Monday, June 25, 2012

Toronto Blue Jays at Miami Marlins - June 22-24, 2012


The Florida Marlins were one of baseball's laughingstocks, playing in front of tiny crowds in the worst stadium in the majors. Ownership fought for a new ballpark and finally got local government to agree to partially fund a new venue on the site of the Orange Bowl.

Definitely an improvement over Sun Life Stadium, Marlins Park has received mixed reviews since its opening earlier this season. There are a few minor problems that are to be expected, but I found this place to be welcoming and enjoyable; it is too bad that more local fans don't feel the same way.

Marlins Park



Located in the Little Havana community just north of downtown, Marlins Park is severely out of place. It appears to be a spaceship that has landed amongst the single-story stucco houses that make up the rest of the neighbourhood. There are a couple of transit options to get there, with the shuttle from Culmer Metrorail Station the one that I tried and would strongly recommend that you avoid. On weekdays after 9 pm and weekends, the train operates on a half-hour basis, and it happened to be 15 minutes late on the night we used it, making the schedule meaningless. It took well over an hour to get home after the Friday night game, when it should take about 30 minutes. For the weekend, I found free street parking just two blocks away, on 19th Avenue at 6th Street. Within a minute walk I saw people charging $10 to park at their house and the $20 lot next to the stadium was just five minutes away. In other words, you need not pay for parking here.



As you walk to the stadium, you might be stunned by the sheer size of the building. The roof may be open as it is in the shot above as they are trying to get as much sun onto the natural grass field as they can, but even then there are teething problems with some of the outfield suffering as you can see below.



There are plenty of ticket options but in the three games we saw, there was no need to purchase from the box office, which made us happy as we would rather not give any money to Jeffrey Loria, who destroyed the Montreal Expos. There are scalpers, but we ended up getting lower deck seats between the bases for less than half of face value from normal fans who had extras. Be patient and you should get a deal.



Before you walk into the ballpark, pay a visit to the Holiday Bakery right next to the Home Plate Entrance in the West Plaza. This is perhaps the best value of any eatery associated with an MLB stadium; I had a wrap for $4 and a guava pastry for $2.50 or so. Cuban sandwiches were $8.50, a $4 savings on the same item inside. This place is tasty, cheap and hard to beat, with a few tables outside to enjoy your meal before you enter the facility.



Once inside, you will likely be underwhelmed by the lack of attractions. There are four colour-coded quadrants that represent the four entrances; in the picture below you can see the transition from the green behind center field to the red that represents third base.



Walking around the concourses is usually problem free, but inside the seating bowl a number of sections close to the field are restricted to ticket holders, making autographs a bit difficult to get for those without the necessary documents. However, I found that ushers rarely checked tickets for the rest of the seating bowl and you could easily move down to a better seat should you be so inclined. The second level is mostly club seats and so I didn't explore here, with the third deck cheap but a bit far away.



Behind home plate you will find the Bobblehead Museum, a collection of hundreds of these giveaway items collected from every MLB stadium and then some. It can take a while to go through them all, so they are organized by team within each league to make it easier to find your favourite. There are even placeholders for bobbleheads that have been given away (such as Brandon Morrow last month) but yet to be delivered.



As the site used to be the Orange Bowl, there is a single pole acting as a tribute to this great stadium. As well, the east side of the stadium has an art installation that represents the letters of Orange Bowl as they fell when the facility was blown up, so make sure to walk around before you go inside.



There are two aquariums in the backstop behind home plate, but you need to have the very expensive Field Level seats to get a close look.



Of course, the most obvious attraction is the Home Run Feature, a mechanized sculpture that is illuminated and shows leaping Marlins after each home team homer. This was voted the worst ballpark landmark by Jim Caple at ESPN, but I beg to differ. Yes, it is rather garish, but the Chick-Fil-A ad at Turner Field is far, far worse, as are the roof rings at Tropicana Field.



Typical concessions are plentiful but must be ignored as there is only one place where you should dine once inside the ballpark. Along the left field concourse lies Taste of Miami, highlighting three local restaurants that offer unique tastes that are not available anywhere else in the venue. My favourite was the side of pork at Papo Llega y Pon; at $6 it is simply the best value in all MLB stadiums; tasty, relatively healthy, and freshly made. Coupled with the bakery outside, Marlins Park is tops for specialty food in the majors. In other words, avoid the hot dogs and pretzels here.

There is also a designated driver program booth right across from the Bobblehead Museum, but get there early as they run out of soft drink vouchers well before the game even starts.



The roof is retractable but shut for nearly every game due to the oppressive humidity that dominates the area. After the game though, the roof is opened to allow the grass to receive the sunshine, so stay there for a few minutes to see that (above). There is also a glass wall behind left field that offers views of downtown (below). The wall is operable in that it can be opened, although it remained closed during the weekend.



Finally, a word about the Clevelander. This is a famous bar on South Beach that has opened a branch behind the left field fence, right next to the Marlins' bullpen. There are seats available right behind the fence during the game that look pretty cool but were not available while we were there.



However, the Clevelander really demonstrates its value after the game, when it turns into a party spot for a couple of hours. There is a small dance stage and even a swimming pool. We stopped by on both Saturday and Sunday and were impressed with the entertainment (example below). Drinks are as expensive as those in the ballpark plus a gratuity so arrive with plenty of cash if you plan to imbibe. The crowd was quite varied on both days, with Blue Jays fans mingling with the locals and everybody having a good time. Naturally you'll need to keep yourself in control if you drive, but the high prices should help you there. Regardless, make sure to pay a post-game visit and see what is going on.



Overall, I enjoyed my three days here immensely. Early buzz on the stadium was somewhat negative, but this is because most people doing ballpark reviews follow the same cliched template. For me, Marlins Park is unique in many positive ways. Yes, it is a covered stadium but that is a necessity here. Sure, the colour scheme is rather ugly, but this is Miami, where old art deco hotels line South Beach. The ballpark succeeds in so many other areas: free parking nearby, cheap and delicious food, good seats that are easy to acquire, friendly fans, and a great bar for post-game partying. You heard it here first: Marlins Park is a winner. Seriously, who cares if there is an ugly home run sculpture; that is not what ballparks are about; they are about being entertained. Simply put, get yourself to Miami and have fun! Billy the Marlin is waiting for you!



Game 1 - Toronto 12, Miami 5

Ricky Romero started for Toronto, the third time that I would see him this year. The other two times, the Jays gave him 14 and 12 runs of support, and today was no different as they thumped Marlins pitching for another dozen, winning 12-5 in a  game that was a lot of fun to watch from behind the plate.



Brett Lawrie (above) was 3-5 with 3 runs scored and Joey Bautista went 2-3 with his 23rd home run, tying him with Adam Dunn for the league lead. The Marlins did hit three home runs so I was able to witness the hated home run sculpture in action. Romero improved to 8-1 on the season but a lot of that is due to this enormous run support.

The Marlins lost their 5th straight. Maybe if manager Ozzie Guillen spent less time checking out the ladies in the dugout seats and more time focused on the game, they might win more often.



Game 2 - Toronto 7, Miami 1



Brett Cecil (above) was making his second start of the season against Marlins' ace Josh Johnson. The Blue Jays got a run with no hits by playing small ball, using two walks, a sacrifice, and a squeeze to take an early 1-0 lead. In fact, they didn't have a base knock through 4, leading me to briefly hope they would win 1-0 without a hit. Yunel Escobar ruined that dream with a 5th inning single.


Joey Bautista singles in the ninth

Cecil managed to keep the Marlins off the board until the 7th, when Justin Ruggiano bunted for a lead-off single and Omar Infante doubled him home. Jason Frasor replaced Cecil and retired all three batters he faced, including Greg Dobbs, who was pinch-hitting for Johnson. This was the key moment as the game remain tied, preventing the Marlins from using closer Heath Bell in the ninth, instead forcing them to rely on their less than stellar bullpen.

After a scoreless eighth, Steve Cishek was left in to pitch the ninth for Miami and gave up a lead-off homer to Edwin Encarnacion, which garnered loud cheers from the many Blue Jay fans in attendance. A single, sacrifice, intentional walk, and balk put runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out. Jeff Mathis tried a squeeze and Cishek muffed the play to the plate, giving the Blue Jays an insurance run. Edward Mujica came on to get pinch-hitter Omar Vizquel but then hit Lawrie to load the bases for Colby Rasmus, who popped a grand slam to deep right that sealed the contest.

This was a great game for me as the Jays used small ball to take the lead early while Cecil performed admirably despite not having his best stuff. Then the late explosion for the win, helped by a perfect bullpen combo of Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver, and Casey Janssen. The entire team and coaching staff did so well and the Marlins' fans in our section complimented the performance. Their team were no slouches either, with Ruggiano making an amazing catch in center field that was the top play on ESPN that night.



Late in the game, Marlins catcher Brett Hayes fouled one off straight at us (above) and the ball bounced around, landing next to a little girl a few seats away. An older guy in front of her took the ball and was immediately hounded by boos until he sheepishly returned it to her, although she had no idea what was going on, asking "Why did I get this?" Exactly. Teaching kids undeserved entitlement when they are young is the wrong lesson; they need to learn to work to get their rewards. They'll have plenty of time to get their own foul balls, if they really want them.

Game 3 - Miami 9, Toronto 0



With rookie Jesse Chavez starting against veteran Mark Buerhle (above), I expected a Marlins' blowout win and that's what I got. Chavez didn't pitch poorly but gave up a couple of long balls, including a 3-run shot to John Buck that hit the HR sculpture. The Jays managed 8 hits but no runs, with Brett Lawrie thrown out at home in the only real chance they had. Below is the fantastic scoreboard with the Marlins already up 4 in the second inning.



The Marlins ended a streak of 25 straight games scoring 5 runs or less. At least Toronto took 2 of 3 in the series, and split the 6 road games I saw on this trip.

Notes

The Marlins need to hire some knowledgeable baseball people to run their trivia contests. On two separate occasions on Saturday, they misspelled a hall-of-famer's name.





Next Up

Back to the Florida State League, with 6 games in the next 5 days, weather permitting (Florida has been hit by Tropical Storm Debby over the past couple of days). Tomorrow I return to Roger Dean Stadium to check out the Palm Beach Cardinals so come back on Tuesday for an update.

Best,

Sean

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