The Florida Marlins and representatives from Major League Baseball broke ground Saturday with South Florida officials on the team's new, retractable-roof stadium in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, saying the long-awaited ballpark will capture the city's youthful spirit and the attention of baseball fans across the globe.
"We have a special vibe," Marlins owner Jeffery Loria said. "Our architecture is bold and exciting. And it was always clear to me that this ballpark must capture and mirror the special feeling of Miami. It's the feeling of cool."
Loria was joined at a bilingual ceremony by Marlins president David Samson, city and Miami-Dade County politicians and baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Current players, including All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, were also on hand, as well as such former Florida stars as Jeff Conine, who played for two World Series championship Marlins teams.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist delivered a message on a video screen and fans sat elbow to elbow under the scorching Miami sun to watch Charlie Hough throw a ceremonial pitch to catcher Benito Santiago. Hough also threw the first pitch in franchise history, a strike, to Santiago on April 5, 1993. The Marlins estimated about 5,000 people attended the event.
The team _ which will be called the Miami Marlins when the stadium opens _ showed off new renderings and videos of the ballpark plans at the ceremony, which officials capped off by donning white hard hats and plunging gleaming shovels into the dirt where home plate will be located.
"You think about how a day is going to go, and you don't dare imagine that it could go better than what you planned for. And that's what happened today," said Samson, whose shoes were coated with dust afterward. "We live in a cynical, cynical world. And today cynicism was ripped away and it was replaced by passion, and it was replaced by gumption, and it was replaced by desire."
The ballpark, which is expected to be completed by Opening Day 2012, is being built on a patch of land where the now-demolished Orange Bowl once stood. The stadium was home turf for the Miami Hurricanes football team for seven decades, and the home field for the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins. The Hurricanes eventually moved north to Land Shark Stadium and the old facility was torn down.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is sacred ground in athletics," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said. "Now it's the Miami Marlins turf."
Florida has consistently struggled to draw crowds to games, and a roof certainly would have been helpful on a sweltering day like Saturday. The team blames notoriously low attendance on South Florida's hot and rainy summers, a problem that apparently frustrates Selig as much as Marlins fans.
"I sit at home at night, when I'm fortunate enough to be at home, and I watch all 15 games," Selig said. "And I'm tired of turning your game on and having to be told we're be in a rain delay but we'll see you later."
The Marlins, who have shared Land Shark Stadium with the NFL's Dolphins since their 1993 inaugural season, have long sought a home of their own. In that time, the team has won two World Series titles _ one in 1997 and the second in 2003 _ but could never gain enough support to build its own facility.
Five attempts for state funding were thwarted over the years, and a lawsuit from wealthy auto dealer Norman Braman stalled the current project by about a year.
"Somehow, inside of me, I always had a good feeling that this was going to work," Selig said. "It was right for both parties. We wanted to stay, and I know that most people here wanted to build a ballpark."
The project was planned with hopes that it would be financed in part through more than $300 million in bond sales backed by tourism taxes. The team and county learned this month that there was a $6 million shortfall from the proceeds of the bond sales, which the Marlins ultimately agreed to cover. The county and city commissioners approved a deal earlier this year.