free stand (with gluten-free beer!) and fresh sushi. One cool move: Many digital menu boards continuously switch from Spanish to English.
Sadly, the ballpark is a mile-plus walk from the nearest Metrorail station, Culmer. There’s an express shuttle from the station 90 minutes before game time. There are also eight bus routes to the park and free trolleys from the Miami Health District and Civic Center Station. Two huge garages have been built next to the park, but you’ll wait in long lines to exit at game’s end. We found parking for $10 six blocks away.
The park’s big bonus is that it’s in Little Havana. For starters, no matter how late the game ends, you can still eat at the venerable Versailles restaurant. With its kingfish, mojitos, guava and cheese pastries, this always-busy mainstay at the edge of Little Havana is open until 4 a.m.
Pregame, we started the day walking the stretch from 11th to 17th avenues along Little Havana’s Calle Ocho (SW Eighth Street). We had bargain omelets at the vintage lunch counter in the spotless El Nuevo Siglo Supermarket. You’ll need elementary Spanish to order. Check out the bakery and the low-cost spices and staples.
At Los Pinarenos Fruteria, we sat at the window while the counter woman walked to the fruit bins and picked out a ripe mango for our $3 shake. She pressed huge stalks of sugar cane through an extractor for another customer while her partner sliced open cold coconuts for thirsty patrons on the patio.
We saw veteran cigarmaker Leo Perazo roll one of the several homemade varieties at El Credito, one of a dozen cigar shops on Calle Ocho. A few blocks farther on, we watched an artist repaint one of the colorful plaster roosters that dot the streets. This one was outside El Pub, which served us the best Cuban sandwich on sweet egg bread (medianoche) imaginable.
Calle Ocho offers Cuban homemade ice cream, several dozen jewelry and art stores and serious domino and chess action at Maximo Gomez Park, informally known as Domino Park. Gold stars featuring Latin notables are embedded in the sidewalks.
We stayed at hotels less than two miles distant — the best lodging choices without going farther afield to South Beach or downtown. We particularly liked the chic Hotel Urbano, with its ultramodern rooms and 1960s vibe.
Think about a Miami visit when the Washington Nationals play the Marlins there three times this season. You can add in time at South Beach or the Everglades, or spend your weekend as we did, appreciating the different rhythms and flavors of this Latin community.
Adams and Engel are the authors of “Fodor’s Baseball Vacations.”