Sunday, November 16, 2014

Baseball In Miami: A Family Affair

Marlins Park
Miami, FL
April 6, 2014
San Diego Padres Vs Miami Marlins
Baseball, Florida Style

I opened my eyes and looked at the clock; it read 2:42 AM. I let out an exasperated sigh, rolled over, punched the pillow and prayed for sleep, which I knew was not going to come. The date was April 5, 2014, and it was one that I'd been dreading for the last three months.

For those who know, go ahead and start laughing. For those that don't, I will put it as succinctly as possible: I HATE FLYING. I don't mean I dislike it, I find it bothersome, or that it's a small annoyance. I mean I HATE it, with the intensity of a thousand white-hot burning suns. I have hated it all my life and I can trace it back to my first flight, when I was in eighth grade and going to visit my grandparents, in Arizona, for the first time. In the beginning all was well, they fed me (these were the days when airlines actually gave you more than a small cup of soda and a bag of chips), and I was able to relax and read a book I had bought especially for the trip. The trouble started about two hours into the flight when the captain told us we would be experiencing some minor turbulence; man, was that an understatement. The plane pitched back and forth like we were riding out a hurricane, so much so that at one point I had the book bounce off my lap and I smacked my head on the seat in front reaching down to pick it up. Needless to say it scared me half to death and I would spend the next thirty-some-odd years finding ways to avoid air travel at all costs. In fact, before 1997, I would only fly a handful of times, a few with my family to Arizona to visit my grandparents, once to Toronto for a guys' weekend away, and lastly, back to Arizona for my grandfather's funeral. I can also, sadly, assure you that on the last two of those flights (Toronto and my grandfather's funeral), the people sitting next to me must have been rethinking their travel plans because it was that bad.

Now, I know my fears are irrational, I know airline travel is one of the safest modes of transportation available and I know, statistically, you are more likely to be in a car accident than an plane crash...but I don't care; I don't like to fly and no amount of counsel is going to change that.

All these thoughts ran through my mind as I tossed, turned, huffed, puffed and punched the pillow for the next hour.

"For the love of God, either go back to sleep or get up," Nicole said in frustration. "Some of us don't want to be up yet."
"But...but...but," I stammered, "I don't want to fly."
"Then either start walking or stay home," she said, half-jokingly. "Either way, that means you'll miss tomorrow's Marlins game."
"Yeah, but I won't have to stay with your parents," I joked.
"What part of 'you'll miss the Marlins game' did you not understand?"
"DAMNIT," was all I could say in response, as I got out of bed, realizing there would be no more sleep for me before the car service came at 5:00.
"Now be quiet, before you wake the kids up," she said, as I left the room.

I quickly showered, got dressed, made some coffee, rechecked the bags and settled in to wait for the others to get up and moving. I flipped on the TV, looking for something to hold my interest and the first thing that popped up on the screen was the movie "Airport."

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," I thought as I quickly changed the channel.
"Good morning," I heard from my eldest son, as he walked out of his bedroom.
"What are you doing up?" I asked him.
"I heard you out here and figured you didn't need to be alone, cause you were probably nervous."
"At least someone gets it," I said, giving him a big hug.
"Well, it is your first flight since you were 28 and you haven't seemed happy about it."
"Was it that obvious?" I asked.
"Not if you were deaf and blind," he said, laughing.
"Go shower and get ready," I told him. "I'll get "Grumpy" and "Dopey" moving.
"Who's who?" he asked sarcastically.
"Interchangeable, depending on the day," I called over my shoulder, as I headed off to get Nicole and Brendan moving.

By 5:15 AM we were all awake, cleaned up and on our way to the airport. Ryan was excited for his first plane ride, but keeping an eye on me, Brendan was acting as if he were a frequent flier (he had flown once before, the previous summer when Ryan and I went on our baseball trip), and Nicole was still not letting me live down the fact I had kept her from sleeping, just a few hours earlier.

"How long is the flight?" Ryan wanted to know.
"Too long," was my immediate response.
"I'll tell you exactly what to expect," Brendan chimed in, with an air of smug self-assuredness.
"This is going to be a long morning," Nicole sighed, before leaning over and whispering something to Brendan.
"Don't worry, Daddy," my ten-year-old said, assuredly. "If the plane crashes you can use your seat as a float," he laughed.
"Really not helping, B," I told him, turning a little white.
"Yeah," Ryan chimed in. "What if we don't crash into the water?"
"We can use it to break our fall," Brenny smiled.
"Et tu, Ryan?" I hissed, shooting him a nasty look.

Nicole tried to suppress a giggle as she bit her tongue and turned towards the window.

Waiting To Board
The rest of the morning passed quickly. The ride down was uneventful, we breezed through security and before I realized what had happened we were boarding the plane. Now I must say, I was doing pretty well up until now, I had been laughing, joking and interacting with everyone as if it were any normal day. I had discussed the things Brendan wanted to take me to do while in Florida, I had talked about the difference between the beaches on the Gulf Coast and those on the Atlantic Coast with Nicole and had discussed the upcoming Marlins game, as well as the summer itinerary for our latest round of ballparks, which had already been planned out and set in motion.

As we sat down I made sure Ryan parked himself right next to me. If anyone was going to keep me calm and relaxed during this two-and-a-half-hour ordeal it was going to be him. Brendan and Nicole had made it their morning's mission to see who could make me more uncomfortable with our upcoming flight and right about now I was in no mood to deal with them anymore.

As we took our seats Ryan laughed, joked, talked baseball and just about anything he could think of to keep my mind off the upcoming takeoff. Our first topic of conversation was the Broadway play we had seen in February, "Bronx Bombers." The play revolves around Yogi Berra (played by Peter Scolari), and his wife Carmen, as they interact with Yankees legends to solve the problem of how to deal with the feud between newcomer Reggie Jackson and his teammates.

Actors as: Yogi, The Babe, Jeter and Elston Howard
The play opens up the night Reggie and manager Billy Martin had their famous brawl inside the dugout in Fenway Park, in 1977. Yogi is attempting to bring some harmony to a very volatile situation and not really making any headway. He goes home the next night and discusses the issue with his wife Carmen and dreams they are throwing a dinner party where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter show up. Over the course of the dinner party the stars, both former and present, show Yogi that while there have always been differences between Yankees' players, they have been overcome and the team has gone on to become the winningest in the history of baseball. The final scene has Derek Jeter leading Yogi out on to the field, the day the original Yankee Stadium closed.

Playbill For "Bronx Bombers"
The play was performed in the Circle in The Square Theater, in New York City, and what made it such a special night was that it was my first Broadway show and we got to sit front row, center stage. The theater is a "theater in the round," which means the stage is surrounded by seats on all sides and you have a great view from anywhere. We had a great time and even got to interact with the cast when I accidentally knocked the lid off my drink and it landed ten feet into the stage. The actor playing Reggie walked over, picked it up and used it as something of a prop to toss in the air as he continued his part. I laughed, while Ryan slunk down in his chair.



Next we started discussing all the places we were headed this summer: Chicago (to see the White Sox, the Cubs and three minor league games), Milwaukee, Iowa (for the "Field of Dreams," the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played his last gig, and the crash site where the three stars died when their plane crashed into a cornfield), Minnesota (to see the Twins, another minor league game and take a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River), as well as various restaurants, historical sites and as much local culture as possible. This would be our third year and our biggest undertaking yet...because we had to fly!

"What the hell was that?" I nervously asked, looking around.
"We're getting ready for takeoff," Ryan told me, trying to soothe my nerves.
"Is it too late to get off of this thing?" I asked him, quietly.
"With, or without, a parachute?"
"Don't answer a question with a question," I told him, gripping the side of the chair.
"Would you rather sit next to mommy?" he asked, with a sly smile.
"Smartass," I responded.

The take-off wasn't as bad as I expected, which in no way should be misread to think I enjoyed it, and once in the air I settled back and played with complimentary Direc TV on the back of the chair in front of me. Unfortunately there was nothing that was going to catch my interest and keep me occupied for the full two-and-a-half-hour flight, so I began to talk to Ryan.

I HATE Flying
"So, what do you think so far?"
"Really?" he shot back, "we've been in the air about ten minutes."
"Is that all?" I asked, wide eyed. "It sure as hell feels a lot longer."
"I have a feeling it's going to feel like an eternity by the time we land in Fort Meyers," he muttered, under his breath.
"What was that?" I asked him.
"Oh, nothing," was his reply. "So, what exactly do you want to talk about?" he said sarcastically.
"Plane crashes," Brendan laughed from the next seat over.
"Do you want to sit with him?" Ryan asked his brother, testily.
"Nope, I have a book and the TV, he's all yours."
"Then be quiet," was Ryan's only response.
"I am so not feeling the love," I said, turning to Nicole.

She just giggled and returned to her magazine.

Ryan decided that to keep me occupied we should talk about the things he learned about the team that would open our season, the Marlins. That would not only keep me occupied, but would allow for a conversation that would, hopefully, keep my mind off the fact I was in a metal tube, hurtling at speeds of about 500 MPH,  miles above the Earth. He was grasping at straws, but I was willing to play along.

It seemed Ryan had been doing his homework on the Marlins.
"Well," he started off, the team hasn't been around long; in fact they only came into existence in 1991."
"Correct," I told him. "Go on."
Which he did:

Marlins History
Marlins First Logo

In 1991, Major League Baseball awarded the National League two new franchises; one would be placed in Florida, the other in Denver. Though Florida already had a ballpark in St. Petersburg (the Suncoast Dome, which today is Tropicana Field), the team was awarded to Wayne Huizenga, and the Miami area, who beat out groups from Orlando and Tampa Bay for the team. Huizenga was the CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment and owned a 15% stake in Miami's NFL franchise, the Dolphins. The new team would play their home games at Joe Robbie Stadium, sharing the facility with the Dolphins. One of the final names being bandied about was the Florida Flamingos, but Marlins was eventually settled on, with the logo being a large marlin, imposed over a baseball, coming through a gray ring that spelled out the team's name. The colors would be teal and silver.

Huizenga named Carl Barger, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as the team's first President, and Dave Dombrowski, of the Montreal Expos, the first Executive Vice President and General Manager. The organization's first official player signing would be a 16-year-old pitcher from the Dominican Republic named Clemente Nunez.

1992 would be a busy year for the Marlins, as they would continue to put the organization together and get ready for their inaugural season in 1993.

In February the team held an open tryout, at Bucky Dent's Baseball School, where over 600 players, hoping to impress, showed up for the workout.
Charles Johnson

June saw the Marlins participate in their first ever MLB Amateur Draft, where they would take catcher Charles Johnson, from the University of Miami, with the 28th pick.

In October the team would name Rene Lachemann as its first manager. Lachemann was a baseball lifer, who began managing in the Oakland A's farm system in 1973 and then moved to the Seattle organization in 1978. In 1981 Lachemann took the helm of the Mariners, but was fired almost three years later, after compiling a record of 140-180. He was hired the next year, as the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, but that turned out to be a one-year job as he was let go with a record of 67-94. From then on he became a respected coach with the Red Sox (1985-1986) and the Oakland A's (1987-1992).

In November, the team participated, along with the Rockies, in the expansion draft and would take Nigel Wilson, from the Toronto Blue Jays, with their first pick. Other notables chosen by the Marlins that day were: Trevor Hoffman (Cincinnati), Jeff Conine (Kansas City), Carl Everett (New York Yankees), David Weathers (Toronto), and Pat Rapp (San Francisco).

December would be a difficult month for the franchise. Early on it would sign its first two free agents, infielder Dave Magadan and pitcher Charlie Hough, but on December 9th Barger would collapse and pass away from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Barger's position would remain empty for over a year, until Don Smiley was named as his successor.
JOE ROBBIE STADIUM:
The Marlins First Home
The first ever home for the Marlins was Joe Robbie Stadium, which they shared with the Miami Dolphins. The stadium was built in 1987 as a football-only venue and would stay that way until 1990, when Huizenga purchased 50% of the stadium in order to retrofit it and bring Major League Baseball to Miami. In early 1991, after the Dolphins' season had ended, construction began to make Joe Robbie Stadium a multi-purpose facility and less than three months later the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles played two exhibition games there to show the facility could accommodate MLB.

The stadium was originally built to host 47,662 fans for the Marlins' first season, though that fluctuated over the years 42,531 from 2001-2002, 35,531 from 2003-2005, 36,331 from 2006-2007 and, finally, 38,560 from 2008 until the Marlins left, after 2011. It would also have been able to expand the seating capacity (up to 67,000), for baseball, but that never was a necessity during the Marlins' stay there. The playing surface was switched to natural grass, as opposed to a synthetic turf that had been used for football at the time, and the dimensions were 330 feet to left field, 361 to left-center, 404 to centerfield, 385 to right-center and 345 to right. The backstop was a cozy 58 feet from home plate and allowed the spectator to feel as if they were right on top of the action.

Joe Robbie Stadium has been the home of both Miami-based professional franchises since it opened its doors in 1987. During that time the NFL (Dolphins, 1987-present) and MLB (Marlins, 1993-2011) have called the property at 347 Shula Drive, Miami Gardens, home. The NCAA has also had a presence there over the years; The Discover Orange Bowl (1996-1998 and 2000-present) and The Champs Sports Bowl (1990-2000) were played there, and the Florida Atlantic Owls (2001-2002) and the Miami Hurricanes (2008-present) have both hosted events there.

Over the years the stadium has also undergone many name changes, depending on who was paying the most for the naming rights. From 1987-1996 it was Joe Robbie Stadium, and then the nonsense started. In 1996 the name was changed to Pro Player Park (for baseball) and later in the year (1996-2005) it was changed to Pro Player Stadium. From 2005-2006 it was Dolphins Stadium, but later that year (2005) the "S" was dropped and the facility became known as Dolphin Stadium, until 2009. From 2009-2010 the stadium's name was changed to Land Shark Stadium, after the brand of musician Jimmy Buffett's beer and later that year (2010), the stadium once again changed its name, this time to Pro Player Stadium, which is what it is known as today.

 On April 5, 1993, the Florida Marlins took the field (at Joe Robbie Stadium), for the first time, in an MLB regular season game, where they would face the Dodgers. Charlie Hough was the Opening Day pitcher and Jeff Conine went 4-4, as the Marlins would send 42,334 fans home happy with a 6-3 victory.

Despite the Opening Day win the rest of the year was anything but wine and roses for the team. The Marlins would go 64-98, finishing above only the last place New York Mets in the National League East. On June 24th the team would trade for All-Star third baseman Gary Sheffield, who would be a linchpin in years to come, but the price was high, as Florida sent future Hall-of-Famer Trevor Hoffman to the Padres in the deal.

In 1994 the Marlins hired Donald Smiley as the club's new President, but that would be the high point in the strike-shortened season as the team would finish 51-64, in dead last place.

Cuban Defector Livan Hernandez
1995 and 1996 saw the team climb up the NL East ladder, finishing in 4th and 3rd place, respectively, and providing a few exciting moments in South Florida. The team's pitching staff, led by Al Leiter and Kevin Brown, would finish with an ERA of 3.95, which was good for 3rd place in the National League, and on May 1, 2006 Leiter would pitch the first no-hitter in franchise history, beating the Colorado Rockies, 11-0. 1996 would see Brown finish with a record of 17-11 and a 1.89 ERA; Leiter would go 16-12 with a 2.89 and become the anchor of the staff for years to come. Joining these two would be Cuban defector Livan Hernandez, who would make his MLB debut in September and then join the team for good in June of the following year. Charles Johnson, the catcher, would lead the National League in fielding percentage, win a Gold Glove for his position, and throw out almost 50% of runners trying to steal on him. The team would start slow, which would cost Lachemann his job in June, but would rebound to finish the season 80-82 under interim manager John Boles. The third place finish would be a springboard to greater things in 1997.

The first order of business in 1997 was finding a new manager and the Marlins brought in former Pirates manager Jim Leyland. Also joining the team that off-season were third baseman Bobby Bonilla, pitcher Alex Fernandez and outfielder Moises Alou. When these new players were brought on they added to the already bursting-with-talent roster the Marlins had compiled and it paid dividends right away.

In June, Kevin Brown pitched the franchise's second no-hitter, only a hit batsman prevented it from being a perfect game, and the team would finish 92-70, for second place in the division. They would be nine games behind the winner, the Atlanta Braves, but would win Wild Card, and the team's first ever playoff berth, in their fifth year.

The first playoff opponent for the Marlins would be the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were the higher-seeded National League team, having won the Western Division with a record of 90-72 and boasting Barry Bonds at the center of their lineup. The young, brash Marlins weren't scared of the Western Champs and quickly dispatched them in a three-game sweep. The first game was won on an Edgar Renteria walk-off single (2-1), in the bottom of the ninth, while Game Two was won the same way, this time by Moises Alou. Game Three was a 6-2 Marlins win, in San Francisco, behind a grand slam from Devon White and RBI doubles from Charles Johnson and Craig Counsel. In three short games the young Marlins upset the Giants and moved on to the National League Championship Series, to face the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves were the defending National League Champions, having lost in the World Series to the New York Yankees the year before, but were stocked with talent; such as third baseman Chipper Jones, catcher Javy Lopez, first baseman Fred McGriff, outfielder Kenny Lofton and pitchers Gregg Maddux, John Smoltz, Kevin Millwood, Denny Nagel and closer Mark Wohlers. The pundits were predicting a quick series for the Braves.

Apparently the Marlins didn't read the newspapers, or listen to the "experts", as they quickly ambushed the Braves in Game One, scoring five runs in the first three innings and holding on for a 5-3 win. The Braves, after shaking off their lethargy, roared back to take Game Two, 7-1.

The Marlins would be heading home after doing exactly what they needed to, splitting the first two games on the road, and feeling good about their chances of taking control of the series. Games Three and Four went as the first two did, with the Marlins taking the third, 5-2, and the Braves pulling even again, with a 4-0 win in Game Four. Florida then put the Braves on the ropes, by taking Game Five, 2-1, and forcing Atlanta to win out if they wanted to advance to a third straight World Series.

Game Six in Atlanta saw Kevin Brown matching up against Tom Glavine and the Marlins were the ones who jumped in front first, scoring four runs and batting around, in the first inning. The Braves, not willing to concede defeat, closed the game to 4-3 after the second inning, but the Marlins would put up a three-spot in the seventh inning and walk away with a 7-4 victory and a trip to their first World Series.

The Marlins may have been a surprise entry in the 1997 World Series, but their opponents were not. The Cleveland Indians were making their second trip to the Fall Classic in the last three years, having been there in 1995 and losing to the Atlanta Braves. Cleveland brought tremendous offensive firepower into the series, featuring Sandy Alomar Jr., Sean Casey, Tony Fernandez, Richie Sexson, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Marquis Grissom. The pitching staff could also be considered a plus for the Indians, as the roster boasted such names as Orel Hershiser, Jack McDowell, Jose Mesa, Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea, David Weathers and Jaret Wright. Once again the Marlins were considered long shots, but that only seemed to fuel their determination.

The first two games would be played in Florida and the visitors would silence the crowd early in Game One, with a run in the top of the first. The Marlins, however, would score seven times over the third, fourth and fifth innings, and hold on for a 7-4 victory. Cleveland would bounce back to take Game Two, 6-1, behind the solid pitching of Chad Ogea and timely hitting from the Cleveland offense.

With the series knotted at one game each, the setting moved to Cleveland for the next three. The Indians, playing at home, lost Game Three, 14-11, when Florida scored seven in the ninth, but rebounded to take Game Four, 10-3 and tie the series back up. Game Five again went to the brilliant pitching of Livan Hernandez and the Marlins were headed home needing one more win to cement their first World Championship. It was not to be, however, as the Indians deadlocked the series, once again, with a 4-1 victory, setting up a deciding Game Seven.

The deciding game would see Al Leiter take the mound for the Marlins, against Jaret Wright, pitching on short rest. The Indians would strike first, on a two-out, two-run single off the bat of Tony Fernandez in the third inning. Wright would make that lead hold up, as he pitched one-hit baseball through the game's first six innings. The Marlins would cut the lead to 2-1 on Bobby Bonilla's lead-off home run in the seventh, but would leave two stranded at the end of that inning.

By the ninth inning the Indians were clinging to a 2-1 lead and sent Jose Mesa to the mound to close out the series, but the Marlins refused to go quietly. Moises Alou led off with a single and after Bonilla was struck out Charles Johnson moved him to third with another single and Craig Counsel tied the game with a sacrifice fly to Manny Ramirez, in left.
1997 World Series Champions

The game went through the tenth and the top of the eleventh with no one scoring, when the Marlins put the lead-off batter, Bonilla, aboard with a single, but Gregg Zaun  popped  an attempted sacrifice bunt back to the pitcher for the first out of the inning. Craig Counsel then sent a sure double-play ball to Tony Fernandez, but he booted it allowing both runners to safely reach. The Indians then intentionally walked Eisenreich to load the bases and got the second out when Devon White grounded into a fielder's choice. This brought up Edgar Renteria, who promptly lined a single up the middle, off Nagy's glove, into center-field, scoring Counsel with the Series' winning run.

Livan Hernandez would be chosen the World Series MVP, winning Games One and Five, and Marlins fans celebrated deep into the night, and the following day. Five years after taking the field for the first time, the Marlins were World Champions. The players and fans alike predicted big things in the coming years; they never anticipated what was coming next.

The champagne was barely dry from the celebrations when Marlins owner Huizenga, claiming crippling losses, began what became the biggest fire sale in sports history. Over the course of the next year and a half the Marlins would trade away Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich and Al Leiter. Though the team did bring back players such as Derek Lee and A.J. Burnett, and draft picks (one of which would turn into Josh Beckett), the results were predictable.

The team went into a death spiral and would climb no higher than third place in the National League East (2000), finishing with a record of 352-457 between 1998 and 2002. The attendance would steadily decrease, bottoming out at 813,118 in 2002. In 1998 Huizenga would sell the franchise to a broker from Boca Raton, named John Henry, the team would finish with 108 losses (the most of any club ever winning the World Series the year before), having the worst record in baseball and after the season Jim Leyland would quit, being replaced by John Boles.

Between 1999 and 2002 the team would hire Dave Dombrowski as the President and General Manager, only to see him quit after 2001 and be replaced by Larry Beinfest. Manager Boles survived until May of 2001, when he was fired and replaced with Hall of Fame player Tony Perez, who resigned at the end of the season and was replaced by Jeff Torborg. As if the front office and managerial carousel wasn't enough of a distraction, ownership changed from John Henry to Jeffrey Loria after the 2001 season as well.

During these years of turmoil it wasn't only the front office and managers that were changing; the on-field product was as well. Even though the Marlins seemed to be inept, they were in fact stockpiling a lot of good young talent and accentuating those players with trades and veteran signings. By 2003 the team roster was chock full of firepower; players such as Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, Alex Gonzalez, Derek Lee, Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Jeff Conine, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Ugueth Urbina were just coming into their own, and were about to take the baseball world by storm.

With Torborg at the helm the Marlins lurched out of the gate to a 16-22 start the season and the manager was relieved of his duties. His replacement, 72-year-old Jack McKeon, fared little better as the team was 19-29 by the end of May, but at that point an amazing thing began to happen. The injured players returned, the young team began to gel and McKeon's steady, quiet leadership proved invaluable as the Marlins began to win and started to move up in the standings. Mid-year call ups Cabrera and Willis, as well as the acquisition of  closer Urbina, turned the team's fortunes around and they would finish the season with a record of 91-71, good enough for second place in the NL East and a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. It would be the first return to the post-season since the World Series win of 1997 and the club would face the Giants in a rematch of their first-ever playoff series.

As in 1997 the Giants, being the defending National League Champions, and coming off a 100-win season, were seen as the favorites in the series. The Marlins, in fact, weren't given much of a chance, having only just completed the second winning season in franchise history, but that was just fine with McKeon and his charges. The Marlins walked into San Francisco looking for a split and that's just  what they got, dropping the first game 2-0, but rebounding to win Game Two, 9-5.

The Marlins were extremely confident heading home and it showed, as they won Game Three, coming back from being down 3-2 in the eleventh inning and then two scoring two in the bottom of the inning and eking out a 4-3 win.

Snow, Out At Home
Game Four was a back-and-forth affair, featuring Carl Pavano for the Marlins and Jerome Williams for the Giants. The teams traded runs in the second before Florida scored two in the third and fourth, to take a 5-1 lead. The Giants would answer with four in the sixth, to tie the score, but the Marlins would add two more in the eighth, to take a commanding 7-5 lead with three outs to go. That's when the excitement began. The Giants led off the ninth with a double, which came around to score on a J.T. Snow single, and cut the lead to 7-6. Marlins closer, Ugueth Urbina got the next two outs, but Snow moved to second when Urbina hit a batter. Jeffrey Hammonds then drove a single to left and J.T. Snow tried to score from second, but was gunned down on a play at the plate to end the game and the series. The Marlins had again beaten the Giants and would move on to play the Chicago Cubs for the NLCS.

The Cubs were looking to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1945, and were led by Sammy Sosa, Troy O'Leary, Moises Alou, Hee-Seop Choi, Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Grudzielanek and pitchers Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. They had won 88 games and were the NL Central Division Champions. Naturally they were the favorites, even though the Marlins had won more games.

The Cubs, led by a balanced attack, would lose Game One, 4-3, in 11 innings, but would bounce back to take the next three, 12-3, 5-4 (again 11 innings), and 8-3, and put a three-games-to-one stranglehold on the series. Facing a win-or-go-home scenario in Game Five, Josh Beckett pitched a complete game, two-hit, shut out to send the series back to Wrigley Field, where the series would turn on one play.

"The Curse of Bartman"
Mark Prior would take the ball for the Cubs in Game Six and cruise through the seventh inning, giving up no runs on three hits and taking a 3-0 lead into the eighth, when disaster struck. After retiring the first batter of the inning, Prior gave up a double to Juan Pierre and up stepped Luis Castillo. Castillo worked an eight-pitch-at-bat before lifting a foul ball down the left-field line. Moises Alou drifted over towards the stands to grab the pop fly, and record the second out, but the ball was coming down within the reach of some Cubs fans, and when one reached out to try and catch it, the ball bounced off his hands and into the crowd. Alou protested fan interference, but to no avail as umpire Mike Everett ruled the ball had not been touched in the field of play. With the at-bat extended, Prior threw a wild pitch, walking Castillo and allowing Pierre to reach third. The next batter, Ivan Rodriguez, then singled home Pierre to make it a 3-1 game. Up next was Miguel Cabrera, who bounced a sure double-play ball to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who booted it and everyone was safe. Derek Lee then doubled, scoring two and tying the game before Prior was removed. Kyle Farnsworth was brought in to relieve Prior, but he threw a gas can on the fire and when the dust cleared the Marlins had scored eight runs and taken control of the game.

Some folks say that the fan who "interfered" with Alou, Steve Bartman, was just another pawn in "The Curse of The Billy Goat," which had plagued the Cubs for almost 60 years, and kept them from winning, or even getting to, a World Series. Not everyone believes in curses, whether they be that of " The Bambino" or "The Billy Goat," but the Cubs played as if the hex was real and promptly blew a 5-2 lead in Game Seven and eventually lost the game, 9-6, and the series 4 games to 3. Chicago went into mourning, Bartman went into hiding, and the Marlins went on to face the New York Yankees in the World Series.

The 2003 World Series pitted the 101-game-winning; American League Champion New York Yankees against the, once again, underdog Marlins. New York, fueled by Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Alfonso Soriano, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera were the class of MLB, having reached the World Series six times in the last eight years and winning four of them. They were prohibitive favorites here, but as usual no one told that to the Marlins.

Florida shocked the baseball world by walking into Yankee Stadium and winning Game One, 3-2. Brad Penny out-pitched David Wells and Ugueth Urbina held on for a shaky save, but the die was cast. New York bounced back and took Game Two at home, 6-1, and Game Three in Florida, by the same score, but the Marlins evened the series on a twelfth inning lead-off, home run by Alex Gonzalez to win Game Four and tie the series.

Game Five would feature a rematch of Wells vs. Penny, but Wells would leave the game after the first inning, having thrown only eight pitches, with a back injury, and the Marlins would beat up on rookie Jose Contreras, taking the game, and the series lead, by a score of 6-4.

Marlins Beat Yankees
Game Six saw the series return to New York and Marlins manager McKeon tapped young Josh Beckett for the start, going on three days rest, while the Yankees went with war horse Andy Pettitte. Beckett made his manager look like a genius, as he pitched a complete-game, five-hit-shutout and the Marlins took the game, 2-0, and the World Series, four games to two. Deuces were wild as it was the second time the Marlins would finish above .500, the second time they would make the playoffs and the second time they would win the World Series. Fans in South Florida were ecstatic about the playoff run they had just witnessed, as well as the fact the team was young and would be contenders for a long time coming. They were about to get another bucket of cold water thrown in their faces.

As 2004 got underway the Marlins had a new roster; over the winter they had made some moves to save some money, trading away Derek Lee and allowing Ivan Rodriguez and Ugueth Urbina to leave, via free agency, rather than sign them. During the season the team traded away Hee-Seop Choi, who had signed in Miami during the off-season, and Brad Penny, to the Dodgers for Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion and Paul Lo Duca. The constant roster shuffling affected the team, and not even Josh Beckett's brilliant 18-8, 3.30 ERA season or Armando Benitez's 47 saves could keep the team from finishing 83-79, third place in the NL East.

Over the winter of 2004, the Marlins re-signed pitcher Al Leiter and slugging first baseman, Carlos Delgado. These acquisitions were offset, however, by the loss of Carl Pavano and Armando Benitez to free agency. The team was inconsistent all season long, with the newly-acquired players under-performing and the team losing 12 of 14 games in September, to fall out of the Wild Card Race and finish, again, 83-79 and in third place.

The 2005 off-season saw McKeon retire, being replaced with Yankees bench coach Joe Girardi, who would see much of the team depart before he would even manage a game. Pitchers A.J. Burnett, Todd Jones, Paul Quantrill, Brian Moehler and Ismeal Valdez, along with position players Jeff Conine, Lenny Harris, Juan Encarnacion and Alex Gonzalez had expiring contracts, with only Moehler resigning. In addition, the team traded Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett and Guillermo Mota to the Boston Red Sox for four minor league prospects, including Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez. The turnover continued when the team traded Carlos Delgado to the NY Mets, for first baseman Mike Jacobs and Yusmeiro Petit. Completing the roster shake-up was the trade of catcher Paul Lo Duca, also to the Mets, for more unheralded young players and prospects. The fans were furious, as this was the second time their World Series Champion team had been dismantled willingly.

Joe Girardi, Manager of the Year, 2006
At the start of 2006 Girardi's team was not unlike the Cleveland Indians squad that took the field in the movie "Major League." The Marlins would have a $21 million payroll on Opening Day and put a record six rookies in their lineup. The team was projected to lose 100 games, but Girardi earned the league's respect by keeping his team competitive and managing to squeeze 78 wins out of them. One highlight was Anibal Sanchez's no-hitter, on September 6, when he defeated Arizona, 2-0. All in all the team fared better than thought; four of the rookie pitchers, led by Sanchez and Josh Johnson, had double-digit wins, second baseman Dan Uggla was picked for the NL All-Star team, Hanley Ramirez won Rookie of The Year and Joe Girardi claimed NL Manager of the year honors. Unfortunately, the team found a way to once again shoot itself in the foot, as Girardi was fired for "insubordination," when owner Jeffrey Loria meddled in the team's day-to-day operations once too often and Girardi refused to listen to him. He was replaced by third base coach Fredi Gonzalez.

The 2007 season was a lost one for the team as injuries and, once again, sub-par outings from key players doomed them from the beginning. They finished twenty games under .500, 71-91, and fell to fifth place in the-NL East. In the off-season the fire-sale trend continued as Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis were traded to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for a set of six prospects.

In 2008, the team got off to the hottest start in its history, going 30-20, but were never able to build off that pace and finished 84-77. It was, however, a 13-game increase in the win column and propelled the team to third place in their division. The big news, however, was that the organization had finally found a permanent home of their own after searching for 15 years. The new stadium would be built on the site of the old Orange Bowl, in Miami's "Little Havana," opening in 2012 and the team would undergo a name, logo and color scheme change. Gone would be the teal and silver colors, as well as the marlin from the logo, replaced by black, red, orange, yellow, silver, blue and white and a "geometric" fish shape, in red and blue.

2009 saw the Marlins improve on their 2008 record, by going 87-75 and jumping up to second in the NL East. The organization felt they were finally ready to turn a corner and start contending again, just as the team was ready to make the move into their new stadium. Unfortunately 2010 saw a regression, as the team fell backwards to 80 wins and third place in the National League. Manager Fredi Gonzalez, the winningest skipper the organization ever had, was relieved of his duties, as were the bench and hitting coaches. Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine was in brief talks with the club, but those broke down and the club settled on Triple-A manager Edwin Rodriguez.

In 2011 the Marlins once again started 30-20, only to see the team compile the worst record in baseball from then on. Rodriguez resigned and was replaced by former manager Jack McKeon, but even he couldn't keep the team from its 40-72 record in the last 112 games, which placed them dead last in the National League, with a record of 72-90.  This was not the way ownership had envisioned moving into their new park and during the off-season Loria traded for Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and signed free agents Heath Bell, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. All these changes were hoped to provide a "fresh start" as the franchise got ready to open its new ballpark.

A NEW HOME:

Opening Day At Marlins Park

Three years in the making, Marlins Park opened its doors in April of 2012. The location selected was the "Little Havana" section of Miami, on the former site of the Orange Bowl. The team opened the regular season against the St Louis Cardinals, on April 4, 2012, losing 4-1. They had played a set of preseason games, against the New York Yankees, less than a week before, losing both and setting the tone for the season. The first-ever game was televised, nation-wide, on ESPN and the players were introduced to the crowd by being escorted from the dugout to the base line by Brazilian dancers wearing next to nothing. It is a toss-up as to whether that, or Muhammad Ali tossing out the first pitch, was the highlight of the night. Josh Johnson took the loss for the Marlins, being out-pitched by Kyle Lohse; John Buck recorded the Marlins first hit and RBI in their new park.

The team failed miserably, going 69-93 for the season, with 46 of those wins coming in the first 100 games. The disaster of a season led to the firing of Ozzie Guillen, though to be fair he did bring a firestorm of negative publicity upon himself, and the team, by saying:

"I love Fidel Castro, I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that mother-fucker is still here."

That comment, and the corresponding interview in "Time" magazine, caused a backlash from Miami's Cuban community and gave Loria another excuse, beyond the team's on-field record, to fire the Manager. The team, once again, held a fire-sale and got rid of every major player, except for young up-and-coming superstar Giancarlo Stanton, at the end of the year.

Gaincarlo Stanton: Face of the Franchise
For 2013 the team was expected to have another poor year and they didn't disappoint, scoring one run in their first three games of the season, setting the tone for a 62-100 year. It was the club's second 100-loss-season, but they did end on a winning note as Henderson Alvarez no-hit the Tigers on the last game of the year. Over the winter the Marlins once again retooled, adding free agents Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garret Jones, Casey McGhee and Rafael Furcal. Needless to say, Ryan and I weren't expecting much from our game, but we were excited to see Giancarlo Stanton, who had emerged as one of the premier power hitters in the game.

The Florida Experience:
Hello, Florida

"What was that?" I asked, nervously.
"The landing," Ryan laughed. "You were so wrapped up in the conversation, you didn't even know the flight was over."

I looked at the window, and sure enough he was correct. We were safe and sound, back on Terra firma.

"Well, only a week to go before I have to do that again," I said with an audible sigh.
"Really? That's what you're thinking about?" Brendan interjected.
"Leave your father alone," Nicole scolded them both.
"Thank you," I started to say, but was interrupted by the completion of her thought:
"You know he's not going to shut up til he gets his bitching done, so let him finish and we won't have to listen to it anymore."
"HARUMPH," I said, loudly enough to voice my displeasure.
"C'mon," called Brendan. "I want to get to Grandma and Poppa's"

We quickly zipped out of the airport, where my father-in-law picked us up and took us back to his complex, in Estero.

"Howdy, howdy," Poppa said, as we climbed into the car. "How was the flight?"
"Don't get him started," Brendan laughed as we pulled onto the highway in Fort Myers, for the 20-minute ride.

I stayed silent, just happy to be back on the ground and in a car, as opposed to six miles up, in a metal tube.

                       The rest of the day was spent exploring the "compound," swimming,
View From The Balcony
The Pool
relaxing and having a fun-filled afternoon and evening on our first day. My in-laws live in a high-rise co-op, on the fourteenth floor, with one side facing the west (on the driving range), and the other facing east (on the 18th Hole), overlooking a nature preserve and the Gulf, off in the distance. We had a fantastic dinner, on the patio facing the Gulf, just enjoying the sunset and the sounds of the animals coming out for the evening.

The next morning, Nicole, Ryan, Brendan and I piled into the car to take the two-hour drive, through Alligator Alley, to Miami, where we would be seeing the Marlins take on the San Diego Padres with Nicole's cousin, Michael; his wife, Hillary; and their daughter, Zoey. Unfortunately we would not be joined by their son, Zach, as he was in school, out in Oregon. We would be picking the tickets up at their house and heading over to the ballpark, where they would meet up with us right before game time.

The time in the car went quickly, with Brendan constantly looking out the car window for indigenous wildlife and getting cranky because he never saw any actual alligators in Alligator Alley. Ryan and I bantered back and forth, seeing who could make mommy nuttier, but making sure Brendan was left alone. He could be the difference between an enjoyable afternoon and a not-so-fun one, if he were put in a bad mood, so we didn't want to make him crazy and then have the favor returned later.

"Will you two shut up?" Nicole asked Ryan and me, losing her patience.

Of course this produced the predictable result from Ryan. He Bugs Bunny'ed her.

"Shut up? Why certainly! You don't think I'm the type that would keep on blabbin'? Some people never know when to stop. When I'm told to shut up, I shut up... "
"Shut up, shuttin' up," I finished off the quote.
"AAARRRGGGHHH," she exclaimed, half joking.

We just laughed.

Nicole's Hell-ride lasted a bit longer than two hours as we drove across the state and followed the GPS to Coral Gables, where Michael, Hillary and Zoey lived. We pulled up to a nice home, on a quiet, residential, street, which was a completely different setting than the traffic we were in just a few short minutes before. It amazed me how quickly the scenery could change and go from one side of the spectrum to the other. As we got out of the car and rang the bell we were greeted by the family pup, who Brendan and Ryan immediately took a liking to. Michael and Hillary had just gotten home from their morning bike ride and opened the door to greet us with open arms and warm smiles. Both are exercise enthusiasts who like to run, bike and kayak, as well as anything else that catches their fancy. They obviously enjoyed their outdoor workouts, as both were well tanned and in fantastic shape.

Michael is the son of Nicole's father's eldest brother, Michael Sr., and is the spitting image of him as well. They share the same love of photography, which both are highly adept at, as well as the same love of the outdoors, music, food, and warm, open, inviting manner. The man literally never stops smiling and goes through life with a verve that we should all have.

Hillary, his vivacious, always-in-motion wife of about twenty-five years, grew up in San Francisco. She and Michael met, so I have been told, on an Alaskan cruise and hit it off right away. That was no surprise to me as they are a perfect match for one another, both loving and appreciating the same things, both always on the go and both very outgoing, friendly people. Hillary grew up a Giants fan, but has since adopted the Marlins (as long as they are not playing the Giants), and the whole family roots for the home team as they spend quite a bit of time at the ballpark, considering it is about ten miles from their home.

Michael and Hillary have two children, Zach and Zoey, and had raised them to be avid baseball fans, who loved their team above all else, but loved the game more than their team. Zach was away at school and would, unfortunately, not be joining us, but Zoey, their 18-year-old, pretty, outgoing, friendly, high school senior, would be, and we were glad to be making this a multi-generational-family-affair.

We spent about twenty minutes talking, laughing and joking before we headed out to the park. Michael and Hillary wanted to do some things before the game and Zoey wasn't home yet, so we took our tickets and headed out to the ballpark. Ryan and I were anxious to do some exploring and Brendan and Nicole were surprisingly excited as well, so we wanted to capitalize on the mood while it lasted.

MARLINS PARK:
Marlins Park, in "Little Havana"

As we drove through the "Little Havana" neighborhood of Miami we immediately noticed that the ballpark was built in a residential neighborhood. People's homes were literally a block from the complex.

"This must have been what Ebbets Field was like," Ryan said, perusing the neighborhood.

I must admit, I had the same thought as I looked one way and saw houses, then looked the other and saw a baseball stadium rise from a large open space in the middle of the block.

Close Up Of Marlins Park
Marlins Park is a white stucco edifice, jutting against the blue Florida sky, located at 501 Marlins Way in Miami. It has open "park-like" spaces, as well as courtyard-type patios surrounding it and looks to give the fans a true Miami "feel." This "feel" is genuine, and would look out of place anywhere but here; even the walls of the parking garage are done in a pastel Miami-type deco that lets you know exactly where you are. As we walked across the street to the ballpark we saw fans milling about, playing catch, talking baseball, or just basking in the warmth of the warm Florida sun. There were inflatable rides for the little ones and tables full of give-aways and prizes, that really added a communal feel to the gathering.

The Boys and I On The Concourse
As we walked around the outside of the building (the doors were 30 minutes from opening), we snapped some pictures of the area. I started talking to a Marlins fan who took us for exactly who we were: tourists. He pointed out some things I might not have noticed; as you wander around you can see the pathways are meant to evoke Miami imagery. There are areas that give off a beach feel, as well as real beach sand in some places; the primary colors around these walkways are blue or green, which make you think of sea, sky and grass; and there are tiled areas, which are pastel colored to evoke a Latin-type feel. There is no doubt this ballpark, from the outside, is quintessentially Miami.

We quickly ducked inside the team store to grab our programs, scorecard and a small souvenir for Brendan. He, not surprisingly, found his favorite animal; an elephant wearing a Marlins jersey. After purchasing our goodies, Ryan and I ran them back to the car. We had discovered long ago that it was a pain in the ass to carry the stuff around all game long and risk losing, or ruining, it, so this had become our "pre-game ritual."

The doors finally opened, 90 minutes before game time, and we headed up the escalator, behind the Home Plate Gate.

Salsa Band At Home Plate Gate
"What's that?" Ryan wanted to know, hearing loud music coming from above us.
"That's a Salsa band," Nicole said, excitedly. "I love this place already."
"A Salsa band?" Ryan said, wrinkling his nose, and sticking out his tongue.
"We're not in Kansas, anymore," I laughed.
"Yeah, but we're not in Cuba either," he said, sighing heavily.
"I like it," Nicole said, pushing past and running up the escalator, towards the pulsing rhythm.
"Me too," echoed Brendan, racing to catch up to his mother.
"Remind me who invited them," Ryan muttered, shaking his head. "This is a baseball stadium, not a night club."

Ryan and I took our time getting to the main concourse, as we were in no hurry to have our ears assailed by the overwhelmingly loud music. When we reached the top, we found Nik and Brenny dancing to the Latin beat, in the middle of a crowd, obviously enjoying themselves. Nicole motioned for Ryan to come forward and dance with her, but he shook his head.

"You're her husband," he said, trying to push me forward.
"I did my time, at our wedding," I said, giving him s shove towards the small crowd.

Reluctantly he moved forward. It took all of about 10 seconds for my too-cool-to-dance-with-his-mother-and-brother-in-public thirteen-year-old to find himself caught up in the music and having a blast. He motioned me over, but I vehemently shook my head. It was right about then my wife sauntered over, grabbed my hand and pulled me out in front of the band. I responded by doing as any guy, who was grabbed by a pretty lady, would do; I followed her every move. Soon the four of us were dancing, swinging, swaying, laughing and having a blast amidst forty people, who were doing the same.

The Bobblehead Museum
As we walked into the actual building, we turned to the right and immediately came face to face with one of the things the boys were very excited to see, the Bobblehead Museum. This "museum" is not a museum in the truest sense of the word, but rather a giant display case housing hundreds of bobblehead dolls, representing all MLB teams, over the entire history of the game. The display is housed on a base that "jiggles," so the bobbleheads actually have bobbling heads.

Boys and I At The Museum


"Whoa," cried Brendan, running towards the display. "This is so cool."

Ryan was right behind him, excited to look and see if he could find players from baseball's Golden Age.

Brendan immediately set to looking for Derek Jeter, his favorite player, and he found him right away. Ryan sought out Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb, making a mental note of where each one was, as he found them all. After about 15 minutes of looking, we decided it was time to move on.


We decided to first check out what the view would be from our seats, which were about 25 rows behind home plate. Hillary had informed us that Zoey was not one for heights, so sitting in our usual upstairs sections were out. These seats were so much better.


View From Our Seats

As we walked to our section the first thing I noticed was the retractable roof was closed, which was a disappointment. I had flown 2,000 miles, leaving behind the 30-degree weather and coming to a state where the temperature was 83, only to have to be watching our game inside. It just didn't seem right that we had to sit under a roof that had the ability to be open, but wasn't, on a beautiful afternoon. I quickly walked over to a fan services guide and asked him why. Instead of a simple answer, I got a history lesson on the roof.

When designing Marlins Park a special study was done for the roof. The team wanted a retractable one, due to the "surprise" rain showers that crop up unexpectedly, but it also had to be able to withstand hurricane force winds as well. In designing for such issues the architects came up with a system whereby when the roof is fully closed all panes are not fully sealed to remain as one. This allows for the free flow of the wind and keeps the pressure from tearing it off the building, which is a very real concern in South Florida during hurricanes. The roof is also covered with a thin membrane so the heat from the sun does not get absorbed into the roof.

There are also retractable glass panels, along the outfield concourse, which allow for a beautiful view of the downtown area. When the roof is closed, which is for about 70 of the 81 home games per year, and applies to all day games, the building is kept at a steady 75 degrees. Unfortunately this gives the park a mall-like feel, as opposed to a baseball stadium, which takes away from the fans' in-game experience.

Unhappy with the news, we trudged down to our seats to take in the view we would experience during the game. I was wholly unprepared for what I was about to see.

The seats, directly behind home plate, were fantastic and offered a tremendous view of the playing field. Unfortunately the view was overshadowed by the color schematic, which was like nothing I had ever seen before and certainly not in a Major League ballpark. It looked as if each of the colors were nuclearized and slapped on different sections of the stadium. The outfield walls were green, but not a Kelly, or Forest, shade, but rather a day-glo green. This green hue melted into red down the third base line, a yellow on the first base line and a blue behind home plate. To me, it looked as if some artist's neon palette had exploded and sent paint everywhere. Nicole and Brendan didn't "hate" it, but Ryan and I were in too much shock to do more than stand, mouth agape, and stare.

"What is that?" Brendan wanted to know, pointing to a sculpture in the outfield.
"That's the home run sculpture," Ryan told him, shaking his head.
"It's cool," Bren told us.
"Not the adjective I would use," I informed them.

The Marlinator

The "Home Run Sculpture," also known as "The Marlinator," stands 65-75 feet tall, is colored bright blue, aqua, pink and orange, decorated with flamingos, clouds, and palm trees coming out of a water-like base, with two marlins that jump and dive, for thirty seconds, accompanied by laser lights, after every time the home team hits a home run. The "artwork" was designed by Miami artist Red Grooms and sits behind the left center-field wall. There seems to be a disagreement from fans as to whether it is either unsightly or a lovable, quirky, conversation piece, but either way everyone has an opinion about it.



Left Field Line
Right Field Line
As we walked closer to the field to get some pictures I got a sense of how big the place really was. The seating capacity is 36,742, which can be increased to 37,442 if the park is filled and standing room only areas are used. The field dimensions are 344 feet down the left-field line, 386 to the left-center power alley, 420 to what is known as the "Bermuda Triangle" in left-center, 418 to center, 392 to the right-center power alley, and a short 335 down the right-field line. There is a giant scoreboard over right-center, and two decks that run from right to center field. There is a bleacher section over the left field wall, but above that is the main concourse, where you can see the game from the outfield, as well as the glass window showing off the Miami skyline. Far above the left-field playing surface fly two flags, one for each of the team's two World Championships. The backstop is 47 feet from home plate and offers two aquariums that run on each side of Home Plate, each of which are encased in shatter-proof glass. When looking from the pitcher's mound, the aquarium on the third base side is 34 feet long and 3 feet high, while the one on the first base side is 24 feet long and 3 feet high. The aquariums were broken in two sections so as not to interfere with the fielder's ability to see the ball off the bat, while playing. This, of course, intrigued Brendan, my little animal aficionado, so we headed down to get a closer look, which is when the "trouble" started.

Home Plate View

Brendan, in his excitement at the sight of the aquarium, ran a few feet ahead of us and started to head down the steps, leading to the lower bowl and the "Aquarium Seats."  Unfortunately for him a security guard, with a cranky disposition, put her arm out, blocking his path and almost knocking him on his behind.

"Excuse me, I just want to see the fish," my polite 10-year-old told the lady who was holding him back.

Right about now I was shocked at what was going on, but thankful it was Brendan rather than Ryan being "detained." Ryan certainly wouldn't have been so polite had he just had an arm thrust into his chest.

"You can't go down there without a ticket," was her abrupt response.
"But I just want to see the fish," he said again.

This time she put her hand on his shoulder, forcibly stopping him from even moving. Now I was pissed, and definitely glad it wasn't Ryan, who would have forcibly removed the hand and had some words for her as well.

"Excuse me," I said, jogging up. "Is there a problem here?"
"I told him he can't go down there without a ticket," she glared at me.
"First, get your hands off my son...NOW," I told her. "Secondly, here are our tickets," I said, handing them over to be read.
"These aren't tickets for this section, these are for back there," she responded, nastily.
"OK, but the boy just wants to see the aquarium," I told her. "Why do we need tickets for down there?"
"In case you don't know, sir, we can't let just anyone down there who doesn't belong. Those seats are for ticket holders and you aren't one of them."

Ryan started to slide in behind me, not liking where this was headed, and I could feel Nicole starting to get uncomfortable.

"Who is he going to bother?" I asked. "We're four of about 50 people in the place, it's an hour and a half before game time, you're watching us and we're going to be there for five minutes."
"You can't go down there, I can't take the chance on you blending in and staying down there," she shot back.
"Blending into what, the fish or the seats and why can't you watch us for five minutes so my brother can see the fish?" Ryan called out from my right side.
"Being a wise-guy isn't going to get you down there," the lady turned to Ryan and said.
"Maybe not, but being rude to fans might not sit so well with customer service, either," Ryan shot back. "We came from New Jersey, my brother wants five minutes to see the fish, there's no one here and you have no desire to help make a little kid smile. Maybe this is why the place is half-empty most nights."

I turned both boys around, before things could escalate, and we headed back up the stairs towards the concourse, and the customer service area. I was proud of my eldest for sticking up for his brother and not getting nasty with the attendant, who should have known better. He may have been a bit of a wise ass, but I was okay with that, as it was probably something I would have said myself, had he not beaten me to the punch. We quickly caught up with Nicole, who hadn't been around for the final volley and made our way around the first base concourse, towards the outfield. The walkway was empty, even though we were about an hour before first pitch, which made it feel even more like a mall, as opposed to a ballpark. So far, I was ridiculously unimpressed.

As we got to the outfield concourse we were able to look out the back windows and see the city in the distance. It was a great view, but it could have been so much better had the roof and windows been opened. We quickly stopped at the center-field portion of the concourse and looked out across the expansive outfield, towards home plate. I suddenly had an idea and whipped the camera out, took a few pictures and then handed the camera to Brendan.

"What am I looking for?" he quickly asked.
"Look just past the third base dugout, towards home plate," Ryan told him, suddenly catching on.
"IT'S THE AQUARIUM," he said excitedly. "Thanks, Daddy."
The Aquarium

I might not have been able to get him to the actual aquarium, thanks to the assclown guest services attendant, but I could do this, which he was happy with. I smiled, put my hands on his shoulders and let him stand there for as long as he wanted. Even Ryan waited patiently for his little brother to satisfy his curiosity, which took all of about ten minutes.

The Family, With Brad Hand
As we walked close to the left-field section of the park we noticed fans lining up. After asking what was going on, we were told that every Sunday the Marlins have a player come out to meet, greet and take pictures with the fans. Ryan was hoping for star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, but he was in the day's line-up so it most likely wouldn't be him. I was hoping to meet flame-throwing pitcher Jose Fernandez, who we wanted to see on the mound but had pitched the previous night, so it wouldn't be him either. Either way, we were going to meet a player, get his autograph and have a picture taken with him, so it was a win, whomever it was. As it turned out we met pitcher Brad Hand, who was great with the fans, talked to the kids and happily signed an autograph and took a picture with us.

Once we got our picture taken and moved away from the line Ryan uttered the words I knew were coming, but hadn't heard yet.

"I'm hungry, when are we going to eat?"

Concessions:
A Must Visit In Marlins Park

I had been waiting for Ryan to make his announcement and was surprised it had taken this long. I had done some research on the ballpark and knew exactly where I wanted to go, but had been keeping an eye out along our walk to see if anything else jumped out at me. Sadly I was disappointed in the array of food choices along our walk. I had seen the requisite dogs, burgers, popcorn, peanuts and sodas, but there was no craft beer stations and nothing indicative of Miami at the stands. Thankfully I knew just where I wanted to go and was sort of relieved when there was nothing else that made me change my mind, though it was another strike against the experience to not have more choices.

"There! That's where we need to go," I heard Ryan call from about ten feet ahead.

I just smiled; he and I were on the same wave-length as he stood directly under a sign reading "TASTE OF MIAMI."
Guess Who's Hungry?

A Whole Hallway Of Cuban Foods
Tucked in the left-field corner, behind the concourse, is a hallway of its own, completely dedicated to the culinary treats that are indicative to Miami. This is exactly what we look for in each city and here it was, all in one hallway. The choices were plentiful: "Don Cameron," which offers salmon minuta sandwiches, oysters by the half dozen, conch fritters, ceviche (a fish dish made with fresh citrus, onions, salt and cilantro) and plantains; "The Latin American Grille" will press you a fresh Cuban sandwich (ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread), a media noche sandwich (a variation of the Cuban, where the difference is the soft, egg bread) and mariquitas (Cuban plantain chips); "Panna CafĂ©" serves mini taquenos (a bread roll with white queso cheese) , mini empanadas (a calzone-like fried dough roll with meats, cheeses and vegetables inside), mini arepitas (which resemble zeppoles), and "Papa Llega y Pon"; where you will find pan con lechon (a Cuban version of a flavorful pulled pork sandwich, on Cuban bread), orden de lechon (the pork without the roll), tamales and chicharron (a pork dish where various cuts are deep fried and served with a dipping sauce).
Lunch Time

It all smelled so good and we didn't know where to start first, but in the end it was decided to pick out a few things and have a sample of many, rather than something from just one. We chose a Cuban sandwich, conch fritters and Mariquitas, grabbed some sodas and a Corona (it was the only thing even resembling a Latin beer in the vicinity), and stood at a high top to enjoy our feast. We were not disappointed.


Nicole Bites Into A Cuban Sandwich

Right off the bat I was a little wary of the sandwich, as I do not like pickles, but I figured I had to do it the proper way. I was very much surprised in that I got the flavor of the pickle, yet didn't even "feel" the consistency of it. The pork, salami, ham and cheese produced a sweet, savory, salty taste that came together nicely with the tang of the mustard and the dill of the pickles. Needless to say, I didn't want to have to share and was hoping there would be a piece left. No such luck; they all felt the same as I did about the sandwich.



Brendan Tries a Conch fritter
Next up were the conch fritters, which resembled hush puppies you would get at a seafood restaurant down south, which we all loved. A conch is a type of shellfish, whose meat is used in many dishes around the world. A lot of folks like only the white portion of the meat, but it's all edible. These particular fritters were made with eggs, minced onion and garlic, Dijon mustard, some cilantro and lime juice, deep fried and served with a cilantro tartar sauce. Unlike the pickles, I would not eat the tartar sauce, as I find it amazingly unappealing, so I got myself a side of spicy cocktail sauce, for dipping. The fritters were warm, moist, soft and tender and had a flaky, doughy texture. You could taste the seafood, but it was not an overpowering flavor and was nicely accentuated with the spices and the cocktail sauce. Brendan was not a huge fan, but he had a few and then gave the rest to Ryan. Before I knew what had happened Ryan had plowed through the remaining three and was smiling like the Cheshire Cat, knowing I wanted one. Just as I was about to chastise him for not asking if anyone else wanted one, he produced one from behind his back and handed it to Nicole and I, which essentially kept him out of trouble.

Lastly, we had a basket of mariquitas in front of us. Mariquitas are the island form of potato chips, they are made from plantains and a part of the banana family, though they are smaller and more difficult to peel than a banana. They are more starchy than sweet and are used in a variety of Latin-American dishes, but are considered a snack as well. To be served in place of chips; or French fries, the plantain is usually cut length-wise, set in cold water for about 10-20 minutes and then flash fried. They can either be eaten plain, or served with a spicy sauce. Ours came sans sauce, and were to be eaten in place of fries, with the sandwich. Once again, I found myself staring into a food I didn't particularly like, a banana-type product, but my darling wife convinced me that it wasn't the same, especially if it was prepared this way.

Once again, I was surprised that the plantain was not what I thought it was going to be. Being fried it didn't have the overpowering banana-type flavor and consistency, but was much more crisp and the flavor was subtle, yet appealing. After eating the first few I noticed I was getting the "stink-eye" from the other three, apparently I was eating more than my share and they were quick to let me know. I quietly excused myself to get another beer and when I got back I found my loving family had saved me exactly one. The glare they had given me was returned, as I popped the last chip into my mouth and started laughing. We all agreed the food was fabulous and we were glad there was nothing else that could have distracted us from it...for five minutes.

Marlins Dog
"Hey, look at that," Ryan said, pointing to a foot-long hot dog, being hailed as the "Marlins Dog" and covered in lettuce, onions, tomato, salsa and Pico De Gallo.

"You just ate," Nicole said, incredulously.
"Are ya new?" I asked her. "You've seen him eat."
"Welcome to life on the road with me," he proudly responded.
"I want to eat too, but I want pizza," Brendan informed us, trying to keep up with his older brother.
"Later for both of you," I said. "C'mon, the others should be here and we said we'd meet them by the Home Plate gate."

As we walked back towards where we would meet Michael, Hilary and Zoey, Nicole determined she needed to charge her iPad and the boys had to go to the bathroom. Luckily for us, there were quite a few docking/charging stations for electronic devices at our particular gate. Nicole ran off to the ladies room, the boys found a "Kids' Zone" to keep them occupied and I was left alone with the ipad and my beer, for a few minutes of "quiet."

My quiet didn't last long; within five minutes both boys came rushing back, complaining that the Kids' Zone was too "little kid" and Nic had gotten back from the ladies room. Just as the ipad finished charging, in sauntered Michael, Hillary and Zoey, completing our party and allowing us to hang out and talk about what we had seen so far.

Starting Line-Up and The Game:
Zoey, Michael, Hillary, Ryan, Me, Nicole and Brendan

Jim Kulhawy
Nicole Kulhawy
Ryan Kulhawy
Brendan Kulhawy
Michael Kambour
Hillary Kambour
Zoey Kambour

"So, what do you think of our park?" Michael wanted to know.
"It's interesting, isn't it?" Hillary laughed.
"That's one way to describe it," I laughed.
"Not what I was hoping for," Ryan chimed in. "But the food was good. By the way, when can I get that hot dog?"
"After the first inning," I told him. "Let's go sit down."

As the seven of us took our seats Zoey was telling us she had bought a sweatshirt from the team store, because she was afraid she was going to be cold. Ryan and I just look at one another, incredulously.

"How could you be cold?" he needed to know. "It's over 80 degrees out side and it's 75 in here. Cold is where we were yesterday morning."
"No," Michael countered, with a laugh; "That's freezing."
"Freezing might be Boston, in January," he countered. "This is gorgeous."
"Let it go," I told him. "We're in the minority here."

At this point in the young season the Marlins were 4-1, and atop the National League East. They had been playing well and we were all hopeful for a home team win as starter Nathan Eovaldi took the mound for the first inning. Eovaldi was already 1-1 on the season, but he had pitched well. We were further encouraged by the fact the Marlins had outscored their opponents 30-14 so far, meaning the offense was producing as well.

"Don't forget, you said I could have that hot dog after the first inning," Ryan reminded me.
"I get pizza," Brendan chimed in.
"Both of you watch the game."
"But I'm hungry," Ryan whined.
"Don't say a word, or it'll be after the fifth inning," I warned him.
"A word," the little PITA whispered, laughing.
"Fifth inning," I said, firmly.

That shut him up.

First Pitch

The game moved along at a nice pace; the Padres singled in the first, but that was all, while the Marlins went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. We were watching the game, rooting for the Marlins and having fun, but there was very little to cheer about early on.

By the bottom of the fourth there was still no score, the Padres had put four men on, with three singles and an error and the Marlins had not done much better, with one base runner on a solitary single.



Marlins left-fielder, Christian Yelich, led off the bottom of the fourth with a triple and when Giancarlo Stanton came to bat the crowd noise picked up. Everyone was looking for the big blast from the Miami outfielder, and it almost seemed a letdown when he "only" singled to left, but it did plate a run and give the Marlins a 1-0 lead. We, of course, went wild and started hugging, high-fiving and shouting. It was obvious baseball passion ran in this family.

The fifth inning came and went, with the Marlins still holding a slim 1-0 lead, when Ryan turned to look at me with an expression that could only signal one thing...FOOD. Off I trudged to the stand behind our section, expecting to find it full and having to miss an inning while waiting for a pizza, the hot dog, a beer and some soda. I was very pleasantly surprised when I found no line and returned to my seat before the Padres first batter had two strikes on him. Having no fans in the building was certainly a blessing this time.

I handed Ryan his dog and Brendan his pizza as I settled in to watch the sixth inning.

"He's going to eat that whole thing by himself?" Zoey asked.
"Before you can blink," I told her. "By the way, Ryan, I better get a bite of that before it's gone."
"I make no promises," he laughed before attempting to take his first bite."
"Hand it over," I said. "I'll have a bite now."

Wounded, he handed over the dog. My first thought was "salad on a hot dog does not seem very appetizing," but I was wrong. The dog was very flavorful, but the tomatoes, onions, salsa and Pico De Gallo added a tremendous taste, a zesty "kick," while the cold lettuce added a "cooling" touch. I was, once again, very impressed with a dish at this ballpark.

Eating Again
Bren Gets His Pizza
"Oh my God," I heard Hillary exclaim from my left.

While I was savoring my mouthful, and had my eyes closed, the "bottomless pit" had devoured the remaining 3/4 of his dog and was eyeing Brendan's pizza.

"Not a chance, unless he doesn't finish it," I told him.

Annoyed, but still keeping an eye on his brother, Ryan sunk into his seat to watch the game. There was still little to get excited at, as neither team scored in the sixth and Miami was still leading 1-0, but that was about to change.

The Great Sea Creature Race
As we talked between innings the Marlins had a fan favorite event beginning, "The Great Sea Creatures Race." There are many takes around MLB on this crowd-pleaser; in Washington D.C. caricatures of former presidents, with over-sized heads, race around the field, while in Milwaukee it's different kinds of sausages that make the fans go crazy, but in Miami they have chosen to have different sea creatures race around the outside of the playing field. "Bob the Shark", "Spike the Sea Dragon", "Julio the Octopus" and "Angel the Stone Crab" line up on the center-field warning track and race one another to the third base dugout.

                     This immediately made me poke Brendan, who had dozed off from
Wake Up, Brenny
Angel The Stone Crab Wins
such a long day, as I knew he wouldn't want to miss something "animal oriented." Around the outfield they went, each creature taking turns with the lead. Brendan decided he was going to root for the crab, as he determined crabs would be the slowest, therefore the underdog (don't ask me how he came to this conclusion, I have no idea), and into the stretch it was Angel in the lead, followed by Bob and Spike, with Julio bringing up the rear. Much to Brendan's happiness Angel won, and he was in such a great mood he gave the last slice of his pizza to Ryan, who promptly wolfed it down in two bites.

The seventh inning opened with Padres' lead-off hitter Yolander Alonso striking out.

"Eight outs to go," Ryan hopefully exclaimed, right before Will Venable and Tommy Medica singled.
"Shhhh, you'll jinx them," Brendan said.
"Not to worry," Ryan told his brother, as Yasmani Grandal grounded out for the second out of the inning. "Seven more and we're in the win column."

At this point Alexi Amarista was sent to pinch hit for pitcher Ian Kennedy, and when he launched a fly ball over the right-field wall for a three-run-pinch-hit-homer, the rest of us gave Ryan the death stare.

"I told you not to break the karma, bigmouth," Brendan hissed at his brother.

Ryan just looked at his shoes.

No further damage was done, as Eovaldi got Evereth Cabrera to ground out, but the Pads now had a 3-1 lead.

The Marlins would cut the lead to 3-2 when Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled with two outs and Jeff Baker doubled him home, but the euphoria was short-lived as San Diego took a 4-2 lead, in the eighth, on a Yonder Alonso sacrifice fly.

The Marlins did nothing in their half of the eighth and kept the Padres off the board in the top of the ninth, so with the bottom of the ninth coming up the Pads held onto the 4-2 lead.

Padres closer, Houston Street, came on to attempt to finish off the Marlins in the ninth and we did everything we could to will base-runners, and runs, to the home team, but to no avail. No amount of yelling, screaming, cheering, cajoling or pleading would stop Street from putting the Marlins down in order, securing the game for San Diego, 4-2.

Final Score

Padres 4, Marlins 2
Kennedy (W) 1-1
Eovaldi (L) 1-2
Street (S) 2


Post-Game Wrap-Up:

"Well, that sucked," Ryan said to no one in particular.
"Maybe you should have kept your mouth shut," Brendan shot back.
"How is this my fault?" he wanted to know.
"They were doing just fine 'til you started counting outs," Brendan reminded him.
"He's not wrong," I interjected.
That shut him up, though not for long.
"What are we doing for dinner?"

The rest of us just looked at him and shook our heads.

"You guys come back to our place and we'll have some dinner, drinks and dessert," Michael told us.
"Sounds like a plan to me," I said, thanking them for the generosity.
"We'll meet you back at the house and relax before you guys have to head back to Estero," Hillary said.
"Works for us," Nicole told them, as the rest of us nodded in agreement.

Michael, Hillary and Zoey headed out, while we shuffled the boys off to the bathroom before putting them in the car. All of a sudden we heard a motor-like sound above us.

"What's that?" Brendan asked, sincerely.
"You gotta be kidding me," Ryan interjected.
"Son of a bitch," I said loud enough to turn some heads.

Nicole just laughed and kept walking.

Now It Feels Like A Ballpark
As we looked up, we saw the roof beginning to open and after running to the men's room we sat down to watch it complete the fifteen minute process, changing the whole look, feel and dynamic of the park.

Gone was the closed-in, mall-like feel of the entire afternoon. Sunlight bathed the park while a strong, fresh breeze blew in through the now open facility. The downtown skyline looked a lot closer when not looking through a closed glass window.



"I can't believe they leave it closed, as opposed to this," I said to Nicole
"Well, they don't want people getting rained on if it can be avoided," she countered.
"Being in the elements is part of the game, besides it takes 15 minutes to open or close it," I reminded her.
"It does bring a completely different feel to the park," she agreed.
"You ain't just whistlin' Dixie," I laughed, quoting one of her favorite cartoons. "C'mon, let's go before I get even more annoyed."

After navigating through post-game traffic we found ourselves back at the Kambour residence about 45 minutes later. Michael had already poured a cocktail for himself and Hillary, and generously offered one to us as well. Ryan, Brendan and Zoey went out to walk the family dog and then Michael would cook up some of his favorite burgers with plenty of salad and sides. Zoey took Ryan out to pick up some dessert which turned out to be some of the best ice cream we ever had, from a local shop, and before we knew where the evening had gone, it was time to be heading back upstate to Nicole's parents'.

The ride home was uneventful; Alligator Alley didn't hold quite the same "mystique" in the dark as it did on the way down, especially since Brendan knew he wasn't going to see any alligators. We made small talk for about an hour, before the boys nodded off. Everyone agreed they loved the Cuban food, but Brendan didn't like the conch fritters that much. We also were all in agreement that we were not particularly fond of Marlins Park; Nicole and Bren didn't find it as distasteful as Ryan and I did, but they had less to judge it against. Ryan ranked it slightly better than Cleveland, but that was as high as he would go. We both agreed it felt like being in a mall and just didn't feel "baseball-y," was the only way we could describe it. Nicole thought it would have had a much different feel had the roof been open and I concurred, but I most likely would never find out as 90% of the games are played in a closed environment and this box was checked, since I am not a "Florida" person. I couldn't envision myself back there any time soon, but one never knows. So I'll keep an open mind and maybe someday they'll have another chance to change my opinion.

"Are you ready to fly to Chicago?" Ryan yawned, referencing our summer trip, which would take us from New Jersey to Chicago, to Milwaukee, to Iowa, into Minnesota and back to Chicago before flying home.
"Can we forget about airplanes for the next week," I asked. "I don't have to get back on one for six more days."
"C'mon, it wasn't that bad," he chided me.
"No, it wasn't. But can I take one step at a time?"
"You realize he's never going to stop busting your ass?" she laughed.
"Only when you're around," I told her, hoping this was true.
"Right, Ry?" I called back. "Ryan?"

The only sound coming from the back seat was a soft, deep breathing. Both boys were exhausted after having a full, busy day and were now asleep. Nicole and I smiled at one another, the first two days of the family vacation were over and both were fantastic. We headed north, toward Estero, ready for sleep ourselves.

Next Stop:

July 18, 2014
Chicago, IL
US Cellular Field
Houston Astros Vs Chicago White Sox