When the first pitch of tonight’s Florida Marlins season opener rolls off Josh Johnson’s fingertips, the countdown clock starts ticking on the final 81 home games at the stadium formerly known as Joe Robbie. For as maligned as the Miami Dolphins’ cavernous stadium is for its far-from-friendly baseball configuration, it will always be a field of dreams for fans that witnessed myriad magical moments throughout the muggy South Florida summers since 1993. There is one final chapter to be written before the soon-to-be Miami Marlins shed their “Florida” moniker and unveil a new brand, new uniforms and an ultramodern jewel of a ballpark 14 miles down Interstate 95 at the site of the old Orange Bowl.
Being a Marlins season-ticket holder from the inaugural game through 2008 (when I relocated to Seattle), I was fortunate to experience some of the most memorable moments of my adult life inside the stadium formerly known as Pro Player. The new climate-controlled, retractable-roof stadium will be a luxurious experience for fans who have endured rain delays and oppressive humidity for nearly 20 years. I, for one, cannot wait to visit South Florida next season to witness the launch of Marlins 2.0. It will be the beginning of a new era for players and fans, but one thing missing in the shiny new complex will be the echoes of past seasons.
I was fortunate to have a handful of amazing experiences at the stadium formerly known as Dolphins Stadium. Opening Day 1993 was special because it’s where the magic carpet ride began. When an aging Charlie Hough floated a knuckler for strike one on the Marlins’ very first pitch, you would have thought the crowd was responding to the final out of a World Series victory. Little did anyone know, that franchise-defining roar would be heard again only four and a half years later.
I clearly remember taking my then-three-year-old son to his first Marlins game that initial season. Not for the final score or a memorable play, but because there was an hour rain delay. My son was more excited about jumping in puddles on the concourse than heading back to our seats once the tarp was rolled off the field. There was also the first interleague series with the New York Yankees – a game where my son wondered aloud why there were more Yankee fans cheering than Marlins fans. As only a New York fan can do, the one sitting next to my impressionable son replied: “Because yoose guys suck.” My son seethed when the Yankees took the lead late, but ultimately got the last laugh when the
Marlins scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to win. He may have been the loudest fan cheering. He also heard a stream of unsavory language he’d never heard before, too! Some other memorable moments I’ll treasure forever:
- Attending every home playoff game the Marlins ever played. In ’97, I would get to the stadium two hours before game-time, with a scorebook in one hand and an enormous LaSpada sub in the other. Watching batting practice never tasted so good.
- Enjoying all 15 of Livan Hernandez’s strikeouts – thanks to umpire Eric Gregg’s more-than-generous strike zone – against the Braves in Game 5 of the 1997 NLCS. And boy did Marlins fans give Chipper Jones the “Larry” treatment something fierce that entire series.
- Tailgating during the ’97 World Series and playing catch with my then-seven-year-old son before Game 6. I was able to get extra tickets at the last minute for my son and wife to join me. I was so looking forward to sharing the Series-clinching win with my family, but Kevin Brown wasn’t crisp and Chad Ogea was lights out. It was memorable, too, because our seats were in the upper deck, dead center, 25 rows up — or what seemed like a half-mile from home plate, which was quite possible at cavernous Land Shark Stadium. The 67,000+ was the largest crowd to attend a World Series game since 1959.
- Surviving and reveling in the next night’s classic Game 7 finale. Bobby Bonilla’s blast. Craig Counsel’s double. Edgar Renteria’s soft liner glancing off Charles Nagy’s glove and into the highlight reels forever. Jim Leyland pointing to his wife and hugging Wayne Huizenga. Livan kneeling on the grass screaming to the heavens. And I was there to witness it live. The startled Indians fans sitting in the row in front of us thought this was their year — they couldn’t fathom defeat. (Their nightmare was the second-most-memorable moment of my life behind the birth of my son.) I was one of the last 50 people to leave the stadium that night. I just didn’t want the moment to end … and neither did the ushers or police.
- Relishing the championship run in 2003 with Trader Jack McKeon jumping aboard midseason and free-agent signee Ivan Rodriguez and the trade-deadline re-acquisition of Mr. Marlin, Jeff Conine, spurring the Fish into the post season. I dragged my wife and son to every game of the final homestand against the Phillies and Mets because I could sense destiny was manifesting. A hard-fought, three-game sweep of the Phils was followed by a playoff-clinching 4-3 victory against the Mets on the final Friday of the season. The celebration on the field carried over into a tent outside the stadium, where players, coaches and management addressed a crowd of several hundred. Pudge professed that night, “this is just the beginning, we’re going to win it all.” And thanks to his season-defining tag at the plate to clinch the NLDS against the Giants and some divine intervention against the hapless Cubs, the Marlins were brimming with confidence heading into the World Series against the Yankees.
- Seeing what most television audiences didn’t during Game 4 of the World Series. When Roger Clemens walked off the field at the end of the 7th inning, the entire stadium understood this could be his final game and gave him a three-minute standing ovation. Goose bumps. And the night got even more goose-bumpy when Alex Gonzalez’s 12-inning laser shot cleared the fence for a Series-changing Marlins victory. My son and I were hoarse for two days.
- Witnessing Anibal Sanchez’s no-hitter on September 6, 2006. My wife, a casual fan at best, had no idea how significant the feat was until the last two innings. The crowd of 20,000 or so was deafening. More goose bumps, and a memory I’ll never forget.
I’ll also never forget Muscle Boy, the Golden Girls or the song “Everybody’s Doing the Fish (yeah, yeah, yeah)!” Nor will I forget the mermaid experiment, and for all the wrong reasons. Please leave the cheerleaders behind with the Dolphins!
Most of all, I will never forget the “F” on the Marlins caps and jerseys. It has been the one true constant (with a few cosmetic tweaks) in the team’s 19-year history. So, Marlins fans, enjoy the last dance with the awkward and often snotty football stadium that really didn’t want to share its grass with baseball. One thing the ol’ girl should be thankful for, though, is without the Marlins, she never would have experienced a championship season. She was built for Dolphins glory, but has witnessed only Marlins magic.