Marlins say good riddance to cavernous stadium
As moving day nears for the Florida Marlins, Jeff Conine stands in front of the dugout, the crack of batting-practice swings echoing in the cavernous stadium. He looks up toward a sea of empty seats and remembers when they were full.
This is where Conine went 4 for 4 as a rookie in the franchise's first game; where he played on two World Series championship teams; where he earned the nickname Mr. Marlin.
On Wednesday, the Marlins kiss their ballpark goodbye. Sad stuff, right?
''If I was to say I'm sorry to see it go, I'd be lying - big time,'' Conine said. ''There are some good memories here for sure, but I won't shed a tear when we move.''
In baseball the goal is to be safe at home, but the Marlins are glad to be out. Next year they move into a retractable-roof ballpark built to rejuvenate a franchise long known for modest crowds and humble payrolls. Both will be bigger, the Marlins pledge, once they leave the stadium where they've played since their first season in 1993, when they moved in with the Miami Dolphins.
It has gone by many names - Joe Robbie Stadium, Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphins Stadium, Dolphin Stadium, Land Shark Stadium and now Sun Life Stadium. Often it was called a dump.
''There were a lot of rain delays,'' former Marlin Josh Willingham said, ''and no fans.''
Over the past 19 seasons, the Marlins discovered people dislike sitting in a football stadium to watch baseball games played in sweltering weather and interrupted by frequent showers. And so the final game Wednesday against the Washington Nationals will be cause for celebration and a chance to say good riddance.
The sentiment is shared by visiting players, even the pitcher who threw a perfect game last year at Joe Robbie Etcetera Stadium.
''It's not the worst place I've ever played,'' Phillies ace Roy Halladay said during his final visit this month. ''But I'll be glad to get out of here.''
The ballfield has been especially unsightly lately, with a Dolphins logo behind second base and faint yard lines providing reminders that multipurpose stadiums fell out of favor for a reason. A black cat wandered by the Marlins dugout during a recent game, and if the place wasn't cursed, it certainly was cursed at. Turf worn down by the mix of baseball and football made for unpredictable bounces - just last week, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones lost a grounder in the lights.
''You're talking about the worst conditions,'' former Marlin Cody Ross said. ''I remember we couldn't wait to go on the road.''
The joint did have its moments, though. No one complained about it in 1993, when the expansion Marlins drew 3 million fans. There was a World Series championship in 1997 capped by an 11-inning walk-off victory in Game 7 against the Indians, and baseball fever returned with an improbable run to another title in 2003.
Jim Leyland, the manager in 1997, remembers attendance swelling late in the season as fans - some of them winter-only South Florida residents - jumped on the bandwagon.
''We weren't really anybody's team because there were so many people that came from other places that cheered for their team,'' Leyland said. ''For the World Series, we had 67,000 people. ... Where they came from, I have no idea. I suppose it was fur-coat time, I don't know. People don't come to a game all year, but they'd dress up and come to the World Series.''
The result was deafening.
''There is no sound like this place full with 65,000,'' Conine said. ''You can't duplicate it anywhere else in baseball, because nowhere else could hold that many people. It was amazing.''
But when the Marlins failed to field a contender, which was most of the time, the majority of seats sat empty, their tangerine color louder than the crowd. This season Florida will finish last in the NL in attendance for the seventh year in a row.
Turnouts of less than 5,000 were common, with so much elbow room one fan collected three foul balls by the fifth inning, then left. Cameras caught two spectators making love - they were that comfortable with their sense of privacy in the upper deck.
Visiting fans often outnumbered Marlins rooters. Usually there weren't many of either.
''We'd go out there and hear crickets,'' Ross said. ''It's funny when you start seeing fans and recognize them and know them by name.''
The 75,540 seats made crowds look even smaller, which is one reason the new ballpark has only 36,000 seats. It also has air conditioning and a sliding roof to eliminate South Florida's subtropical weather as a drain on attendance and players.
''I am ecstatic that the Marlins are moving,'' said Chipper Jones, who played 121 games at Joe Robbie Etcetera Stadium. ''Nothing against this place, but it's a football stadium.''
This week, the Marlins can stop trying to make it be a ballpark.
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Detroit and AP freelancer Rick Eymer in Oakland, Calif., contributed to this report.