Marlins, opponents eager to bid adieu to Sun Life Stadium

FootballBaseballMiami MarlinsWorld SeriesSun Life StadiumAtlanta BravesNew York Yankees

At its best it was magical for baseball.

… From the grace of DiMaggio, in a dark suit, tossing the ceremonial first pitch, to the triumphant leap of Counsel in Game 7, to the exultation of Pudge taking the hit and holding on to beat the Giants.

Too often there was the hollow echo of one hand clapping.

… From boos for the owner when what remained of the '97 championship team received its rings, to inflatable aliens outnumbering real fans in some sections on Turn the Clock Ahead Night, to water cascading off the upper deck during yet another rain delay.

No wonder everyone associated with Marlins baseball can't wait to turn the clock ahead to Opening Day 2012 in the new ballpark with a retractable roof in Little Havana.

"Aren't we all?" catcher John Buck said of counting the days remaining at Sun Life Stadium, now down to three.

That goes for opponents offering a collective chorus of good riddance.

"Yeah," former Marlin Dan Uggla said before playing his final game with the Braves at Sun Life. "This place will always have a special place in my heart because this is where I started my career, and I've got a lot of great memories here. But I'm sure I'm the only person in this [visitors'] clubhouse that is going to miss it. Teams hate coming in here."

There would be no baseball in South Florida without Joe Robbie-Pro Player-Dolphin-Land Shark-Sun Life Stadium. No two World Series, no-hitters, D-Train or Jim Leyland "I feel good" championship moment.

Robbie built it with the intent of luring an expansion team in an era when multisport stadiums were the norm.

But one thing has been evident from the start. "It's a football stadium. You can't get away from that," Marlins pitcher Clay Hensley said.

That has never been more evident than last week with the field bearing the scars and markings of consecutive days of 'Canes and Dolphins games. Was that a blooper to shallow right field or the 40-yard-line. Careful, don't trip over that leaping dolphin behind second base.

Marlins second baseman Omar Infante committed a rare costly error on a ball that Buck said veered sharply after striking turf marred by football.

Seats oriented toward the football grid rather than home plate are disconcerting for fans. Players have their own reminders they're playing the wrong game for the playground.

"The lights aren't the best. They're angled for football," Buck said. "You definitely see better when we're on the road."

The same night as Infante's error, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones lost a high bouncer by Emilio Bonifacio in the lights in the ninth inning. Instead of a routine play to end the game, the ball eluded Jones, and Infante followed with the winning home run.

Ironically, Jones played more games (121) in Sun Life than any other opposing player and was the Marlins' biggest nemeses here, hitting .294 with 16 homers and 64 RBI.

"When you play baseball in a football stadium, that can happen from time to time," he said afterward. "I won't miss this place a bit."

No one will miss the infernal heat or incessant rain delays — there have been 199 of them totaling 197 hours, 45 minutes.

Fans won't miss the discomfort of soupy summer nights. Players won't miss the lack of energy from the stands, when even a decent crowd seems diminished in the cavernous confines.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little tough, Hensley said. "It's a little bit of a drag compared to playing in other stadiums."

Nonetheless, the Marlins have made the most of their flawed home with a .520 winning percentage (780-721). This year's 31-47 mark is an anomaly, one of only three seasons they have had a better record on the road. They had a winning record in 12 of 19 seasons at home.

"I always enjoyed playing here. I don't mind the heat," former Marlin Jeff Conine said. "All the other stuff kind of goes away when you're on the field. It's just another baseball field. I'm sure from a fan's perspective it was a much more miserable place to come see a game than the new stadiums."

Conine experienced most of the best times. He had four hits in the inaugural game, played on both World Series teams and made the throw to Pudge Rodriguez that ended the 2003 Division Series with the Giants.

"You get the World Series, the Yankees playing here with a full stadium, a lot of excitement — guys play better," said Jack McKeon, who managed the 2003 team.

Remember … flashbulbs popping as the Yankees' Roger Clemens exited Game 4 in what was thought to be his final game (it wasn't) and Alex Gonzalez's homer sailing off in the 12th inning that night for the turning point of the Series ... Livan Hernandez's 15 strikeouts against the Braves aided by Eric Gregg's double-wide strike zone ... Josh Beckett's shutout to start the comeback against the Cubs.

Those occasions the size of the stadium was a true advantage. The Marlins drew 10 postseason crowds over 65,000, topped by 67,498 for Game 6 of the '97 World Series. They recently began an unscheduled afternoon opener of a doubleheader before a crowd of several hundred.

When they open the new park April 4 against the Cardinals with an expected sellout of 37,000, Oakland will be left with the last multisport stadium in the majors.

Sun Life had its pluses: easily accessible in the tri-county area, ample parking, plenty of seats to choose from.

Access and parking are the main questions about the new park. But once inside it will offer 75 degrees of climate-controlled comfort. Two-thirds of the seats are in the lower bowl, close to the action. Concourses are open with a clear view of the field.

Best of all: no sweat, no rain, no delays.

"You're going to have a totally different experience down there," Conine said. "It's going to be special."

cldavis@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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