MIAMI - Before the flamenco dancers, the flyover and the first pitch of the 2012 season opener at the Miami Marlins' brand-new ballpark against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, a small army of security personnel assembled down in the depths of this stadium. It was less than an hour before the scheduled start and -- with the exception of a Dan Marino sighting -- all was eerily calm; the only distinctive sounds were the crackling of security radios.
Then, 20 minutes before game time, Muhammad Ali emerged from a room and was helped by his wife onto a golf cart. He had just visited with the Marlins inside their clubhouse, after owner Jeffrey Loria called a team meeting by opening with a talk about championships, saying he wanted his players to meet a champion and then surprising them with Ali.
"He's an icon," Loria said in the clubhouse after the Marlins lost 4-1.
Both men left on the cart and made their way to the field. It was a moment both sad and sweet, with the Parkinson's Disease that disables Ali so clearly limiting him. His was the ceremonial first pitch -- a hand-off, actually -- and then, finally, there was baseball.
Not that there was much for the home crowd to cheer. Josh Johnson, this team's ace, struggled. He gave up two runs in the first inning (World Series MVP David Freese drove in both), and eventually gave up a hit in all six innings he pitched. While Johnson's performance certainly disappointed the 36,601 people here, the Marlins' hitters were faring worse.
The lineup was hitless until Jose Reyes led off the seventh inning with a sharp single to right field off Kyle Lohse. Reyes raised his hand in celebration, as the crowd roared -- probably the biggest one of the night was for new manager Ozzie Guillen during pre-game introductions -- and the park suddenly felt full of life.
"It felt good because at that point he was throwing a no-hitter," Reyes said. "We didn't want that to happen in the first game in the new ballpark."
As for the ballpark, from the outside it's a mammoth structure, located in the heart of the Little Havana neighborhood. Inside, the music and the food and the color -- particularly the abundance of lime green that decorates the entire outfield wall -- screams nothing if not Miami. The home-run sculpture was majestic and looming -- though not illuminated or animated during the game, since there were no homers -- and with the roof open and the weather warm, people were ready to party.
The entire night seemed to be about the Marlins, their new park, their new manager, shortstop, closer ... with little attention paid to the fact that the Cardinals, also with a new manager, Mike Matheny -- are the defending world champions.
And for a night, the Cardinals certainly looked more comfortable. On Tuesday during a workout at the park, many of the St. Louis players were saying how big it plays, and that seemed to bear out on Wednesday night when Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton may have lost a few homers, his fly balls dying in the outfield. Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal certainly adjusted well; he had three hits and drove in a run, and when asked how the park played, his eyes widened and he said "Huge."
"I feel sorry for those guys," he said. "It's a big ballpark and Stanton crushed a ball and it went nowhere."
In the clubhouse after the game the Marlins players certainly weren't morose. Most of the talk was about opening the new park and, of course, Ali. On the wall toward the exit in the home clubhouse there is a silver plaque -- one of the last things players will see before taking the field -- with one of Ali's famous quotes about how champions have to have a stronger will than skill in order to be champs.
When Loria brought Ali into the clubhouse pregame, he referenced the plaque, showing Ali, as the players gave an ovation. They took their picture with him, and even though he was frail and didn't speak, they were in awe.
"I think it was pretty cool Jeffrey had the champ come in here," closer Heath Bell said. "I think it inspired us, even though we didn't go out and win."
They didn't, but it's just one game. A night of firsts is now over and the rest of the season remains, as will questions about just how good this team can be.