MIAMI — Nearly two hours before the home-plate entrance opened, Miami Marlins fan Nicholas Fernandez and his girlfriend formed the queue for Saturday’s Winter Warm-Up.
Clutching a bat he hoped to get signed and donning a gray jersey, Fernandez epitomized the excited atmosphere prevalent at Marlins Park.
"Just the fact they’re going in a different direction," said Fernandez, who hadn’t been to a fan fest since 2012. It looks like they’re committed to building a good team around (Giancarlo) Stanton now."
There were carnival games and rides as well as sports memorabilia on the west plaza. Fans could take photos with the World Series trophies inside the Marlins dugout. Kids ran the bases. One fan even rocked a No. 51 Ichiro Suzuki Marlins jersey.
Some, like Catherine Gutierrez, couldn’t wait to post a photo with ace Jose Fernandez on her Instagram. At one point, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year spoke to the growing crowd patiently awaiting its turn for a selfie.
"Everybody was asking him how he feels with his arm and stuff, so he was like, ‘I feel good,’" Gutierrez said.
Autograph lines with closer Steve Cishek and All-Star right-hander Henderson Alvarez snaked around corners of the ballpark. Gamers, playing as Stanton in a Home Run Derby, competed Marlins players like reliever Aaron Crow.
President David Samson, who played catch with a season ticket holder and infielder Jeff Barker in the visiting bullpen, said as of 12:22 p.m. the Marlins had already passed what was the first week of on sale tickets.
More new season tickets were sold than in any year except 2012. Those people could take batting practice on the field as other fans watched them on the jumbotron. Current season ticket holders had a private event in the Clevelander where they met the players and front office.
Samson said a "fast finish" not a fast start would help the organization’s attendance in 2015. Miami games could become an "event on the calendar they don’t want to blow off" with Suzuki’s addition and Stanton’s marketability as a face of baseball.
"Every metric that we use is positive," Samson said. "People are happy, the mood is good, but we need to play baseball and win games. And that’s what our plan is. … The buzz we have, the increases we’re showing are really more than we would’ve expected, so that’s very positive."
Gold Glover Christian Yelich also noticed the difference from previous years. For the first time since his call-up in 2013, there are expectations for this ballclub. Rather than being the underdog towards the bottom of the NL East, many believe it will compete for a postseason spot.
With the offseason additions of Suzuki, Michael Morse, Mat Latos and All-Stars Dee Gordon and Martin Prado — not to mention the Stanton contract extension — there is optimism about the 2015 campaign.
"It’s awesome," Yelich said. "There’s excitement around the team. Just being out and about people come up to you and say they’re excited about baseball and they’re going to follow the Marlins and stuff. It’s cool. It’s different from past years. Not saying there wasn’t any, but it’s just more of it this year. We’re going to take it in stride."
Saturday’s Winter Warm-Up concluded Ayudan Week, which sends Miami players and front office into the South Florida community for various stops. Not only did it include charitable work, but it also reminded people about the approaching season.
When asked what message fans had for him on Saturday, Samson said the date of April 6 — Opening Day against the Atlanta Braves.
"I’m going to Opening Day," Gutierrez said before posting her photo with Fernandez. "I bought my ticket last night. Awesome with everybody we got (this offseason). It’s going to be fun."
Added Samson: "We survived how we started in this ballpark, and now I think the light of day is here."