Welcome to the 21st Century Ballpark

The new Marlins Park in Miami isn’t another retro stadium. No, it’s high-tech and arty and a little bit wacky

The ballpark of the future in Miami
The ballpark of the future in Miami Photo courtesy of Miami Marlins

The 2012 Major League Baseball season kicked off in Miami last night with a 4-1 win by the St. Louis Cardinals over the hometown Marlins. But that’s a footnote. The real show was the stage–a flashy new stadium that’s as much about technology and art and whimsy as it is about playing ball.

Some are saying that Marlins Park is the first baseball stadium of a new era, one that makes a clean break from the long run of nostalgia parks, charming places of brick and steel meant to feel intimate and quirky and a slice of simpler times. Camden Yards in Baltimore was the iconic model for the many that followed. But it turns 20 years old tomorrow.

Clearly, it was time for a 21st century facelift. Besides, building a retro park in Miami would be like wearing gingham on South Beach. It’s just not right. So, as Marlins President David Samson put it, “We used Miami to do things that other cities couldn’t get away with.”

Such as:

  • They’ll never understand the infield fly rule: At field level behind home plate are two 450-gallon salt-water fish tanks stocked with 100 tropical fish. I know, you’re thinking this is a fish spill waiting to happen. But apparently one of the Marlins players was recruited to wail baseballs at the specially-designed tanks and not even a little crack appeared. PETA says all the noise and reverberation couldn’t be good for the fish, but the show has gone on.
  • The seventh inning splash: Behind the left-field wall is a pool, which, of course, also screams Miami. But it’s really much more than a pool. It’s a pool with a bar and DJs and dancing, an outpost of the Clevelander Hotel, a South Beach hotspot. Games may end at 10, but the pool stays open until 3 in the morning.
  • Miro, Miro, on the wall: You don’t often talk about color palettes while on the subject of baseball fields, but there’s a lot of blue, orange, yellow and green going on in Marlins Park. The reason? The team’s owner, Jeffrey Loria, is an art collector–in fact, that’s how he made his fortune–and those colors are an homage to abstract artist Joan Miro, his favorite.

There’s plenty of technological dazzle, too, starting with the retractable roof that takes only 15 minutes to roll closed and the massive hurricane-proof glass windows that provide a spectacular view of the Miami skyline from the upper deck. Also, every sign is digital, giving sponsors the opportunity to buy every ad in the place for a brief period and allowing concession stand specials to be promoted all over the park.

And there are cutting-edge treats for the players, too. For instance, someone who wants to see why he fared so badly his last time at bat can stroll into a room near the dugout where there are four high-definition computer monitors. He just clicks on his name and he can watch himself in high-def and try to figure out what he’s doing wrong.

As for whimsy, there’s a museum where every item inside is a bobblehead doll. Almost 600 of them, all waiting to have their heads pinged.

But the piece de resistance is the “Home Run Scultpto-Pictorama.” That’s the name of the 74-foot-high sculpture beyond center field created by multimedia artist Red Grooms. It celebrates every Marlins’ home run. And how does it do that? Let’s just say it comes to life–flamingos flap their wings, gulls circle, marlins leap, water sprays, lights flash. Maybe you should just see for yourself.

Now if they could only figure out how to bring in relief pitchers from the bullpen in cigarette boats.

The man who Veecked baseball

More than 37,000 people were at the Marlins game last night, but I’d wager that only a handful of them ever heard of Bill Veeck, Jr.

Which is a shame, because Veeck was undoubtedly the greatest innovator baseball has ever known. (Forget Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame. Sure, anyone can look like a baseball god if Brad Pitt plays you. But he wasn’t in Veeck’s league.)

I was reminded of Veeck’s influence on the game–in both profound and bizarre ways–by Paul Dickson’s new biography, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick . Veeck was the guy who first planted ivy on the bricks in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the guy who signed Lary Doby to integrate the American League a few weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League, the guy who developed the first “exploding” scoreboard at Comiskey Park in Chicago, when fireworks went off whenever a White Sox player hit a home run. He pushed the ideas of interleague play and the designated hitter long before they were instituted.

Of course, Veeck also had his share of stunts that didn’t bathe him in glory. There was Disco Demolition Night in 1979, when fans were invited to bring disco albums to a game in Comiskey Park, at which they would be blown up. But the albums were too easy to convert into Frisbees. A mini-riot ensued.

But his greatest promotional gimmick of all came back in 1951, when he wheeled up to home plate a man in a cake. The man’s name was Eddie Gaedel and he was only 43 inches tall. He walked on four pitches and was replaced by a pinch runner.

Just the way Veeck planned it.

Video bonus Take a little video tour of Marlins Park, from the tropical fish tanks to the South Beachy pool to the home run sculpture where flamingos flap and marlins fly.

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