“Today is going to be the best day of my life!”
Those words, uttered by my 16 year-old self, echoed the excitement that many south Floridians felt on April 4th, 2012. After 19 seasons of playing baseball in a football stadium extremely susceptible to excruciating heat and lengthy rain delays, the Marlins were moving into a state-of-the-art facility they could finally call their own.
Regardless of the rumors surrounding how the stadium was being financed, baseball was truly capturing the attention of the region for the first time since 2003. To go along with the new digs, the team was also getting bold new uniforms, a bold new manager in Ozzie Guillen, and $194 million in new players. Expectations were definitely high.
After warm-up games against the University of Miami and the New York Yankees, Opening Day was here, and Marlins Park was ready to shine on the biggest stage against the defending World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The pregame ceremonies certainly gave those in attendance mixed feelings. Firstly, the starting lineup was escorted onto the field by dancers in flamboyant carnival-esque outfits; certainly flashy and consistent with the Latin culture of Little Havana, and the crowd really got into it. There was also a video on the jumbotron documenting the entire history of the franchise (to which I nearly cried).
Then, the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali was driven onto the field in a golf cart to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and onlookers in the stands went silent. Ali, whose health had rapidly deteriorated away from the prying eyes of the media, was not the right choice to take part in one of baseball’s oldest traditions, as his presence temporarily made the whole event a somber affair when the excitement was just about to reach a crescendo.
A flyover during a moving rendition of the national anthem by José Feliciano just about got the fans back into the spirit of the occasion, but one cannot help but think that Charlie Hough, who threw the first pitch in franchise history (a called strike against the Dodgers on April 5th, 1993) for the Marlins, would have been a more relevant and appropriate choice to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in Miami’s brand new home for baseball.
Once the game got started, things quieted down in the stands once again after a raucous round of applause in response to a first pitch strike by Josh Johnson. The Cardinals scored two runs in the top of the first, and added another in the second. Meanwhile, the Marlins were yet to record a hit.
As the innings went by, the crowd became restless. The fourth, fifth, and sixth innings passed; still no Marlins hit off of Kyle Lohse. Boos started to ring out as batter after batter went down, and I remember hearing “this is the same old Marlins” from those sat around me in section 225 (yes, I kept my ticket).
José Reyes came up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, and for one sweet second as the barrel of his bat sent the ball lining through the right side of the infield, Marlins Park was overcome with joy and those in attendance rose to their feet to officially welcome in a new era of baseball to the city of Miami.
The Cardinals would go on to win 4-1, bitterly disappointing the home crowd. The rest of the season didn’t go to plan either, and we all know what happened to the roster after the season drew to a close. Of the Opening Day roster who took to the field in the inaugural game at Marlins Park, only Giancarlo Stanton remains.
Since moving to the luxurious Marlins Park, the Marlins have not reached the playoffs, or even finish a season with a winning record. Besides the spending spree before the 2012 season, the team has never gone out to get the best available players to put themselves in a position to truly compete and, as a result, Marlins Park is regularly half-empty.
Only one man was able to bring that same level of excitement and joy, as was present during the lead-up to the inaugural game, to Marlins Park on a regular basis over the past few years and, sadly, he has passed on. However, José Fernández’s name will forever be a part of this great stadium’s history, and a permanent monument will soon mark his legacy.
The first five years of Marlins Park haven’t been great in terms of results for the franchise, which overshadows just how memorable April 4th, 2012 was. I have never been prouder to be a Marlins follower than I was five years ago today when looking up and down the stands and seeing a crowd of over 36,000 cheering in support of their team, my team, in their new home.
Happy birthday Marlins Park!