When the Miami Marlins take the field in their spanking new $550 million palace in April, they'll have a new lease on life, not to mention a new name. In a sense, it will be the rebirth of the franchise.
The long-awaited new ballpark, which is being built on the site of the Orange Bowl in Miami's Little Havana, is 75 percent complete. It will be more than ready for Opening Day 2012.
"When I walked into the new ballpark today, I looked around and said, 'Wow!'" Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said on Wednesday as he looked out at sparsely filled Sun Life Stadium, where his team now plays. "It's certainly a dream come true."
Because the City of Miami, in conjunction with the team, is financing the stadium, changing the name is logical.
"It's what should be done, and that's what it's going to be -- the Miami Marlins," said Loria, who's owned the National League team since 2002 when he sold the Montreal Expos to Major League Baseball, then purchased the Marlins from John Henry. Henry, in turn, bought the Boston Red Sox.
Seeing this desperately needed retractable-roof ballpark near completion, with the Miami skyline in the distance past left field, brings back a memory from over a decade ago, shortly after Loria became the Expos' majority owner.
That's when he invited me to Montreal to hear his plans for a new ballpark to replace dreadful Olympic Stadium, where the Expos played. He drove me to a site downtown where he hoped to build Labatt Park.
That was the first time I met the successful art dealer from New York City. He seemed more interested in Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and baseball history than Pablo Picasso. He kept saying "We cannot continue in Olympic Stadium."
The new park in Montreal never happened and baseball there failed. The Expos, of course, were eventually moved to Washington and became the Nationals.
"That's a distant memory," Loria said, as he watched his current team take batting practice for a game against Atlanta. "We would have loved to have done it [in Montreal], but it didn't work out."
When Loria took over the Marlins, it seemed like he was moving from one bad situation to another. The Marlins were playing in a stadium built for the NFL Dolphins. The inconvenient location kept fans away, not to mention the daily threat of rain, plus oppressive heat and humidity in the open-air facility.
Previous owners talked about the urgent need for a baseball-only, retractable-room venue, but the roadblocks were enormous.
Baseball lifer Jack McKeon was surprisingly hired by Loria as manager early in the 2003 season and guided the Marlins to a World Series championship against the Yankees.
That helped Loria's management team to quietly, in earnest, begin the quest for a new stadium.
It was an uphill battle.
It became obvious baseball couldn't survive in South Florida without a new stadium. Commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball, not so much as a threat, but as a fact, kept sending that message to the opposing politicians and community leaders.
"I'm very happy for the accomplishment to finally see the results of a lot of perseverance on a lot of peoples' parts," said Loria. "I'm personally gratified, because the concept is something I've been dreaming about for a long time. The result is glorious. When you pass by the stadium and see what's rising from the ground, it's just magnificent."
Much of the design concept originated from Loria, an art history major at Yale. It's a futuristic look that does not have the traditional brick facade. Instead, the exterior consists of white stucco, silver metal and enormous glass.
"I met with the architect in London three or four years ago to talk about not doing a retro stadium and what I had as a vision. We drew on some napkins in the hotel and I gave him some sketches," explained Loria. "When he came back with a sketch built on my concept, I said, 'You've got it. Let's go from here.'
"I had an idea of what I wanted to see, but I also was seeking [themes] in conjunction with the environment. This is a very exciting, growing part of the world, very contemporary. The stadium had to imitate the spirit of the area."
Loria says because Miami is near the water, the abstract is water merging with land.
The roof, which can be opened and closed in about 15 minutes, is expected to be closed with air-conditioned temperature at 75 degrees for 70 of the Marlins' 81 home games. Loria and team president David Samson plan to not have the roof closed for Opening Day.
The stadium will have the smallest seating capacity in the Major Leagues at 37,000. Naming rights have not yet been granted.
"Our team has worked very hard to see this come to fruition," Loria repeated.
He talked about the twin 600-gallon saltwater aquariums that will be located on both sides of the backstop. They'll be far enough back to not interfere with the batter and will not shatter should a foul ball hit them. They'll be constructed of bullet-proof glass.
There will be a huge outfield display with each Marlins home run.
In left field at Sun Life Stadium, a billboard counts down the number of 2011 home games remaining. It's almost as if Loria & Co. would like to fast-forward to 2012.
"Not at all," he said. "I think this is a very good team. I want them to have the opportunity to make this season work. I am not looking beyond tomorrow. I know in the distance we have a new ballpark, but this season is very crucial to me, because I think the quality of these players is such we should do very well."
Josh Johnson, ace of the Marlins' pitching staff, says, "Ever since I got called up in 2005, people have been asking me when the new stadium is coming. I said, 'I'll believe it when I see it.'
"Now, it's finally happening. I can see it -- and believe it!"