Miami's Vice: Marlins Stadium In Context

The hard truth about the stately, and maybe a little bit tacky, new pleasure dome in Miami.
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You know, baseball things.

Photographs by Aaron Gordon.

The retractable roof at Marlins Park will be closed for about 80 percent of the team's home games. The roof is there because Miami spends most of baseball season awash in flash rainstorms. It's retractable because Miami is to be experienced outdoors—on rooftops resembling sets for top-shelf alcohol commercials, on beaches where women that men would enthusiastically gnaw off limbs see naked are already tanning in the nearest possible state. That's the problem, as conventional wisdom has it: there are just so many other things to do in South Florida besides going to a baseball game. The Marlins may have a new ballpark, but they face the same challenge they've had for their entire existence: convincing people in South Florida that the best thing to do with their night is to hang out and watch a baseball game. Indoors.

Until the last two decades, stadiums were mostly slabs of concrete in which as many people as possible would watch a live sporting event. Franchise profitability was largely determined by winning percentage, which “went up and down with the fortunes of life” as the New York Giants owner Tim Mara observed in 1935. This is the great catch-22 of modern sports: owners are businessmen and businessmen hate unpredictability, but unpredictability—season to season, game to game, moment to moment—is precisely what makes sports interesting. It can't be arbitraged or cushioned by subsidy. It is the thing itself.

But the games have to get played somewhere. Owners, most of whom have not stumbled across their vast fortunes by accident, came up with a formula for predictable profits, something that could be arbitraged and subsidized in a way that the games can't. Camden Yards and the other new stadiums of the early '90s were test cases for a new model that went, roughly: public funds→ new stadium→profit. Owners thought they had struck gold; the Orioles haven’t made the playoffs since 1997, but Camden Yards was the fastest ballpark ever to 50 million customers. No longer would owners have to sweat out a playoff run as it related to their bottom line.

In the late 1980’s, one of the best investments out there was a pro sports team with an old stadium. The sequence of events that usually followed has been well documented: a threat to move, a quote from another city’s mayor vaguely referencing the city’s desire for a professional team, a study commissioned by the owner claiming a gazillion or so dollars in local economic benefit, the owner’s pinky finger rising wickedly to the corner of his mouth. And after that: franchise after franchise got their stadiums completely funded by tax breaks and public subsidies. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf set the precedent for both public funding for stadiums and most-dick-thing-for-a-billionaire-to-say in the mid-'80s when negotiating for a new Comiskey Park. He shot down a proposal for two-thirds public funding by replying “I was thinking no-thirds, three-thirds.” Not a good look, but his thuggery still came to pass. And just as your net wealth would improve if local taxpayers built you a new million-dollar home, so too did franchise valuations. A team's fortunes were no longer strictly dependent on whether the team won or lost; owners would win regardless.

Marlins Park is the logical endpoint of this business model, and possibly the logical endpoint of a bunch of other things besides. It’s much easier to imagine Marlins Park emerging from the ground like one of the aliens from "War of the Worlds" than it is to picture it rising thanks to the efforts of a few hundred construction workers. Beyond its pastel grandiosity and hulking mass, though, there's a broader sense in which Marlins Park cannot be compared to places like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. It has a fundamentally different purpose. Fenway and Wrigley were designed as places to watch the attraction; Marlins Park is the attraction itself. You can watch a baseball game there, but you certainly don't have to.

***

At Marlins Park, it takes a long time before it becomes clear that you are in fact at a baseball game, and even then you’re not quite sure. For first-timers, there’s something baffling about pulling off the highway and seeing women in scant clothing, holding signs over their heads, pacing back and forth, flirting with passers-by hoping they will park in their lot (so to speak).

Marlins Park proper doesn’t distinguish between the type of events it hosts, since it has no markings or signage of any kind. A marching band playing outside the main entrance also lends confusion as to where you are—or what century you’re in—and the mascots-per-capita ratio is frankly Disneyworldesque. The first clue about the purpose of your visit is a giant ‘M’ of the Marlins logo, which sticks sideways out of the ground as if it had fallen from the sky like a giant day-glo murder weapon in an especially baroque "CSI: Miami" episode. (Other explanations: I was looking at it from the wrong direction and the Sigma chapter of the University of Miami was kind enough to sponsor a sculpture, or I simply don’t get this particular type of art.)

It's not until entering the stadium that the full scope of the Marlins' shiny, effervescent Willy Wonka-fied vision becomes clear. The outfield walls is famously neon green; the trapezoidal video screen dominating right field churns almost constantly with bright, seizure-inducing colors; there is the home run thingy, about which more in a minute. Fortunately, if you need a break from all the bright colors, there’s a baseball game to watch. As patrons—this seems more appropriate than ‘fans’, given how many of the people in attendance are dressed as if their $12 beers are merely a pre-game refreshment before a night out clubbing—take their seats, the PA announcer welcomes you to "celebrate tonight’s festivities here at Marlins Park;" at the game I attended, he also reminded fans that there would be an LL Cool J concert right after an upcoming game against the Mets. Presumably, the pre-gaming crowd will stay past the 5th inning that night.

Thanks to some possibly-illegal public funding, Marlins Park represents not just a new zenith in casual baseball game attendance, but a fresh financial start for the franchise. Still, there's a sense of desperation behind all this bright bigness. From its self-consciously Sophisticated art-saturated grounds to its overdetermined and unself-consciously tasteless domination of the impoverished and low-slung Little Havana neighborhood, it's all more than a little bit much.

And yes, there's the Home Run Feature. No matter how much Heath Bell underperforms his contract or how many medianoche sandwiches Carlos Zambrano demolishes, the Home Run Feature will always be more disappointing than the Marlins themselves. After ten minutes in Marlins Park, the Feature doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it does when viewed on YouTube video or in picture, mostly because it’s quite in keeping with the rest of the park.

I don’t begrudge Feature creator Red Grooms or the Marlins for trying something batshit, but the weird over-bigness and howling extraneousness of the Home Run Feature is of a piece with the deeper desperation and broader uncoolness of the Marlins Stadium experience. The Marlins are begging Floridians, in the most sophisticated wheedle they can muster, to notice them, and it isn't quite working yet. Where most new stadiums enjoy a multi-year attendance boost, the Marlins couldn’t even sell out the stadium for a week. The error of Marlins Park is not being hyper-Miami, or even those psychedelic aquatic parabolas in center field. It’s forgetting that the most successful stadiums are compliments to the product on the field, not replacements for or distractions from. So far through the 2012 season, the two biggest attendance jumps over last year belong to the Miami Marlins (the only team with a new stadium) and the co-Floridian Tampa Bay Rays, who drew the undisputed short straw in the baseball stadium world but are in their fifth year of competitiveness in the toughest division in baseball. It's easier to imagine the Rays keeping that momentum than it is the Marlins. They're better, and better-managed, even though they play in a stadium that's lit, as the Yakkin' About Baseball guys had it, like an Underworld movie.

The Marlins have gone all-in with their strategy, and their new building, but history—as much as any of Jeffrey Loria's gaudy and eye-searing art, suggests that it won’t work. Humans have been going to sporting events for millennia, and it has rarely been to see a building.

***

Stadiums of the Roman era were not all that different from those built in the early modern period like Fenway. They were all designed for one purpose: to cram paying spectators into one square block to watch a game. But around the birth of Fenway, a great worry swept across the sports-owner caste: fans of the day were able to learn of the results of events through a budding technology called the telegraph. Owners everywhere panicked; if fans could hang at a bar and get the results sent to them, why would they willingly pay and travel to watch a game?

The previous paragraph could be rewritten to replace “telegraph” with every communication innovation henceforth; radio, television, color television, cable, HDTV, etc. Needless to say, all such fears have for the most part not come to fruition. People like watching games unfold, and they like doing it in the company of thousands of other people. This was true for the Romans, it was true for pre-war baseball fans, and it’s true today, as stadiums experience record attendance despite an array of attractive alternatives, from Miami's beaches to any given living room's 40-odd-inch HD display. In most modern stadiums, attending games is a significant monetary and time investment, and the view from your seat is the worst it has ever been compared to your seat on the couch. Owners, interestingly, have coped by building bigger, actually larger, fucking ridiculously huge screens, because with HDTVs in many homes and bars, fans obviously go to the stadium to watch a giant TV.

Nevertheless, fans still go by the millions, because we like winning together. As common wisdom has long held, and as a study by the economist Michael Davis shows, team success leads to greater attendance, not the other way around. Although the old adage is about misery, success loves company, too. Fans have historically supported competitive teams in beautiful and lousy stadiums alike, but not so much a losing ones, anywhere.

To predict the Marlins’ future, consider the ultimate stadium-as-rejuvenator. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 and last saw a playoff team in 1997, averaged over 40,000 fans a game through the 2000 season. Attendance has steadily dropped off since; last season the Orioles averaged 21,672 fans per game, well short of the American League average of 28,812. The namesake of the Stadium Model of Profitability is a great place to watch some good baseball, but now looks more like a financial Band-Aid for an inferior on-field product.

Of course, Camden Yards also pioneered a much greater trend towards retro aesthetics. You know what this looks like, because it's what virtually every new stadium built since Camden Yards looks like: brick-and-steel exterior and asymmetrical outfield dimensions with at least one abnormal corner. These are features common to older (and now mostly demolished) stadiums that had to fit within one city block. The retro-stadium movement wasn’t popular solely because people are suckers for nostalgia—although baseball fans are indeed the suckiest of suckers for it—but also because retro stadiums were engineered around the field of play. Compared to their multi-purpose predecessors, retro parks featured upper decks closer to the field, lower decks snuggly wrapped around the foul lines, and seats angled towards home plate. For all the architectural nods and quirks, the wisdom in replicating older stadiums such as Ebbets Field was that it acknowledged the most basic and enduring reason fans come to stadiums in the first place: to watch a game. The beauty of the new stadiums had something to do with architecture, but a lot to do with a purity of purpose: these stadiums were focused, modestly, on foregrounding the actual game down on the field. For all the other things that can be said about the new stadium in Little Havana, this can't be said about Marlins Park.

Marlins Park, ostentatious and brutally modernist, is the opposite of retro stadiums both in terms of aesthetics—which isn't a bad idea—and in its frank presentation of itself as a diversion from the field of play, which is a bad idea. The Marlins’ owners have historically ignored the fact that competitive teams draw crowds regardless of their home field; though the team spent aggressively this offseason, there's a long-standing trust deficit with fans owing to the way in which each of the Marlins two World Series wins was infamously and instantly blown up and sold off immediately post-victory. The Marlins will make money on this stadium, because there was so little financial risk involved for the owners, but the longer-term formula for team profitability is obvious. Marlins Park will never be the hottest party in Miami, but it could become home to a great baseball team. It's tough to get politicians and taxpayer money to subsidize that project, though, and it owners looking for an edifice to call their own may not want to admit that the greatest secret to profitability is a team that fans want to come see. It rises and falls with the fortunes of life. Tim Mara knew that in the '30s; Jeffrey Loria will either learn it or he won't.


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