Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tour 2012: Marlins Park

All photos of Miami and Marlins Park available on Flickr.

Reaching our final destination of Miami on Friday was bittersweet.  We were one step closer to seeing Marlins Park, but on the other hand, the dream was over: we had to return the rental car.  In our haste to find transportation to our hotel, I accidentally left the Chinooks blanket I obtained a couple weeks ago in the backseat.  I know what you're thinking - why the heck do you need a blanket in Miami anyways?  Well, shortly after reserving what we thought was a steal of a deal right downtown 3 months ago, I soon began to uncover poor review after poor review of the hotel.  I'm not just talking like "oh it's a little outdated" or "the staff is rude."  I'm talking about wet sheets, stained carpet, bed bugs, and theft.  The hotel was so cheap that we really had no choice but to take our chances with it, so I remembered to bring a blanket in case the beds were less than sanitary.  In lieu of a shuttle, a bus, and 2 trains, we took a $30 taxi ride directly to the hotel from the Miami airport.  We got out and made note of the missing letters from the "River Park Suites" sign and the lion statues keeping watch outside the front door.  We walked through the tacky polished brass trim doors and hoped for the best.

They actually had a record of our reservation and the staff was helpful, so it was a good start.  Honestly, had we just walked in there with no prior knowledge of the hotel, I would have thought it was pretty bad; the place clearly has not been redecorated, updated, or fixed in probably its entire lifespan.  But our room was a huge suite on the 12th floor and it was mostly clean, plus the hotel had a pool, so it was good enough for us.  I was relieved to head for the park on Friday afternoon knowing we had comfy, clean beds to return home to.

Our hotel was about 2 miles from the park so we decided to hoof it, and on the entire round trip to and from the game we saw maybe three people on the street, and two of those were hobos.  It was amazing to me how deserted and vacant the downtown was, and the state of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the stadium.  Marlins Park is in an area known as Little Havana, and although I didn't feel unsafe it was certainly a depressed area.  It's very weird to approach the park through Little Havana and see this "spaceship" looking building plopped down on the horizon.  Most of the newer parks are either built in the middle of nowhere or in an urban area, but Marlins Park is a different dynamic.  It is built on the former site of the old Orange Bowl stadium, where there is already an existing residential neighborhood built up around it.  Whereas the Orange Bowl was a city landmark that responded to the style and energy of the neighborhood and was mostly used for football, Marlins Park is obviously a baseball stadium used 81+ times a year and its exterior does not at all relate to its surroundings.  I am a big believer in buildings relating to their site and culture, whether literally or figuratively, and nothing about Marlins Park exterior screams "Miami" to me.  The one faint reference to the area are letters spelling MIAMI ORANGE BOWL strewn about the periphery of the stadium, arranged in such a way as if the stadium "landed" on the site and displaced the letters in an explosive fashion.  The letters stick out of the ground at different angles and depths and I thought it was a clever way for the Marlins to make light of the situation; although, if you didn't know what the letters meant before you got to the park, you would probably never guess what it spelled.  It just put me in a sort of reflective mood before I got into the park, how sometimes cities and teams are willing to stop at nothing to build a new stadium.  It's sad that a city icon, not to mention dozens of homes, had to be razed just to make room for an imposing ballpark and some stark parking garages.  I worry that the city will threaten the character of Little Havana and displace thousands of residents through gentrification, and that would be a shame.  For now at least, residents here seem to be embracing the team, as they encourage passersby to park on their lawns for a modest fee.  Only time will tell, but I sincerely hope that moving forward, the ballpark can organically serve as a gathering space and haven for the neighborhood, instead of a place where people drive in from the suburbs for a ballgame and leave immediately after, as it is currently being used.  Perhaps more than any other ballpark, Marlins Park has a social responsibility to co-exist with its surroundings and not to simply impose its will just to make money.

Let me just get off of my soapbox here and get into describing the park.  As I eluded to, architecturally this park really would look just the same on Mars as it does in Miami.  Its large glass walls, white concrete and metal, and stained glass windows may relate a little bit to downtown Miami, but not at all to Little Havana, and I think that more attention could have been paid to this.  However, I do appreciate that the Marlins tried something different, and I recognize the challenge they had of building on this particular site in such a short window of time.  They could have either tried to replicate the art-deco aesthetic of the Orange Bowl (as when the Yankees basically copied their old park), or could have taken the easy way out and cranked out another masonry retro-style park, neither of which I think would have been appropriate solutions.  The exterior skin wraps the building with a round horizontal emphasis and it is very nondescript.  It is hard to know where you are in relation to homeplate or anything else around the stadium and no one particular side is different than the other.  The only glimpse to the inside is an open wall behind the Clevelander, a bar in left field with scantilly-clad waitresses and a hot tub.  The main gathering place of the park is on the west side, where there is a plaza in between two giant towers that hold the open retractable roof.  The roof of Marlins Park opens similarly to SAFECO Field, in that it slides open one way and hangs over the side.  Whereas in Seattle the roof just rolls over some train tracks, Miami makes good use of the roof as it shades an outdoor plaza.  The Marlins hold post-game concerts and events in this plaza and it is also where the main entry and the team store are.  After the long walk to the park, we escaped into the air conditioning of the team store and I bought my typical souvenir ball, as well as a Marlins cap.  At about 5pm, we went to get in line at the main gate to enter the stadium, assuming it was like most parks that open gates 2 hours prior to first pitch, but at Marlins Park it is 1:30, so we had to sweat it out for awhile.  Once we finally got in, we were handed free programs and had to ascend ramps to the main concourse.  The giant posts that support the roof also double as structures that house these entry ramps.  I didn't like that there were no escalators going up to the main level and I thought it was very weird that the outside was so plain with no hierarchy.  Had this park not had the plaza outside, I really would not have known where the main entry was.

Once you get inside, it's easy to understand why the outside is monotone.  The concourses and outfield walls are full of vibrant colors and this is the first real taste you get of Miami flare.  The outfield walls are lime green and are very noticeable from everywhere in the park.  The concourses are also colorful, but not in a random way - the stadium has 4 or 5 different sections of color-coding, and this helps greatly with the wayfinding issue on the outside.  I thought it was a very creative idea to know where you are in the park instead of having to look for stadium section numbers.  We had great seats in the 9th row behind the 1st base dugout on Friday night, and we dropped off our stuff here and walked down to the front to watch the visiting Phillies take BP.  After shouting some encouraging words to Chase Utley in his return from the DL and attempting to get a good picture of the fish tank behind home plate, we returned to our seats to find my souvenir bag stolen.  I'll give the Marlins team staff the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a jackhole Phillies fan, but at the time I was understandably upset, so I needed some food and a beer to calm down.  All of the good food and beer is tucked in the left field area.  Back here, there is a large bar and a large standing-room section with a great view behind you to the city through the glass sliding panels, and the "Taste of Miami" stands are all hidden back here with the local ethnic specialty foods.  We did a couple laps around the park and were surprised to find that the rest of the park has mostly standard foods and mostly Coors Light and Corona.  We were also surprised that the only references to Marlins history in the entire stadium were some World Series photos above a hot dog stand and the "Bermuda Triangle" 430-foot corner in left-center, an ode to Dolphin Stadium.  The Bobblehead Museum we had heard so much about is on the concourse behind home plate.  It's this large oval glass case that is constantly shaking gently so that the bobbleheads are always bobbling, something I aspire to build for my collection one day.  There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the bobbles they have in the case or why this is even at the ballpark, but that seems to be the theme of this place.  I was happy to locate about 20 bobbleheads that I personally own in the case, including many Brewers ones.  After a few pictures, I filed a meaningless complaint with Guest Services about my stolen bag, and we headed down to our seats for the game.

Tonight's match pitted staff aces Josh Johnson and Cliff Lee against each other.  We didn't get to see the crazy automated statue go off for a Marlins homerun, but it did go off after the Marlins won 6-2.  Cliff Lee didn't make it out of the 5th inning and remarkably remains winless now through the first 3 months of the season.  Justin Ruggiano was the star for the home team, going 3-4 with a 2-run double and playing a great centerfield.  Hunter Pence went yard for the Phillies in the loss.  After the game, we got to see the roof open up, close-up views of the fish tanks behind home plate, and the homerun statue in action.  It's actually a lot less corny than it is in pictures - marlins made of wood light up while swirling around and creating splashes, it was actually pretty cool.  After the roof was fully open and all of the cool air had exited the stadium, we started the long, desolate walk home.  Now having walked through nearly 5 miles of the city and seeing nothing of interest, we finally had to ask the concierge at the hotel for a decent place to have a drink.  He directed us south over the river to a nighttime hotspot.  It wasn't really our bag, but it was nice to finally find someplace open with people.

On Saturday, we checked out of the hotel around 11:30 and tried to find a cool burger joint to have lunch at.  All of the DDD and hamburger places I could find were too far away, so we ended up relaxing at this riverside Irish bar and watched the boats go by for a couple hours while enjoying some ice cold El Presidente.  We got back to the park at about 2:30 for a 4:10 first pitch.  I re-visited the team store and made sure to keep my souvenir close at hand for the entire day this time.  Erik also bought an official patch and ball.  Our seats for this game were in right field, but we decided to explore the upper deck before we sat down, after being thrwarted by one particular usher that was animate we needed an upper deck ticket to access the level.  We got some good views of all the dead grass from up here but all in all the upper level was unspectacular.  We descended back to the main level and invaded the Taste of Miami food stands for lunch.  I had the snapper sandwich with onions and Erik went with the cuban sandwich.  Both were delicious, although I thought the cuban sandwich at Target Field was much better.  The Taste of Miami stands also feature other Miami delicacies including conch fritters, yellow rice & beans, and fresh oysters.  After finishing my sandwich, I got refill #2 on my large soda on this scorching hot day, and we settled in for another good ballgame.  Game 2 featured another good pitching matchup, Mark Buehrle versus Cole Hamels.  Buerhle pitched a tough 7 innings and racked up 7 strikeouts in the 3-2 win.  The Marlins would go on to win again on Sunday to sweep the series.  In Saturday's game, Giancarlo Stanton went yard, so we finally got to see the statue go off during the game.  As in Friday's game, Hunter Pence went yard for the Phillies and Justin Ruggiano had another good day at the plate for the Fish.  We spent the final 3 innings of the game watching from the left-field standing room section by the bar and had to deal with an obnoxious Phillies fan who basically thought every player on both teams was terrible.  I made the mistake of telling him that Jim Thome had been traded during the game and had to talk to him for awhile.  Unfortunately, Thome didn't have an at-bat in either game, and it was the 2nd game this week that Erik and I attended during which a player was traded.

The roof opened again after the game and we had another long walk back to the hotel.  We had probably walked about 10 miles total so far on this trip, but we had one more long walk for the evening, as we finally found a decent area of town - Bayside.  It's kind of like the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and it somewhat salvaged my opinion of Miami after two boring and hot visits to the city.  We did a little barhopping here and ended the night by polishing off a 5-for-$25 bucket of Coors Light at Hooters.  It was an adventure the next morning as we nearly missed our flight because we didn't know that the train to the Fort Lauderdale Airport only runs every 2 hours on Sundays.  We got to the airport just as our plane was boarding and somehow made it back to Madison in time to catch the 5:05 Mallards game to cap off another great trip.  Overall, besides all the walking around in the oppressive heat, we had a lot of fun.  Marlins Park definitely had some missed opportunities on both the interior and the exterior, but just about anything would be an improvement over playing in a football stadium.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 6
views from park - 7 (Miami skyline through left field windows)
view to field - 6 (most seats in outfield/upper deck are slightly obstructed)
surrounding area - 2 (Little Havana)
food variety - 5
nachos - 6 (hearty chips with queso)
beer - 3 ($8 for 16 oz, mainly 4 kinds of beer)
vendor price - 2
ticket price - 6
atmosphere - 5
walk to park - 1 (long, deserted)
parking price/proximity - 4 (adjacent, lots of traffic getting out, we walked)
concourses - 7
team shop - 6

best food - Taste of Miami stands
most unique stadium feature - automated homerun statue, fish tanks behind home plate
best jumbotron feature - fan locates Billy Marlin with video camera
best between-inning feature - The Great Sea Race

field dimensions - 344/418/335
starters - Cliff Lee (PHI) v. Josh Johnson (MIA); Cole Hamels v. Mark Buehrle
opponent - Philadelphia Phillies
time of game - 2:50; 2:20
attendance - 28246; 31311
score - 6-2 W; 3-2 W
Brewers score that day - 9-3 L; 10-2 W


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