Rough Diamond

A Cuban embezzler built it, anti-Batista guerrillas trained in it, Nicaraguan refugees lived in it, and Frank Robinson played baseball in it. Now somebody has to step to the plate and save Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium.

At the corner of NW 10th Avenue and 23rd Street in Allapattah, chips of orange- and cream-color paint litter the base of America's Finest Baseball Park, flecking the detritus that rots there. Shards from bottles and from the broken stadium office windows glisten among the wet clothing, pigeon carcasses, and other trash on the sidewalk -- dangerous glitter. Ten feet above the shuttered ticket booths, the red neon tubes are missing from the enormous letters that spell out M-I-A-M-I S-T-A-D-I-U-M.

Inside, two community college teams pitch and hit baseballs across patchy yellow grass. Twenty fans laze in the stands, barely watching the game. As a Miami-Dade Wolfson Campus Barracuda laces a triple to deep center, they do not cheer.

Renowned Yale and University of Miami architecture historian Vincent Scully sits near the center of the group, his tweed-encased right arm resting on the back of an adjoining seat as his eyes scan from the outfield wall to the visitors' dugout. "I think it is a beautiful stadium," he declares. "It's that great roof more than anything, the way it comes out in that beautiful curve. And it is constructed with no columns. You look across the field and you know it is a great shape."

Kurt Schweizer, a preternatural baseball savant who has passed half his life in these very seats, flips through a souvenir book of Baltimore Orioles history, searching for any reference to the stadium where the O's trained for 31 straight springs. Joe Fleming, a lawyer and preservationist, boasts of speaking with someone in the Orioles organization who said the team might be willing to play an exhibition game or two here next year, provided the place is cleaned up a bit.

They have all come here on this spring day to root for 47-year-old Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium. For almost a year now, there's been strong talk of tearing down the structure. Father Jose Luis Menendez, leader of Corpus Christi Church and a civic activist, has asked Miami city officials to consider replacing the deteriorating, seemingly obsolete ballpark with something more tangibly useful: new houses affordable to the poor Hispanics who dominate this working-class enclave. "Bobby Maduro is costing us money," he told the Herald last year. "This can be a good push for the city -- 150 people paying taxes."

Menendez was only repeating a familiar refrain. As early as 1954, when the still-new stadium sat empty for a year, there was rumbling to tear it down. By 1965, when the park had yet to earn a profit, Mayor Robert King High urged the city to sell. The proceeds could build a new facility in "a more suitable location," he argued.

The calls for destruction reintensified in 1994, when members of the Beacon Council, a pro-business partner of the Metro Commission, suggested replacing the ballpark with a Guess? jeans factory they hoped might relocate from Los Angeles. But Guess? ended up staying in L.A., and the ballpark remained in Allapattah.

The idea of tearing down the stadium still appeals to the leaders of cash-strapped Miami. No stadium means no maintenance costs or insurance premiums. And Allapattah needs housing. Many of the single-family homes in the 3.7-square-mile area have been subdivided into two or three units in order to meet demand. "That is what ruins neighborhoods," opines Vice Mayor Willy Gort, himself an Allapattah resident. "A person who rents does not take care of a neighborhood the way a homeowner does."

Besides, what need is there for a ballpark any more? The major league Florida Marlins play in Joe Robbie Stadium, and minor league teams are forbidden to operate within 30 miles of a big-league club's home plate. Finally, there's a pristine $30 million complex in Homestead, just waiting for a spring training tenant. The chances that Miami will ever again host a minor league baseball team are virtually nil.

"The City of Miami has a vision that baseball isn't going to come back to Miami. If you don't agree with that vision, we can line up many people who can convince you," promises Jack Luft, the city's director of community planning and revitalization. "And if there is no baseball in Miami's future, then the city has no use for Bobby Maduro Stadium."

Luft's cool pragmatism rankles the partisan crowd. The stadium might not have much of a future as a baseball park, some argue, but it has a past that should not be discarded.

"When I first started looking into the stadium three years ago, I told people that it had an interesting cantilevered roof and a really neat facade," says Rolando Llanes, a UM architecture professor who finds himself the reluctant leader of the movement to save the stadium. "But as I looked deeper into it, I saw that it had a value well beyond its unique architecture.

"This is an important building in the history of Miami," he goes on. "A lot of people forget that. Buildings tell stories. And ballparks, more than anything, tell the most stories."

The decline of Allapattah cannot be traced to any single factor, though the arrival of I-95, which isolated the neighborhood from the rest of the city, gets much of the blame. Back in the 1920s, Allapattah was one of Miami's most fashionable addresses. And on August 31, 1949, it was the center of the baseball universe. Opening night was glorious.

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