A Quest for Theater and Art at Marlins Park

Just past the mosaic walkways that glimmer like shards of broken glass at the new Marlins Park in Little Havana are ten-foot-tall reproductions of the letters from the site's prior inhabitant: the Miami Orange Bowl. Scattered haphazardly as if they fell from the sky after the OB was blown up, it's the first glimpse of attention-grabbing art on the way in to the stadium. It's a tad pretentious, but it's a cool little tribute.

Inside, a sharply dressed young man stands in front of the elevators. With a laminated badge lazily hanging from his neck, he informs there's a pregame show on the "western plaza" — that's right, this stadium has plazas! — featuring a DJ and the Marlins Energy Team, the new dance troupe that has usurped the Mermaids cheerleaders.

Asked how to reach that plaza, he dithers, ruffles his paper, pauses, and says it's just outside the dugout area. Clearly, he has no fucking idea. Another official-looking person in a blazer suggests exiting the park and walking around outside.

Finally, in the distance, dance music echoes from within the stadium. A half-hour after the search begins, the party is discovered. It's nothing more than a table nudged into a corner with a DJ and some guy holding a microphone while handing out hula hoops. You know, for kids.

I attended the Marlins' second home game at their new digs last Friday to watch them play the Houston Astros. But I was also there to catch Daddy Yankee and all the festivities that go along with the $515 million park. I wanted to witness the inaugural Friday Night Live postgame show and determine if drama, spectacle, and sport can coexist.

Wander onto the promenade level, where the good seats are located, before a game and you'll spot the players warming up and the grounds crew raking the infield dirt. And there, beyond a field of bright emerald green stretching into a sweeping diamond, stands the colossally trippy monstrosity out of Timothy Leary's worst flashbacks — New York pop artist Red Groom's home-run sculpture. It looks completely out of place over the left center-field wall.

The 74-year-old Grooms has made a career of producing multimedia art depicting chaotic scenes. This thing is no different. It's a garishly glorified carnival attraction with oscillating marlins, dancing flamingos, swaying palm trees, and flashing colored light bulbs. It's a creature from the tackiest lagoon ever, waiting to light up and belch water into the air after every Marlins homer.

Truth be told, that aesthetic catastrophe grew on me as the game progressed. It had me rooting for a Marlins batter to hit a dinger like never before, just so the monster would spin and whirl and spew its psychedelic gaudiness onto us all.

On the same level, hanging above the Burger 305 concession, are multidimensional fun-house images of some of the best moments in Marlins history. They're designed in such a way that, as you walk past them, the images move and subtly follow you. Supercilious? Oh, yes. But kick-ass nonetheless.

During the pregame ceremony, gospel vocalist Gary Hodges soulfully belted out a beautifully simple rendition of the National Anthem in a voluminous tenor. There's nothing like this song done a cappella by a truly talented soul, and the Marlins found one in Hodges, who has worked with Emilio Estefan and the Trinity Broadcasting Network and has sung the Heat tip-off at the American Airlines Arena.

Several times during the game, Marlins players hit long, arching balls that looked like they would go over the fence, only to die in an Astro's glove. The anticipation of seeing a homer and then the sculpture in action was palpable. The fact that the machine had yet to be set off this season brought tension to a crowd that was ready to erupt. There was suspense with every Marlins at-bat. This was live theater!

Ralph, an elderly gent sitting on the 300 level, was unnerved. "It's so ugly," he commented breathlessly. "But I want to see it go off." Asked if he liked the stadium otherwise, he nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, yeah. You can see the whole field, even from up here. In the last place, you had to crane your neck too much." Then he soaked in the wonder of the newness and backtracked a little. "It does feel like a giant shopping mall, though."

The stands in the 37,442-seat stadium are indeed closer to the action than those in the Marlins' old digs — the gaping, baseball-killing maw known as Sun Life Stadium. But the on-field dimensions remain roughly the same, with the deepest part of the field measuring 420 feet from home plate, just like at Sun Life — which explains the lack of home runs in the early season. But the seats are damn comfortable (even theater-like), and the game went on despite the rain for the 30,169 spectators in attendance.

The closed retractable roof makes the place feel like a warehouse, but it beats a rain delay. Not bad if you decide to spring $20 for the home-run porch section and maybe another $20 for parking.

In the middle of the sixth inning, the Energy Team sprinted onto shallow right field to put on a show that was quite theatrical. They danced to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." There was a lot of flipping, cartwheels, and gyrations, matching the song's lively big-band rhythms. It was pretty fantastic — and energetic! The youngsters who make up this squad are talented dancers, but the crowd barely acknowledges them. Though the now-defunct fat-guy dance troupe the Manatees waddled onto the field between innings and made for a good laugh or two, the new place is probably better off without them. The sculpture alone is equally mockable. The Energy Team simply needs time to get acclimated. And it's a fun way to pump up the crowd when things are slow.

However, the game brought its own drama. The Marlins blew a 4-2 lead when the Astros tied things up in the eighth. Then, in the bottom of the 11th, with a man on, Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez crushed an arching shot that hit the foot of the left-field fence, bringing in the runner for the game-winning double. The hit fell just short of a homer, denying the crowd a chance to see the sculpture go off. But enthusiastic cheers went up anyway as the home team celebrated the walk-off win on the field, the first Marlins victory in their new park. Nothing beats unscripted drama!

Fifteen minutes after the game ended, the stadium lights grew dim and smoke billowed from the tiny crimson-lit stage hastily erected in the second base area for the first Friday Night Live concert. The original crowd had thinned considerably. Those remaining, about less than a quarter, seemed eager to see Latin Grammy winner and reggaeton pioneer Daddy Yankee perform his 2004 smash hit, "Gasolina."

Daddy Yankee appeared with an entourage of about a half-dozen dancers. They were crammed onto the minuscule stage, but they were sharp in their choreographed movements. Wearing shades, he haughtily crisscrossed the stage as if he were performing to a sold-out arena rather than some leftover fans. The Marlins advertised the concert after nearly every inning on their giant HD screens. But most people didn't stick around.

The stadium's acoustics are atrocious. Whatever Daddy Yankee said or sang was a garbled mess of echoes and reverb. One couple made faces as if they had just been offered a puppy sandwich.

"It sounds terrible!" the girl, Alex, shouted.

Asked if they attended any of the postgame concerts at Sun Life Stadium, the guy, Carlos, said, "It sounded much better."

They were right. This was dreadful.

Daddy Yankee was now screaming, "Lemme see de camera! Flash photo! Flash photo!" I think that's what he said. Musical taste aside, the show was abysmal because it was mostly incomprehensible. This is not a venue for live music.

But in the background, the home-run sculpture gleamed, a twisting myriad of red and purple lights swirling in the outfield shadows, which was cool because no Marlins player went yard during that night's matchup.

A Miami Marlins game is every bit as much theater as something written by Tracy Letts or Stephen Sondheim. It's not always great, but it's there. You just have to know where to look, and hope for a walk-off win in extra innings. Also, at the ballpark, you can eat a hot dog and wash it down with an ice-cold beer, which you can't really do inside a theater and which pretty much makes all other debates invalid.

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Chris Joseph