There are clocks around the Marlins offices at Land Shark Stadium that count down the days until April 1, 2012. That's when the team's new ballpark is expected to open.
Saturday was a significant day. Less than 12 hours after the team finished an extra inning game against the Philadelphia Phillies that stretched into Saturday morning after a 78-minute rain delay, team executives and players, and representatives of Major League Baseball, Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami gathered on a sun-scorched spot in Little Havana where the Orange Bowl once stood. They were joined by some 5,000 fans, many decked out in Marlins gear, to celebrate the beginning of construction of the team’s looong sought ballpark.
Work at the site officially started July 1, but when something takes this long to get approved, there’s cause for celebration. In fact, with the sun beating down, the late-ish start to the program, and numerous speeches -- many in both English and Spanish -- there were moments when it felt like it might take as long to hold the ground-breaking as it did to get to this day. But by the end of the event, which started at 10 a.m. and didn’t end for another two and a half hours, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and President David Samson, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, County Commission Chairman Dennis Moss, City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, Gov. Charlie Crist (via video), representatives of the architect (Populous – formerly HOK Sport), and the construction manager (Hunt-Moss), and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig had all waxed about the new ballpark with its roof to prevent rain delays and air conditioning for sweltering days like today.
Marlins inaugural pitcher-catcher battery Charlie Hough and Benito Santiago did first pitch honors, the organist played Take Me Out to the Ballgame, videos showed Marlins highlights, including the two World Series championships, and what the new ballpark is to look like.
The dignitaries then donned hardhats and wielded shovels with handles fashioned like baseball bats and dug the dirt at the spot in the ceremonial diamond where home plate will be. They took dozens and dozens of photographs. And then they finally allowed fans, who waited patiently as they melted in the heat, to get a turn shoveling some dirt at home plate and getting a snapshot.
Among the attendees: eight county commissioners, at least two city commissioners (ballpark opponents city commissioners Marc Sarnoff’s and Tomas Regalado’s names were announced and the crowd booed), Manager Fredi Gonzalez, President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest, General Manager Mike Hill, Senior VP of Stadium Development Claude Delorme, former manager Jack McKeon, Special Assistants Tony Perez and Andre Dawson, Mr. Marlin Jeff Conine, and current players including Hanley Ramirez, Ricky Nolasco, Matt Lindstrom, Dan Meyer, Brian Sanchez, Chris Coghlan. University of Miami President Donna Shalala was also in the crowd.
Loria couldn’t have seemed happier, even delighting the crowd with a message in Spanish. He spoke about the future, talking about the ballpark’s clean lines, fan comforts, including “great” food, and the roof that will finally bring certainty that games will be played and won’t be delayed.
(Is it ominous or poetic that Saturday night's game was rained out?)
But Loria also didn’t neglect the past.
He spoke of the University of Miami Hurricanes’ many years at the Orange Bowl, including winning its first of five national championships in 1983. He talked of the Dolphins' 1972 undefeated season.
“We honor both of these teams, we remember their achievements,” Loria said. “We vow the ghosts of glorious past victories will be with us, when we take the field every single night.”
Alvarez echoed Loria: “This spot in little Havana is full of memories. We have watched the Miami Dolphins complete the NFL’s only undefeated season from this land right here in the Orange Bowl. We grew up watching the Miami Hurricanes, win five national titles on this land. As far as I’m concerned this is sacred ground in athletics.
“Now it’s the Miami Marlins’ turf," he said. "I don’t know about all of you. I think I can guess, but I’m ready to see a player such as Hanley Ramirez hit a home run with downtown Miami as a backdrop.”
For some it was part campaign opportunity: Crist, who is running for U.S. Senate, gave a videotaped message. Sanchez, who is running for mayor of Miami, tried to make it look like he wasn’t campaigning. “I am very proud to have played a very small part of this great success,” Sanchez said. “And I speak from the heart, when I tell you when our leaders focus on what’s right for the next generation, and not the next election, that is what makes great cities in America.”
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told fans that all the controversy that surrounded getting the ballpark deal will disappear once the 37,000-seat, $515 million venue opens, expected in 2012. When he was through, fans shouted “All-Star Game, All-Star Game.”
Selig said the new ballpark would be given “primary consideration,” but he wasn’t ready to commit how soon that might happen. He was also clearly overwhelmed by the heat – “Where I was this morning, it was 55 degrees,” he said.
Samson meanwhile, said the team will be working on new merchandise and branding and even uniforms for the team’s name change to Miami Marlins, when it moves into the new ballpark in 2012.
“New uniforms, we’re relocating,” Samson said. “We’re going to embrace our current fan base and welcome a new fan base, because it’s what we need to have happen.”
Samson also mentioned some of the amenities that will be included in the new ballpark, in part because of fan suggestions, including game radio broadcasts pumped into restrooms during games, a smaller secondary video board down the left field line for fans who don’t have a good view of the main centerfield scoreboard. He said fans also wanted to be able to see into the bullpens during games, so the left field swimming pool area will have views into the home bullpen and there will be a group seating area in right field with a view into the visitor’s bullpen. Yes, that means the dugouts will be switched with the Marlins’ on the third base side, rather than the first base side, as it is now at Land Shark Stadium.
Watch the video, from Populous, that was shown at the ground-breaking, showing details of the ballpark:
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