April 6, 2005: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Heading down to Florida in April sounded like a great idea for the 2005 Ballpark Tour. Mike and I started to plan our trip in early December. What better way to ring in the 2005 season than spending time along Baseball’s Sun Belt? Our first stop was Dolphins Stadium, home of the Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins). Since they played their first game on March 31, 1993, the Marlins have experienced unprecedented success for an expansion franchise, winning the World Series in 1997 and 2003. Even with these accomplishments the organization has experienced little fan support during their time in South Florida. Attending a Marlins game in Dolphins Stadium (Problem #1: a baseball franchise playing in a ballpark named after a football team) gave me firsthand knowledge of what the game of baseball and the Marlins mean to the people of South Florida. Dolphins Stadium opened as Joe Robbie Stadium in the mid-1980s. Initially, it was the home of the Miami Dolphins and the great Dan Marino; a statue of him welcomes fans into the stadium. At the time, there was no Major League franchise playing its regular season games in the Sunshine State; however, Spring Training in Florida has been a tradition that began in the early part of the 20th century. The first baseball game ever played in Joe Robbie Stadium took place during the 1988 Spring Training season. It was a matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Baltimore Orioles, who made their Spring Training home in Fort Lauderdale. The success of Spring Training was the primary factor in creating the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays expansion teams.
Dolphins Stadium is located in Fort Lauderdale, north of Miami. This location, along with the nightly thundershowers, has had an adverse effect on the Florida Marlins’ attendance figures; between 1998 and 2011 the team finished no higher than 13th in attendance in the 16-team National League. This, for some reason, warranted a new stadium, but more on that in my Marlins Stadium experience. In my opinion, the 2005 Florida Marlins took the field as the favorites to win the National League East. With young pitchers like 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett, fireballer A.J. Burnett, and fan favorite Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins had what it took to end the Atlanta Braves’ 10-year run atop the division. This alone should draw more fans to Dolphins Stadium, but only time will tell.
Mike and I were lucky to stay with his father Frank while in Fort Lauderdale. It was amazing to meet so many former New Yorkers who migrated down to Fort Lauderdale for fun in the sun. Where Frank lived, there had to be dozens of former Yankees who traded the hustle and bustle of big-city living for the peace and tranquility of South Florida. I feel this also contributes to the lack of fan support for the Marlins. With so many transplanted northerners retiring to Florida, who is going to change the team they supported growing up for the Florida Marlins?
I took all of this into consideration while driving to Dolphins Stadium for the 7:05 game between the Atlanta Braves and hometown Florida Marlins. Not only was it Marlins Calendar Day, but the pitching matchup was between two former New York Met lefties, Mike Hampton for the Braves and Al Leiter for the Marlins. As Mike, Frank, and I settled into our outfield seats, we noticed the fans weren’t really into the game. After a few innings we decided to move closer to the Marlins dugout. This idea really paid off. The fans closer to the field were pretty hardcore. I remember one fan standing up on every big pitch. I was glad we moved closer to the action, because it made the game more enjoyable. The 20,317 in attendance were treated to free baseball as the Braves and Marlins were tied at 1 after 9. Braves third baseman Chipper Jones won the game with a 13th-inning solo home run off Marlins relief pitcher Nate Bump. The Marlins hit into a franchise record six double plays, killing some golden scoring opportunities. For me, sitting close to the field enhanced the Dolphins Stadium experience.