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Mike Ehrmann / Staff

The Marlins are completely weird, but one day they’ll be a baseball powerhouse

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The scale of it, man. The scale of it.

Even if we assume that the seagull is almost as big as the sun only because of perspective, that it’s an optical illusion, it wouldn’t explain the size of the marlins behind the sun. They rotate around the sun, unfathomable celestial leviathans, wider than the diameter of an entire star, spinning, spinning, spinning. The sun is a fraction of the entire structure.

The Marlins’ home run sculpture stands alone as the most imposing ballpark structure in baseball. The Astros put a train in their ballpark. This is bigger. The Diamondbacks have an 8,500-gallon swimming pool. Considering that 30 gallons of water are shot out after every Marlins win and home run at home, the structure would have filled that pool on May 18, 2015, and every subsequent win and home run would have sent water spilling all over Chase Field, an outfield waterfall. The Royals have an actual waterfall, and it’s 20 feet taller than the Marlins’ structure, but it’s a boring waterfall, at least in comparison to shuffling flamingos and spinning marlins the size of a taxi cab.

The Angels got a rock.

The Marlins’ sculpture towers over the rest of the field, and it’s even more noticeable with the absence of upper-deck seats in left and left-center field. When the upper deck does start, it’s roughly halfway up the sculpture, and it ends just a little under the top marlin’s bill at its zenith.

The home run structure in Marlins Park Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Before the Marlins’ home run structure was a living, pulsing megalith that crawled out of the seventh layer of your subconscious in the middle of a fever dream, it was an innocent Facebook video. It mesmerized me. Then it mesmerized the internet. I wrote words of disgust and abject horror.

If Carnival and Las Vegas had a baby, this would be the placenta. If Charlton Heston ever lands on Planet of the Fish, this will be their version of the "It's a Small World" ride. This is what would happen if Vikings attacked a Gloria Estefan concert by catapulting flamingos and marlins into the pyrotechnics display.

The idea of it was appalling, a ludicrous blight in a long-awaited ballpark.

Two thousand, one hundred and fifty-one days after writing that article, I was standing in the belly of the beast, with a line from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” running through my head:

Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.

Grant Brisbee

And now I’m here to express regret. I’m here to offer my sincerest apologies, an earnest mea culpa. As 500-foot home runs whizzed by the sculpture in the 2017 Home Run Derby, some of them clonking off the face, which made fans cheer wildly, as if the batter had just won some sort of special carnival prize, I was in. As I stood underneath, with the rivets and girders, with mecha-flamingos eyeing me hungrily, I was in awe.

This thing is incredible. It’s perfect.

What was I thinking back then?

I’m so, so sorry.

The reaction to the Marlins’ home run structure (officially the “Home Run Sculpture”) didn’t spring from the earth fully formed, though. It had to be nurtured with just enough soil, just enough light, for decades. For everyone to laugh at the Marlins’ logo, the fish behind home plate, the structure that looked like a pimple drawn by Lisa Frank, there had to be history. The Marlins needed to be weird already.

The Marlins were weird already.

A young New York Yankees fan encounters Florida Marlins fans Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

They weren’t initially. Sure, the teal wasn’t a traditional baseball color in 1993, but it made sense in context of the time. The Marlins were just an expansion team, a blank slate, Dombrowski rasa. Somewhere in an old high school yearbook, there’s a picture of me in a Marlins cap. Didn’t know anything about the team other than it was new and no one else in my school had one. That’s all there was to know, really.

When the Marlins bought their way into contention before the 1997 season, spending a then-record $89 million on free agents, they weren’t weird. That’s the sort of thing a new, upstart franchise might do to capture the hearts and minds of their new city. You might see it happen with Paul Allen and the Portland Oddballs.

Except that spending spree was the paradoxical last-ditch effort of an owner who wanted free stuff. Here’s a passage from If They Don’t Win, It’s a Shame, by Dave Rosenbaum:

(Owner Wayne) Huizenga planned on finding out in one season whether South Floridians had any interest in Major League Baseball and whether they would support a competitive team. He was testing the value of his investment by investing more. He was buying a competitive baseball team for South Florida and threatening South Florida at the same time.

If the fans didn’t come out, Huizenga would take away their team.

Huizenga wanted a $60 million tax break to renovate Pro Player Stadium, which he owned. He didn’t get it. He wanted a free ballpark. He knew he wasn’t going to get that. And as the wins piled up, so did the debt on the baseball side. The fact that Huizenga owned the stadium and the television channel broadcasting the games helped buff that quite a bit, but the attendance was disappointing when compared to the wildly optimistic projections of an owner who thought that fans would immediately flood the gates for a contending team. It was an open secret that Huizenga was going to sell, even if the Marlins won the World Series. Even if that meant an out-of-town buyer.

When the Marlins actually won the 1997 World Series, though, in front of 67,204 throaty, delirious fans who got to watch one of the best postseason games in baseball history, it was easy to wonder if Huizenga might have changed his mind. Rosenbaum described the post-game celebration, which contained just as much mirth and jubilation as you would expect:

And later, still smiling, (Huizenga) said, “They were sticking (champagne) down the back of my trousers, and I was giving it right back.”

Four years into their existence, they had shown their fans just how much fun baseball can be. Some teams take decades to do that. There are a couple on the West Coast that still haven’t done it.

Imagine a rich, powerful man surveying the scene after winning the World Series, reaching the summit quicker than any franchise in baseball history, exulting with the 50,000 fans going out of their minds after one of the greatest Game 7s in baseball history, riding in the back of a convertible during a ticker-tape parade with thousands of throaty, passionate fans.

The Florida Marlins celebrate their 1997 World Series win Brian Bahr /Allsport

Now imagine thinking, “Eh. There’s no future in this. Better dump this stock while it’s hot.”

Now imagine that same man going back to his lucrative day job, which was The Lord Baron of VHS Tapes.

Huizenga stuck with Blockbuster and he gave up on baseball. You don’t need to see a line graph to know how that worked out (though Huizenga is still very much a billionaire, of course). The Marlins gave their fans an 11-day honeymoon period before starting one of the most memorable fire sales in baseball history, a crushingly quick demolition project that abused fans and blamed them at the same time. “Thanks for caring, but we regret to inform you that you didn’t care enough. We’re sorry you’re making us do this.”

This was the beginning of the Marlins being confusing. This was the beginning of them being counterintuitive.

This was the beginning of them being complete and total weirdos.

The only thing that’s different with the Home Run Sculpture now compared to when Marlins Park opened? It’s time. And that’s the baseballiest damned thing I can think of.

The structure goes off for a Marlins home run Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Time isn’t just baseball’s weapon. Age will turn war criminals into elder statesmen, commercial flops into collector’s items. But baseball has a way of processing everything into thick, nourishing, viscous nostalgia. Consider the unspeakably gaudy uniforms from the ‘70s, with the Nuclear Waste Orange of the Houston Astros to the Welcome To Fatherhood! yellow and brown of the San Diego Padres. They’re back in style now. They’re charming. They’re fantastic.

The fonts, the colors, they all work. It all makes you remember that baseball happened, and it was good, even when it was awful. Candlestick Park, bless it, was one of the worst ideas in the history of sports architecture, but it’s also where I grew up, and I would get a picture of it tattooed on the inside of my arm.

That kind of nostalgia took decades, though. The Home Run Sculpture became cool much sooner than that, possibly before the end of the inaugural season of Marlins Park. It wasn’t set off until the fourth home game, when Omar Infante hit the first Marlins homer in the history of the park, but more home runs followed, regular home runs, breathtaking home runs, walk-off home runs.

Giancarlo Stanton home runs.

Giancarlo Stanton hits a home run Mark Brown/Getty Images

And the sculpture spun and spun, whirled and splashed, with fans splitting their time watching a Marlin circling the bases and marlins orbiting the sun

Over 81 games, over several years, the search for the neon obelisk became instinctive, an obvious part of the ballpark experience. Mike Stanton turned into Giancarlo Stanton, his final form, and he did more to keep the marlins twirling than anyone could have possibly hoped. It became as unexpected as ivy on the outfield walls, a pool behind the fence, a gigantic slide with a mascot hurtling down, an apple rising out of the rat-infested depths.

The bizarre became codified. It was part of the optimal experience.

The weird became good.

You can see where this metaphor is going.

There isn’t a city in baseball — maybe baseball history — that’s punched its fans in the nose quite like Miami. The intentions are strong. The results are always, always, always disastrous.

In 1956, the Triple-A Miami Marlins were the first baseball team in Miami to play above Class-B. They had watched the Wahoos, Surf Sox, Seminoles, Tourists, Flamingos, Tigers, and Hustlers over the years, but this was by far the closest the city had ever been to Major League Baseball. Expectations were buoyed by owner Bill Veeck, famous for his promotions and general hi-jinx.

On opening night, in front of a not-quite-sellout crowd, a helicopter started circling the field after the top of the first. It landed by the pitcher’s mound, and a 51-year-old Satchel Paige got out, announced that he was on the Miami Marlins, and took his seat in a comfy chair Veeck left in the bullpen.

Satchel Paige of the Miami Marlins in the bullpen Bettmann / Contributor

Later in the game, there was a bench-clearing brawl. Just because.

Miami already knew that baseball had the potential to be fantastic, but it had some incredible reminders on that opening night. Later that season, Veeck threw what he called “The Baseball Party to End All Baseball Parties,” a blowout at the Orange Bowl with celebrities (Cab Calloway! Merv Griffin!) that drew 51,713 fans. Paige pitched one of his best games as a Marlin, in a repurposed stadium that wasn’t meant for baseball. The right-field fence was just over 200 feet away from home plate, and the left-field fence wasn’t much farther, but Paige was masterful. Miami was already a boomtown, and now it looked like it was a thriving baseball hub.

Three years later, the team moved to Puerto Rico. That move was such an instant failure, they moved to Charleston, W. Va. in the middle of the danged season. That was the end of the first Golden Era of Miami baseball, which didn’t last long.

In 1979, baseball returned to the city with the Miami Amigos, who were a stacked team in the new Inter-American League, a league that was Triple-A quality, with teams in Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. The team was managed by Davey Johnson, and their ace was Mike Cuellar, one of the greatest Cuban pitchers in baseball history. They drew relatively well, unlike the original Marlins, and by August, they were in first place by nearly a dozen games.

They had cheerleaders called “The Hot and Juicy Wendy’s Girls.” I don’t know how to fit that in with the rest of the story, so I’m just going to leave it here.

While the Amigos were rolling, the league was not. Players weren’t getting paid, visa problems were keeping players from traveling from country to country, and tropical storms were wreaking havoc on the schedule. In the middle of the season, the league folded. It was the best baseball Miami had seen in decades. But the players and the Hot and Juicy Wendy’s Girls were all out of a job.

Satchel Paige pitching for the Miami Marlins Bettmann / Contributor

Two near-major league teams. Two punches in the nose.

In 75 years, the Home Run Sculpture will be iconic. It will be a destination. the ballpark will be ancient and adored, and people will walk into this classic piece of Americana, walk through the tunnel to get to their seats and see it in the distance, with 80 years of weather and air conditioning aging it more than a touch, but in the most charming way possible. A father will put his arm around his son or daughter and just stare.

If you think they won’t, go watch people stare at a green wall in Boston. It’s a green wall. Stop staring. I will build you a green wall, stop staring.

Except the Green Monster is more than a green wall, it’s pure baseball magic. And someone in the future will dig through the history of Marlins Park, and they’ll discover that there was a time when everyone thought the structure was a joke, an out-of-place abomination, like the people who couldn’t imagine spoiling the natural beauty of the Golden Gate with a bridge. They’ll use mind-Twitter to share it around the world, and everyone will laugh at us. And we’ll deserve it.

Assuming Miami still exists, of course.

If it does, that is my dream. This should be Wrigley Field after we’re gone.

It says something that in a list of weird disappointments, the slow erosion of the 2003 World Series team doesn’t rate. It wasn’t a true fire sale, after all. A couple of free agents walked away. The star first baseman was exchanged for a younger, cheaper first baseman. The Marlins didn’t do much to improve the team, but they didn’t sell off their best players. They just didn’t capitalize on the rare, renewed interest that winning the freaking World Series brings a team. Again.

No, the true sequel to the 1997-98 fire sale came when Jeffrey Loria wildly succeeded beyond Huizenga’s dreams. The ballpark was built; the ballpark was mostly built with public money. The Marlins covered a quarter of the initial cost of Marlins Park. The city of Miami and Miami-Dade County picked up the rest, without getting any of the revenue from ads, naming rights, concessions, or luxury suites.

The Miami Herald offers a sentence that does better than the six paragraphs I want to write.

For every dollar Miami-Dade borrowed in this transaction, it will pay back $13.

I would like to think this was the last of the truly obvious stadium swindles, but, no. There was another one in the same division just a few years later.

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

If the Marlins wanted to be a functional baseball team, though, the ballpark was magnificent. The reason the original Marlins left is because they didn’t draw well, with teams like Buffalo bringing twice as many fans in. And while the Amigos were winning and winning, it’s not like they were selling out every night. This is because Miami is hot. And sticky. And rainy. And sticky. Watching a two-hour baseball game while stationary in sticky, sticky heat is a portal into the void, a prison from which you might not escape. Just imagine what a three-hour game would do.

Also, it’s sticky. Hot, too. Don’t forget the sticky.

Marlins Park is cold. The air conditioning thrums and thrums all game, and it’s almost worth bringing a sweatshirt. But the contrast is extraordinary. This is what needed to happen for baseball in Miami. It’s what’s always needed to happen, but it was always science-fiction. Now they have it. This is the perfect ballpark for a successful Miami baseball team.

And once they got it, Loria thumped his scepter and decreed that THE MARLINS WERE A BIG-MARKET TEAM NOW. While it’s hard to agree with the use of public money, the Marlins took the 2011-2012 offseason by the throat and threw it through a plate-glass window. They were involved with every player, every rumor. They signed Jose Reyes away from the Mets, which was almost too symbolic. The poor, strapped New York team couldn’t get a seat at the table with the bullies down in Miami. They signed Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. They made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

They were close to signing Albert Pujols, if you can imagine.

So while the money for the stadium was dubiously acquired, at best, at least the Marlins fulfilled their destiny and became a team worthy of the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. They made it.

Then it didn’t work, and 11 months later, it was all dismantled again.

Loria got to keep the stadium, of course.

The mega-contract to Giancarlo Stanton was something of an olive branch, then. Not just to the Marlins’ superstar, but to the fans. There were no hometown discounts. There were no happy-to-be-finishing-my-career-here sentiments. Stanton said, “Pay me, you weirdos.” And he was right to do so. He wasn’t happy with the Second (Or Third, Depending Who You Ask) Fire Sale. He said so himself. And if his own tweet isn’t enough to convince you, check out this gem of a quote:

"Five months," he said, "doesn't change five years."

Translated: Five months of pretending to be a big-market team doesn’t change five years of being absolute weirdos. So he got the $325 million. And it was backloaded, with the Marlins refusing to include a no-trade clause, per team policy. Edit: It has a full no-trade clause, the first in team history.

But what were the odds that the team would have another fire sale?

Loria wants to stay loyal to his executives but still reduce the debt to make the purchase price more appealing, meaning their players will have to depart. It doesn’t matter if your name is Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, AJ Ramos or even Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins are preparing to strip it down for the next ownership group.

Oh, come on.

Let me tie the Home Run Sculpture into the story of the Marlins: You’ll get used to them. The Miami Marlins are destined to be a baseball powerhouse. They have the ballpark. They have the market size. They have the potential fan base. And when it all clicks, you’ll look back and wonder why you thought they were so weird for a quarter-century, just like I’m ashamed about my lack of obelisk appreciation.

The difference is that it’s not going to be on the same timeline. It’s going to be more of a geological scale for a franchise that’s punched its fans in the nose, for a city that’s used to teams punching them in the nose. Committing to a baseball team doesn’t come easily for anyone. Games are long. Seasons are long. Rebuilding periods are long. So long. Chunks of your life. You can define huge portions of your existence with the epochs of your favorite teams.

The Marlins won, and they said “nope.” Then they won again, and they said, “Eh.” They got a brand new stadium, and they pretended like they weren’t going to say “nope” again, but then they said “NOPE,” all-caps. Those decisions might have made sense to the people making them at the time, but they led to some pretty thick scar tissue for anyone interested in Miami baseball.

That will change. New owners are coming in, with Derek Jeter fighting against Jeb Bush, unless they’re working together to stop Mitt Romney, unless that’s Tagg Romney, unless Michael Jordan is about to dunk on all of them, or form partnerships, or ... look, it’s a mess, but the larger point is that Jeffrey Loria is going to turn $158 million into about $1.5 billion. If you’re mad that a rich person gamed the system to get richer, oh, buddy, we’re going to be here for a while. Just let that part go.

The new owners, though, won’t have the patience to be weird. They won’t see the profit in punching their fans in the nose. That’s too much money to futz around. They’ll see the positives. The gift of a ballpark. A region that is looking forward to not getting punched in the nose. A huge, untapped market.

Being weird won’t be cost-effective, and you’ll get used to the Marlins. They’ll have ups and downs, just like every other team, but they’ll shed that identity. They’ll just be a team, one of the 30 in Major League Baseball. Maybe a little richer, even. This is the end of the roller coaster, and the Miami Marlins would like to offer you a nice, unremarkable carriage ride through the park. All it will take is a lot of time, and a lot of trust-building.

It will be unsettling, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll appreciate it. You’ll love it. And you’ll wonder what was so strange about it in the first place. For decades, the Marlins were bright lights and spinning confusion, spinning marlins and glass-eyed flamingos, a shrieking spectacle that elicited just one response: “What in the hell was that?”

Then you get used to it.

Then it’s awesome and imposing.

Then it’s just ... there. Like it always should have been. Like it was always meant to be. The Marlins are going to take their rightful place in the baseball universe, and the only thing to wonder is what took them so long.