Stadium envy

Miami’s new baseball palace makes you-know-what in St. Pete look oh-so-bad.

click to enlarge IF YOU BUILD IT… The north side of Marlins Park from the roof of an adjacent parking garage. - Flickr/Dan Lundberg
Flickr/Dan Lundberg
IF YOU BUILD IT… The north side of Marlins Park from the roof of an adjacent parking garage.

The newly opened Marlins Park in the Little Havana section of Miami is Major League Baseball’s newest edifice, and impressive it is.

Of course, at a cost of $634 million, it had better be. Although the 19-year-old franchise (née Florida Marlins, now Miami) has taken two World Series in its relatively short history (in ’97 and 2003), its attendance at home games has always been weak. Part of that problem had to be the fact that the team played in a huge, open-air football stadium, where humidity and the threat of rain put a crimp on advance sales.

While the Tampa Bay Rays negotiations for a new stadium are currently in limbo, the Marlins were able to suck vigorously from the teat of the taxpayer, with Miami Dade County selling approximately $377 million in bonds and the city of Miami kicking in another $102 million for the park and adjacent parking garages (the Marlins management graciously spent $120 million of its own money).

So what can you expect if you visit Marlins Park this summer? First of all, most of the “official” public parking comes from four large parking garages built next to the park that charge $15 a spot. But, like Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, the park is in a residential neighborhood. That means you’ll see all types of people holding signs that say “Parking.” We saw a lot of $15 signs initially, but after circling around the park found a less greedy homeowner who was willing to charge only $10 to drive up on his grass and park (as tightly as possible) next to another car already lodged there.

The inside of the enclosed stadium resembles a large basketball arena more than, say, Tropicana Field (and now that it’s summer, good luck ever seeing the retractable dome opened up again any time soon). The “promenade” or first deck level is where most fans will enter the stadium and, unlike the Trop, where the only time you can see the game when you’re not in your seat is by checking the television monitors, the field is immediately visible once you’re in the promenade. (And if you’re not looking at the game, take a quick detour to the Bobblehead Museum, 20 years’ worth of bobbleheaded baseballers.)

The dining options are plentiful. Miami favorites like fresh pork sandwiches, mojo-marinated plaintain chips and ceviche are available, but there’s also a section called Burger 305 where you can order fare from the visiting team’s city. For the game against the Giants it was garlic fries; for the Phillies, cheesesteaks; and for the St. Louis Cardinals, fried ravioli.

There’s also a full service bar in left center field where you can get an adult beverage and still see the action. Below that is the Clevelander bar; in addition to hot dogs and burgers, it also offers DJs and a swimming pool, only the second ballpark in the country to provide such an amenity (the other is Phoenix’s Chase Field). Uniformed attendants provide towel service, and lockers are provided for guests to store a change of clothes while taking a dip.

The biggest attention-getters to date have been the aquariums to the right and left of home plate (they contain over 450 gallons of water and various tropical fish, all protected behind a bulletproof glass wall) and the large art installation by Red Grooms in center field. An exuberantly goofy home-run display machine that stands 65 feet high and cost an estimated $2.5 million, the sculpture explodes with water, lights and moving parts whenever a Marlin hits one out of the park.

And how are Marlin fans reacting to their new, 37,000-seat capacity park?

Through 26 home games this season, attendance is averaging 28,543, which puts them right in the middle of the pack of the 30 Major League teams — roughly an increase of 67 percent from the first 24 games of 2011.

However, there’s this cautionary note: According to Baseball-Reference.com, of the nine teams that have opened new parks in the last decade, only the 2003 Cincinnati Reds had a smaller average at this point in the first year occupying their new digs.

While the Marlins are no longer 28th or worse in attendance while playing in Miami (which is where they were for the previous seven seasons), the Rays continue to hug the basement in that department.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg and other management, as well as St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, have downplayed any talk of a new park in order to concentrate on getting more people into the seats at the Trop this year. But even though the Rays still have one of the top records in baseball through the first two months of 2012, their average home attendance of 19,504 was second to last (behind only Cleveland) as of June 4.

Going to Marlins Park really does throw into stark relief how lousy a ballpark Tropicana Field really is. It was built in 1990, a year before Baltimore’s Camden Yards led the revolution toward newer, more intimate downtown-situated structures. When the Rays franchise first began playing games there nine years later, the stadium was already out of date. Fourteen years later, it’s really out of date.

But it’s all we’ve got for now, and it behooves Rays fans to start attending more games. Otherwise, the arguments for Stu Sternberg to look somewhere outside of Tampa Bay will have more and more legitimacy.

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