With new stadium, Marlins have high hopes

With new stadium, Marlins have high hopes

Published Apr. 3, 2012 2:48 p.m. ET

MIAMI — The St. Louis Cardinals opened a new stadium in 2006. They were fitted for rings in the first season.

The New York Yankees moved into new digs in 2009. They immediately won the World Series.
It remains to be seen what will happen in the first year for Miami in the new Marlins Park. But there’s enough history on their side that the Marlins, who open the regular season in their retractable-roof stadium Wednesday against the Cardinals, are feeling pretty good.

“I think we’re a playoff-caliber team,’’ said catcher John Buck, whose Marlins haven’t been to the postseason since winning the 2003 World Series and were last in the National League East with a 72-90 mark in 2011. “If we go out and play to our potential, I think that’s definitely a reality. It’s something that’s not far-fetched at all. I think everybody (on the Marlins) expects that.’’

Buck said it isn’t necessary the facility that could propel the Marlins this season but the extra revenue stream it is providing for the team. Knowing attendance will increase, the Marlins shelled out big bucks during the offseason to land shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitcher Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell.

During the past 20 years, since the opening of Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992 ushered in a new era of ballparks, statistics have shown teams actually do about the same in the standings in the first year. But statistics show that teams experience a noticeable bump in their first five years in a new park.

Cleveland had one of the best records in baseball when it opened a new stadium in 1994. The World Series that year was canceled due to a players strike, but in 1995 the Indians made it to their first World Series in 41 years. Two years later, they were back again.
In 1996, the third season in a new stadium, Texas made its first playoff appearance in the history of the organization. That started a run of three postseason appearances in four years.
Seattle opened a new park in 1999. In 2001, the Mariners went a staggering 116-46.

“I played (in Cleveland) when only 20 people would show up,’’ Marlins manger Ozzie Guillen said of games in the Cleveland Stadium before the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in 1994. “Then it was sold out the next 10 years (in the new stadium). And hopefully we’re looking for that (in Miami).’’

Guillen did note the Indians were winning at the time and that fan support fell off significantly when the team started losing. But the more than 80 percent payroll increase from 1993 to 1994 thanks to new stadium revenue sure helped the initial winning.

Miami’s payroll will go up this season about 50 percent, from just more than $60 million to just more than $90 million. That’s why the Marlins were able to attract some marquee free agents, which could translate into more winning.
As for the $515 million, 37,442-seat stadium itself, Guillen also said that could play a role in the Marlins having more success. When the roof is closed, the temperature will be 75 degrees.
“I think this ballpark is going to help the players because they’re going to play in the same temperature every day and you don't worry about rain outs,’’ Guillen said. “You don’t worry about how hot it is. You don’t have to deal with that anymore. The excuse is over.’’
The Marlins had plenty of excuses from their first season in 1993 through last year at outdoor Sun Life Stadium, which was built primarily for football. They won World Series titles in 1997 and 2003, which sounds pretty good. But Jack McKeon, who managed the 2003 outfit and is a special adviser to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, said they would have about four titles now had they always played in a stadium like Marlins Park.
“That definitely is going to help us,’’ first baseman Gaby Sanchez said of the new stadium. “It’s going to help our bodies out. It’s going to help everything out. We’re not going to have to worry about rain delays, and that’s I think a big deal, especially in Miami, being in rainy season. You get those rain storms that come through and it might be three hours just sitting around waiting. And now we don’t have to worry about that. We can start on time and not worry about losing maybe a pitcher when it happens in the first two innings.’’
Rain and heat would figure to have hampered both teams at Sun Life. But, for whatever reason, the Marlins were 31-47 at home last season and 41-43 on the road.
Lack of fan support sure didn’t help the Marlins at home. They ranked 28th out of 30 Major League teams in attendance in 2011 with an announced average of 19,007 per game.
During the past seven seasons, the Marlins never were higher than 28th in attendance. That includes being dead last in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
“I was so excited when I heard we were coming down here, because I know how relentless they were in their pursuit for this,’’ said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who managed the Marlins in 2006 and returned with New York to play exhibition games at Marlins Park on Sunday and Monday. “It took a while, but they got it done. Good for them. I love (the stadium). It’s beautiful. I think it’s important for them to get this because it’s hard to keep your players, and I think it’s something that the organization is very proud of and the community should be, too.’’
Yankees star Alex Rodriguez sure is proud. The Miami native was beaming throughout the exhibition games.
“I love it,’’ Rodriguez said. “It brings me chills. I’m so happy for the city of Miami. It’s just a great gift for a great city and the people of Miami.’’
Rodriguez didn’t leave without handing out a few gifts of his own. He blasted balls into the outfield seats during batting practice and was said to even have deposited a few in the swimming pool in left field.
The Marlins can’t claim originality for the pool, since the Arizona Diamondbacks installed one at their park when it opened in 1998. Still, it’s one of the features that plenty are talking about at Miami’s new digs.
“You can look into the bullpen,’’ said Jane Sangster, a fan from Miami Beach who was at Sunday’s game in the pool area. “It’s incredible. And I’ve never been so close at a stadium that I can see the grains of dirt.’’
In the pool area, the Marlins bullpen is to the side behind glass. Fans can sit directly behind a chain-link fence that is directly beyond the warning track.
Other stadium features include tropical fish in aquariums behind each on-deck circle, a view of the Miami skyline in the outfield behind glass when the roof is closed and a bobblehead museum on the concourse that features many greats of the game, with their heads continuously moving. And, of course, there’s the stadium’s most noticeable feature.
That’s the $2.5 million, 73-foot tall technicolor sculpture by pop artist Red Grooms that sits beyond the fence in left-center field. The sculpture of marlins, flamingos and seagulls will light up each time a Marlins player hits a home run.
The key word is will. During the two exhibition games against the Yankees, as if the Marlins wanted to save something for Wednesday’s opener, it was not operational.
“I have been waiting to see the home run thing, but it hasn’t worked yet,’’ said Mike Gonzalez, a fan from Miami who was displeased that nothing happened after Sanchez hit a home run in the second inning Sunday. “But I’ll be back.’’
The Marlins are hoping many fans will come back throughout the season. They’re also hoping the new stadium will play a role in their comeback to the postseason.
Chris Tomasson can be reached christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson