MIAMI – All the tropical-tinged newness the Miami Marlins could squeeze out of local taxpayers – the brightly hued stadium, pricey free agents, exotic-fish aquariums and Joan Miró surrealistic art, right down to the concession-stand ceviche – were no match for an old hand to whom splashy and tacky do not apply.
Kyle Lohse of the St. Louis Cardinals painted the corners colorless with an 83-mph slider, 91-mph sinker and a curveball and changeup more effective than usual, reminding everyone blinded by novelty that baseball usually favors those who get back to basics. Lohse held the Marlins hitless for six innings and scoreless through 7⅓ innings of a 4-1 victory Wednesday night.
"I tried not to let anything sidetrack me and treated it like any other game," Lohse said.
The Cardinals – the world champion Cardinals, mind you – weren't distracted by the brilliant downtown Miami skyline beyond the left-field bleachers, jumping on Marlins ace Josh Johnson for three runs in the first two innings. The only swing the Cardinals needed came from David Freese, whose grand postseason rolled right into his first at-bat of 2012, a two-out, two-run single in the top of the first.
Perhaps caught up in the stadium swirl, the Marlins were meek. New $106 million shortstop Jose Reyes finally got to Lohse with a single to lead off the seventh, but Lohse retired the next three batters. Logan Morrison singled to lead off the eighth, and Lohse was removed after he struck out Gaby Sanchez. John Buck's double with two out scored Morrison, the only chance the sellout crowd of 36,601 had to cheer.
The game was a chance to show off Marlins Park to a national television audience, a pre-opening day opener, literally a lid-lifter – the retractable roof was opened shortly before the first pitch, giving way to a mild, cloudless sky, a waxing gibbous moon and the Goodyear blimp.
Setting aside momentarily the sordid backstory of how Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was able to finance the $600 million stadium by misleading Miami-Dade County commissioners about the team's finances, the finished product is something to behold. Most ballparks project a ballpark feel, regardless of where they are located. Marlins Park projects a Latin feel, a distinctly Miami feel.
A famous South Beach bar is ensconced beyond the left-field wall, providing a swimming pool, umbrella drinks and salsa music. Next to it is a home run sculpture, a tangle of marlins, seagulls and flamingos that will burst into 30 seconds of frenzied movement when a Marlins player hits a home run. The mango slaw on the hot dogs is of the same festive color scheme as the sculpture, julienned orange and yellow and green and blue.
There is a certain visual cohesiveness to which Loria, an art dealer by trade, undoubtedly contributed.
Everyone from MLB commissioner Bud Selig to new Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen to city officials lauded the finished product.
"Beautiful, and it cost a lot of money," said Guillen, who rarely is so succinct.
Selig is acutely aware of Loria's shenanigans. The Marlins pocketed so much revenue-sharing money that MLB forced Loria to start spending on payroll after other owners and the players' union complained. Loria cried poor to the county and refused to open his books, and the county approved more than $350 million in public funding for the stadium. By the times the bonds are paid off 40 years from now, the cost to taxpayers will have surpassed $2 billion.
All stadium revenue goes to the Marlins, who pay $2.3 million in rent every year.
Selig didn't cough first when he said Wednesday, "In five years, you won't find anybody who is against it." His experience is that building ballparks is a difficult, messy business, a "trauma," he called it, and to see another cathedral to the game spring up in an area long indifferent to its team can only be considered a victory.
Basically, he assured everyone that there's enough money to go around – MLB revenue is expected to top $8 billion this year – so don't sweat the small stuff.
"Does the park make a difference?" Selig asked rhetorically. "Huge. Underscore huge."
The challenge for Loria will be to keep the populace dazzled and driving to Little Havana to attend games. Playing at a vastly subpar stadium, the Marlins averaged only 16,000 fans per game in 2003, when they won the World Series. Attendance has averaged about 12,000 the last three years, a number estimated by knocking 50 percent off the announced figure. And increased local TV revenue won't bail them out – their contract with Fox Sports Florida runs through 2020.
"We will have to win," Guillen said, shrugging. "People come when the team wins. That's the way Miami is."
Guillen's presence will help. He's bilingual and glib in the most Spanish-speaking city in baseball. Electronic menu panels at the concession stands rotate from Spanish to English, and Guillen is like one of the panels, giving pregame interviews in English, then Spanish, then English, then Spanish, sprinkling profanity like jalapeno slices.
[ Big League Stew: Lessons learned from opening night at Marlins Park ]
As game time approached, the scoreboard screen showed a young woman in a speedboat holding a huge flag bearing the Marlins' logo and racing directly toward Miami Beach. Then, presto, the center-field fence opened and there she was in the flesh, running across the field. It was all part of Loria's highbrow concept of the stadium merging water and land.
Then the home run sculpture was activated for the only time all night. It might not go off again until sometime in June because Marlins Park plays big, Petco Park and Citi Field big. Cleanup hitter Giancarlo Stanton – he used to be Mike Stanton, as if the Marlins didn't have enough newness – flied out twice to center field on shots that would have been home runs in most other big-league stadiums.
"I think it's a great ballpark," Lohse said. "The hitters will tell you the opposite."
Fans will cast the vote that breaks the tie. Meanwhile, the park will be used for functions other than baseball as often as possible to maximize revenue. In fact, it already has. The Cardinals' Carlos Beltran scored the first run, but he wasn't the first person to circle the bases.
Martha Stewart, for one, had touched 'em all during a gathering of chefs and celebrities at the stadium in February. Food stations were set up at each base and Stewart was escorted by Loria's wife, Julie, who has written a cookbook.
Corporate board meetings will be held in the clubhouses. The stadium will be transformed into a trade-show convention center. Concerts will be held. Somebody with cash to burn can rent the field for a pickup game with pals: The base rate is $15,000, but add-ons such as an announcer, uniforms, use of the clubhouse and getting the home run sculpture to activate after bloop singles could push the tab into six figures.
"This is going to be a destination for people, starting with baseball but for other reasons as well," Marlins operations executive Claude Delorme said.
It's difficult to envision the stadium suffering the way Nationals Park has in Washington. It's a fun place to spend an evening. It's welcoming, and with a capacity of fewer than 37,000, it's cozy, too. The Arizona Diamondbacks, among others, only wish their parks could be downsized to the scale of Marlins Park.
The opening-day buzz is over, and that might benefit the players. The Marlins have a solid roster in a National League that lacks a clear favorite. And not every opposing pitcher will bring the veteran calm and extraordinary command Lohse did on this particular night, a performance that served as a reminder that what surrounds the game isn't the game, no matter how colorful and new.
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