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Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Cardinals don't dig Marlins' new digs

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- They built the ballpark. They stocked the fish tanks. They made sure the roof could open and close without getting stuck in traffic on I-95.

So on an Opening Night they'd fantasized about since LeBron James was in high school, those new and improved Miami Marlins thought they had it all covered.

Then the ever-inhospitable St. Louis Cardinals had to go and show up.

Marlins Pool
Purists in Miami may get a nightly culture clash between ballpark and baseball.

It was rude enough that The Other Team on Opening Night had to screw up the Marlins' New Year's party by scoring two runs off Josh Johnson before the evening was six hitters old. And then by threatening to become the first visiting team in history to have its pitcher -- in this case, emergency starter Kyle (Not To Be Mistaken for Chris Carpenter) Lohse -- throw a no-hitter in the first game at any team's new park.

But then, the Cardinals had to deliver the ultimate insult, by revealing that the whole Brazilian-dancer, lime-green, disco motif of Marlins Park wasn't quite their idea of ballpark architecture at its finest. Ouch!

"I just feel like, if it were up to me -- and it's not; nobody asked me, and I don't know why anybody would care about my opinion -- but if I was building a stadium, I'd try to build it as close to like an older, cozier park," said Lance Berkman, after the defending champs had finished off a 4-1 Opening Night win over the Fish on Wednesday night.

"Especially," Berkman went on, "if I was building something like this, because this is in a neighborhood, like those old ballparks were. This is not like on the side of some interstate. This is in the middle of a neighborhood. And I felt like those old neighborhood ballparks had sort of a coziness that this one doesn't necessarily have."

We probably could have mentioned at some point that the center-field fence in the Polo Grounds was like 850 feet from home plate. So "coziness" probably isn't the word Bobby Thomson would have used to describe it. But whatever. The last thing anyone would ever say after visiting Marlins Park is: "This place sure reminds me of the Polo Grounds."

There isn't a brick in sight. The color scheme isn't exactly earth-tonish. Music pounds from the night club in left field. And we've confirmed that the design for that retractable roof overhead definitely was NOT stolen from the blueprints of old Tiger Stadium.

Kyle Lohse
Kyle Lohse dealt with the park's party atmosphere by simply dealing on the mound.

That was never, ever what Jeffrey Loria and these Marlins had in mind. They wanted to build a cool, 21st-century park that dazzled the eyeballs. And they've built themselves a cool, 21st-century park that dazzles the eyeballs.

It's just possible that not every eyeball in the Americas will want to be dazzled quite the way this park attempts to dazzle them. Such as Lance Berkman's eyeballs, for instance.

"The thing about it is, if I was building a new ballpark," said the Cardinals' first baseman here in Year One of the post-Pujolsian era, "I think one of the things about baseball that people gravitate towards is nostalgia. I mean, that's why people love Wrigley Field and they love Fenway Park, because you can kind of step back in time.

"And I think what they've tried to do here is step forward in time. I mean, normally in baseball, you don't see cheerleaders at a baseball game. They were there tonight. You don't see flamenco dancers. They were there tonight. You don't see DJs and bands during the game. You saw that tonight. So there's a lot of things here where I think they're trying to advance the game. And I'm not sure that baseball fans embrace that kind of change."

But this park, his worldly media buddies informed him, was never aimed at your traditional, nostalgia-driven baseball fans. This was a park designed for THESE fans, for THIS market, for people who have a magnetic attraction to razzle, to dazzle, to pounding backbeats and blinding colors.

Nope. Lance Berkman was having none of that.

"I just think baseball fans are universal," he said. "It doesn't matter where they are. I understand appealing to the culture that you are trying to appeal to. But I just feel like baseball fans have sort of a universal craving for yesteryear, so to speak. And it's passed down from father to son. And people like to walk into the ballpark and remember. That's why they like all the old stadiums. That's part of baseball tradition."

Well, at some point, somebody had to attempt to build a whole new tradition, a whole new style, a whole new vibe, right? So why not the Marlins?

They'd firmly established that playing baseball in a shrine to Dan Marino wasn't going to pack 'em in. So why not try something completely different, even if it meant emptying the old paint box and splashing a bunch of colors never before seen in any ballpark ever constructed -- not in the 48 contiguous United States of America, anyway.

"You know," said Cardinals left fielder Matt Holiday, "I think I'd have chosen different colors. But then again, I'm not from Miami. I'm from Oklahoma."

And in Oklahoma, apparently, they don't have shades of green as flashy and bright as the shade of lime green you'll find adorning the fences and backdrops of Marlins Park.

"What? I didn't even know that was green," Berkman said from the next locker. "I think I do have a bass lure that color, though."

We're pretty sure that both in Oklahoma and near Berkman's Texas fishing holes, the ballparks also don't include nightclubs located about 20 feet behind the outfield fence, where the music throbs from first pitch to last -- and then for hours afterward. But this park has the Clevelander, livening up left field like it's never been livened before. And that, Holliday conceded, wasn't all bad.

"I've got music going all night to kind of cheer me up after I've gone up there and struck out," Holliday laughed. "So I thought that was good. ... It keeps me from having to listen to knuckleheads in the upper deck."

At least knuckleheads in the upper deck are a baseball tradition that's universal to all parks. But the only criticism of this park that was universal to both clubhouses had nothing to do with the volume of the music, the color of anybody's bass lures or the absence of nostalgic homages to Wrigley Field.

No, this was an actual baseball issue. And we could describe it in five words: This park is frigging HUGE.

The fences in the alleys are almost as distant as Palm Beach. The center-field fence is 418 feet away. And despite rumors that the ball would fly with the roof open, that roof was wide open Wednesday night, and the park still managed to swallow every majestic fly ball that sailed into its midst.

Giancarlo Stanton
Marlins Park's huge dimensions could make 2012 a long year for Giancarlo Stanton.

Heck, it was even too humongous for The Strongest Man in Baseball, Marlins masher Giancarlo Stanton. He pounded TWO 400-foot space-shuttle launches out there into the center-field ozone -- only to have both of them come down in Jon Jay's glove.

"I thought that first one was definitely gone," said Kyle Lohse, who was only starting this game because Chris Carpenter is out with a nerve condition. "But once I saw that, I thought, 'OK, I think I might want to make them hit it to center.'"

"If they don't move the fences in after this year, I'd be surprised," Berkman said. "And I'm going two years as the over-under on that."

Not that that's a prop bet we've seen on anybody's tote board in Vegas. But it's bound to become a topic as this season rampages along -- a much bigger topic than anything we've mentioned so far, in fact.

The Marlins haven't just constructed a ballpark, after all. They've constructed what, on paper, looks like one of the best lineups in the league. But if Opening Night is any indication, their park might do a better job of neutralizing their lineup than those pitching staffs they're about to face.

"You can't judge a ballpark from one day," insisted the manager, Mr. Ozzie Guillen. "We can't."

Oh yeah? Well, maybe he can't. But the visiting team had no problem doing it.

"It's the biggest ballpark in the game," Berkman said. "And people have tried that big-ballpark deal, and it never works. Detroit moved the fences in. New York (i.e., the Mets) moved the fences in. I mean, there's a reason why it's 330-375-400 (in most parks). That's a fair baseball game. You try to get too outrageous, and you end up with something that I think is going to be detrimental to their ballclub. I mean, Stanton hit two balls that probably were two home runs. And they were both outs. And we won the game."

So would the Marlins have won this game if both of those rockets had given Stanton a chance to practice his home-run trots? We'll never know. But in a different park, with different dimensions, at least the home team wouldn't have gone into the seventh inning without a hit. And you have to think the first sellout crowd in Marlins Park history would have been all for that.

But Guillen wasn't buying into that logic, either.

"It wasn't the park. Everything was Lohse," the manager said. "He kept guys off balance. To be honest with you, I wish Carpenter would have pitched."

That was a joke, of course. But for the folks who came spinning in from South Beach, it was one of the few giggles they would get all night.

They came not just for an open-house party, but to see their new-look baseball team rock the house. Instead, those no-fun St. Louis Cardinals had to drop by and ruin everything.

"Yeah, I know they're a little disappointed that we won," said Cardinals leadoff dynamo Rafael Furcal. "But hey, they've got 161 more games, right?"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter .