Miami Marlins lose opener to St. Louis Cardinals, but gaudy new ballpark takes center stage


Marlins pitcher Carlos Zambrano high-fives mascot Billy the Marlin during player introductions at the new ballpark in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
April 4, 2012

Depending on your viewpoint, it’s a sensational work of modern art that perfectly captures the tropical, vibrant, colorful character of Miami, or a gauche waste of public funds and taxpayer money.

The revamped Miami Marlins, featuring a new name, new uniforms, new logo, new manager and bigger payroll, opened the 2012 regular season stateside Wednesday in baseball’s latest stadium showpiece, a small, intimate ballpark loaded with South Beach excess.

A 71-foot psychedelic sculpture behind the center field wall at Marlins Park stood poised to announce Miami’s home runs — there weren’t any in the 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — with diving fish, dancing flamingos, spurting water, soaring sea gulls and neon lights.

A swimming pool and bar beyond left field entertained fans, perhaps more than a game in which the Marlins didn’t get their first hit off St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse until the seventh inning. Brilliantly colored fish — real ones! — swam around a pair of bullet-proof saltwater tanks behind home plate.

Massive glass panels in the outfield provided a stunning view of the downtown Miami skyline, especially after they were rolled out of sight like giant sliding glass doors.

And a retractable roof designed to counter the region’s heat, humidity and summer storms remained closed until shortly before the first pitch, bathing a sellout crowd of 36,601 fans in something they’ve never experienced at a Marlins game: air conditioning. Then, with most fans in their seats, a push of a button activated a dramatic, pregame roof opening that took less than 15 minutes.

“This city and this organization been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Miami third baseman Hanley Ramirez said. “The dream come true. It’s unbelievable to be a part of this. It’s history.”

It was a long, occasionally painful history that brought the Marlins — the Florida Marlins through last season — to Wednesday’s defeat, in which St. Louis scored three runs and got 10 hits off of Miami starter Josh Johnson. Three team owners over some 15 years fought for a baseball-only ballpark to replace the team’s previous home, a roof-less, character-less and often nearly fan-less football stadium located in unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

The current owner, art dealer Jeffrey Loria, finally won that support in 2009, securing $487 million in public funds for the $642 million construction at the site of the old Orange Bowl in Little Havana. His goal: to build a classic new ballyard that had character and style but wasn’t retro — and would keep out the rain.

From its futuristic white exterior to the bright green, blue and orange colors throughout the interior, the place screams originality and fun. Which is good, because the final bill will total nearly $3 billion by the time it’s paid for in just less than 40 years.

“The taxpayer is on the hook for the stadium,” said Norman Braman, a local billionaire who sued unsuccessfully to prevent county redevelopment funds from being used on the ballpark. “I hope for the sake of the taxpayer the team is successful.”

“It was a bad deal,” said Marc Sarnoff, one of the Miami city commissioners who opposed the stadium. “If you analyzed this deal in terms of economics 101, there’s no ungodly way you could have voted for it.”

Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig described the conception and birth of every new ballpark as a “trauma,” but said ill feelings will fade quickly.

“Mark my words,” Selig said. “Five years from now, you won’t find anybody who’s against this.”

He might be right — if the Marlins start winning. Publicly chided two years ago by Major League Baseball for not spending enough on player salaries, Loria during the past offseason added last year’s National League batting champion, Jose Reyes, starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell, and also brought in the engaging Ozzie Guillen to manage the team.

Reyes heard a few boos Wednesday when he and Ramirez, both of whom wore orange-dyed hair for the season’s opening, jogged to a second-inning groundball — each assuming the other would get it — that got through the infield. Guillen yanked off his cap and grabbed his head. Reyes, at least, got two of the Marlins’ four hits. The Cardinals rolled up 13.

“If I was a baseball fan, I would pay to watch these guys play,” Guillen had said before the game. “Now, I think, fans don’t have an excuse: ‘The ballpark’s too far away, it’s raining, it’s hot, it’s humid.’ ”

Now, instead of rain delays, Marlins games will be known in large part for the massive, animated home run monument that is bound to annoy opposing pitchers. It might even annoy the Marlins.

“Is Jeffrey around here?” Buehrle said with a grin when asked about the monument. “I prefer not to comment on that right now.”

Said Loria: “New things take time to get used to.”

Marlins hitters might simply take aim at the flamboyant piece.

“I think [Giancarlo] Stanton will kill one of those birds,” pitcher Carlos Zambrano said. “Or Hanley.”

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