I've been going to baseball games since I was eight years old. I've been to freezing cold games in April as well as scorching hot games in July. I've been to marquee matchups featuring some of the game's best talent as well as… well, something less. I've been to playoff games where the crowd is on their feet from the first pitch to the last out, as well as games where no one except the mascots cared about the outcome, games where everyone else was just there because sitting outside on a summer evening watching grown men play baseball is just a fun thing to do.
Given the variety of games I've seen, it seems odd to me that I've never been to a baseball game on my birthday. But this year, my company organized a corporate retreat and strategy week in Miami which happened to coincide with the week I'd turn thirty years old. Knowing that Miami was still on my list of ballparks to visit, I hoped we'd be able to make a trip there on one of the evenings. And sure enough, on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017, I was able to spend my thirtieth birthday evening with my Storylift colleagues at Marlins Park.
Nancy Margaret – officially our VP of Operations at Storylift, unofficially our team captain and VP of Fun – tends to be in charge of company outings like this. On our first night in Miami, the night before the game, she assured me (emphatically) that we would have good seats and that she had a couple of surprises in store for my birthday evening. Nancy Margaret has never steered me wrong before, and I was excited about the game, but I was still a little nervous as to what those surprises would be.
Marlins Park is located right in the middle of Little Havana, and lies about two dozen blocks west of downtown, just about halfway between downtown and Miami International Airport. Little Havana is certainly not the glitziest neighborhood of Miami, but because Miami is well known for its large Cuban-American population, you could argue that Little Havana is the cultural center of the city.
My company rented a house in Little Haiti for us all to stay in for the week, so after a day which was about half work and half relaxing, we hailed three Uber drivers to get us all to the ballpark. We found that using Uber in Miami turned out to be a bit of an adventure. While the car I rode in made it to the ballpark uneventfully, the other two cars were not so lucky: one got lost on the way to the ballpark and arrived fifteen minutes after we did, while the other one left the house a bit later than planned. (Whose fault that was is still an open question.)
Many ballpark architecture critics have noted that Marlins Park is a departure from the retro modern designs that have been so popular in recent years; in other words, Marlins Park eschews the “retro” and just keeps the “modern.” From the exterior, Marlins Park looks less like a ballpark than it does a futuristic spaceship that's crashed into Little Havana. Its rounded, retractable roof obscures the light towers that would give it away, and the majority of the exterior is a bold and radiant white.
But unlike downtown Miami or Miami Beach, where this sleek and modern look would fit right in, Little Havana's aesthetic is much more old school with smaller, colorful and more uniform buildings. So Marlins Park feels a little out of place in this neighborhood, and I found myself wondering what Marlins Park would look like if it fully embraced the Little Havana style and attempted to emulate the stadiums of Cuba and Latin America: just as colorful as the surrounding neighborhood, more open so breezes can get through, and maybe a retractable awning instead of a full blown roof.
As we walked up to the gates of the park, we noticed one of its unique features: the Clevelander, a nightclub within the ballpark. Named after a famous South Beach hotel, visitors can access The Clevelander from the street or from within the park. The side that faces the field is right behind the left field wall, so it seems like Clevelander patrons should have a good view of the game. But it's worth pointing out that most Clevelander patrons are probably not super interested in the game.
Our seats were in the Dugout Club, which included complimentary food and soft drinks as well as access to an exclusive security checkpoint and gate. Getting into the stadium was a breeze. Once inside, we opted to wait a couple of innings to get food and went straight to our seats.
The seats themselves were in foul territory down the third base line, about 100 feet from third base. They offered excellent views of the field and scoreboard. Seats in that area of the field are always prone to foul balls, usually of the screaming line drive variety, and the fans around us were certainly prepared: most of them had baseball gloves with them, and some had even secured balls from batting practice. They seemed to know each other pretty well, too. I guessed they were season ticket holders, and I called them the Foul Ball Club because catching a foul ball seemed to be their primary goal for the evening.
The weather during the week we were in Miami was pretty much perfect, and that Tuesday night was no exception. As the game started, the sun was shining gently, the temperature was warm but not hot, and the roof was open. We asked the Foul Ball Club members sitting nearby if the roof was often closed, and they replied that we were lucky to be there on a night when it was open, because it was closed most of the time either due to heat or rain. And I guess that makes sense, but you'll never get me to agree that baseball is better under a roof, so I was happy we were under the wide open sky that night.
The most unique feature of Marlins Park is the home run feature. I don't know what you'd call it – a sculpture? Diorama? Animatronic? Carnival game, like you'd see at the fair (Sara's suggestion)? Whatever it is, out there behind the left field wall, it lights up and spins when a Marlins player hits a home run. Nobody in my group seemed to like it, but while I conceded it was a bit bizarre, I didn't dislike it. No Marlins hitters homered that night, so we never did get to see it do its thing.
After a couple of innings, we got up and headed back to the Dugout Club to find some food. It was… a little weird. Our group all agreed that the name “Dugout Club” sort of implies a classy and luxurious experience, but it turned out to be nothing more than a room with tiled floors and brightly colored walls, with one bar for food and another for adult beverages. The room reminded me of a self-serve frozen yogurt place.
Furthermore, the Dugout Club only featured basic concession options, like hot dogs and nachos, and lacked any really unique options. I got the chili dog, and it was okay, but I later regretted that I didn't walk out to the concourses and look for better options first. (Let me be clear: I didn't pay for these tickets, so I was grateful for the food and I don't mean to complain. But if I had bought these tickets for myself and was counting on some good food included, I think I'd have been disappointed with the options.)
After eating, we returned to our seats for a few more innings. Then around the fifth inning, a few of us got up to walk around and explore the park a bit. As we walked the concourses, I was struck by how empty they were. After visiting SunTrust Park a few days before and fighting through some of the most crowded concourses I've ever seen, the concourses at Marlins Park were among the most empty I had ever seen. Whole sections of the lower concourse were completely void of people and vendors. I've seen ballparks close concession stands in parts of the upper decks when there's a small crowd, but I've never seen one do the same thing on the main level.
As we walked, our attention was diverted slightly by a DJ behind the left field foul pole, a bobblehead museum (of all things) around the home plate area, and a really nice view of the city looking out of the park behind left field. I think pretty much everyone else in the park can see the city from their seats, but from our vantage point in the Dugout Club seats we had only been able to see the sky.
As for the game itself, it started with some fireworks. After a 1-2-3 top of the first inning, Marlins center fielder Christian Yelich was ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the bottom of the first, followed shortly by his manager Don Mattingly, who had come out to defend Yelich but hadn't quite got there in time. St. Louis scored first in the top of the fifth, but the Marlins quickly answered back with a tying run in the bottom of the fifth. Then they added four more in the sixth, looking well on their way to an easy win (according to Baseball Reference, Miami had a 97% win probability going into the top of the eighth inning).
But then the Cardinals took advantage of a couple of defensive miscues in the top of the eighth and struck for four runs to tie the game. They added one more in the ninth and held on to win, 6-5.
Not many fans seemed too disappointed. The paid attendance was 17,166, but I'd be surprised if 2/3 of that number was actually at the ballpark. And of the fans that were there, a good percentage of them were Cardinals fans. But even the Marlins fans who were there seemed disinterested and lethargic, especially after the early fireworks.
The official hashtag of our company retreat was #MiamiLoud2017 (kind of a play on our other name, LoudDoor). But at Marlins Park, “Miami Loud” could only be used as an ironic description of the fans in attendance that night. Despite winning two World Series over the last two decades (their first win – against the Indians – was twenty years ago), Marlins fans have learned to be guarded in their optimism when good things seem to be happening for the team. Jeff Loria – the owner of the Marlins at least for the time being – is notorious for penny pinching wherever he can: five years ago, when Marlins Park was set to open for the first time, his front office signaled that they were ready to win now, and added several key veteran players like Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, Aaron Rowand and Jose Reyes. But it didn't last long, and most of those players were traded only a few months later. The good news is that Jeff Loria is actively trying to sell the Marlins, and hopefully the next owner will be more inclined to invest.
But there's another cloud hanging over the Marlins: last year, the Marlins’ ace, face of the franchise and emotional leader José Fernández was killed in a tragic boating accident off the shore of Miami. It sent shockwaves through baseball, not only because Fernández was one of the game's best pitchers, but because he was so well-liked by his teammates and his fans. It's going to be a long time until the Marlins players, employees and fans recover from losing Fernández.
But when they do, Marlins Park will still be there. And while it's not without its kinks, it's still much better than the days when the Marlins played in a football stadium. Marlins Park could solve a lot of its problems by simply getting more people in the seats, and if the Marlins can become competitive again, that shouldn't be a problem. As more people start to make their way to the ballpark each night, the neighborhood around the park should improve as well.
Oh, and the birthday surprise? It ended up being a visit to our seats from a lady in the Marlins’ ticket office. She asked where the birthday boy was – I initially wondered if she was anticipating someone much younger – and then handed me a nice card thanking me for visiting Marlins Park, as well as a bobblehead of Billy the Marlin, the Marlins mascot. Billy's new home is my desk at work, where he'll be a daily reminder of a birthday evening that I'll never forget.
More pictures from my trip to Marlins Park are available here. Thanks to Sara Rowe for reading a draft of this post.