Last week the Florida Marlins organization rented a conference room at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel and played host to an exclusive group of guests. As usual with such weekday functions (this one began February 3 at 1:00 p.m.), scheduling conflicts prevented some people from attending, but if everyone the Marlins invited had shown up, it would have been quite an impressive group: the entire City of Miami commission, nearly all the city's top administrators, an array of regional and state bureaucrats, a number of influential attorneys, and several prominent local black leaders.

This wasn't to be simply another in the series of meetings the Marlins have been holding with public officials since team owner John Henry declared his intentions to build a baseball stadium in Miami's Bicentennial Park. No, the guest list alone left little doubt this particular gathering was going to be something special. And indeed it would be. For the first time since Henry's December 15 announcement, the public and the press would have an opportunity to hear from the crack design team Henry had assembled, and to glimpse their inspired vision of downtown Miami's future. Renowned ballpark designers and award-winning architects would be on hand, as would colorful drawings of a wondrously revitalized downtown Miami and an enormous scale model of the city with a new baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park.

But there would be something else unexpectedly special about this presentation: no public and no press.

"Is there a member of the media here?" asked Marlins executive vice president Jonathan Mariner minutes before the meeting was to begin. He was standing three feet away and looking directly at me as I examined the scale model. Maybe he has a nose for picking out snoopy journalists. Maybe he spied my reporter's notebook. Whatever the case, he zeroed in like a smart bomb.

I cheerfully introduced myself and told him with a smile how much I was looking forward to the presentation. "The media is not allowed. We need to go outside right now," he replied humorlessly.

Having been tipped to the fact that the city's elected officials were among the invitees, I asked if he knew how many were expected to attend. Before he could answer, I explained (still smiling) that if two or more commissioners appeared, Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law required that the meeting be open to the public -- which, of course, includes the press.

Mariner was in no mood to be friendly or to parse the language of the state's open-meetings law. He aggressively shooed me to the exit like a sheepdog, then pushed the door shut behind him. Clearly agitated, he repeated himself: "This meeting is closed to the public." So I repeated my legal citation and held up a copy of the official Sunshine Law manual, which I'd brought along in anticipation of just such a frosty reception. I hadn't seen any commissioners yet, I added, but I'd be watching, and if two arrived, I was going to crash his party.

Oh no I wouldn't, he huffed: "If we'd had this meeting at our offices, you wouldn't have a right to attend. It's closed to the public. We don't want a media circus here."

Circus? I looked up and down the hallway outside the meeting room. Not a video camera anywhere to be seen. No sign of Rick Sanchez. What circus was he talking about?

As Mariner spun around to head back inside, I held my Sunshine Law book aloft and brandished it at him. "I'll be watching for city commissioners!" I yelped as the door closed.

Luckily I had already enlisted the help of a couple of acquaintances who'd been invited. They promised to take notes and share them with me so that I, in turn, might share them with the public -- the very same public John Henry expects will embrace his dream of building a huge sports stadium on Miami's last parcel of waterfront park land; the very same public he hopes will happily cough up hundreds of millions of dollars to finance it.

So at least I can offer a once-removed description of the Marlins' most elaborate sales pitch to date. Why team executives would find a secondhand account acceptable but a first-hand report unacceptable remains a mystery, though it does reveal much about their clumsy, misguided, and increasingly doomed efforts to win public support for their cause. First, however, the meeting itself.

For this chronicle I have Greg Bush and Bob Weinreb to thank. Both men are leaders of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami and both are adamantly opposed to allowing a stadium in Bicentennial Park. According to the Marlins, the fact that these two were invited to last week's presentation is proof of the "inclusionary" nature of Henry's crusade to build consensus. According to me the Marlins simply could not afford to snub two of their most active opponents in the private sector. (Tellingly the Marlins did not invite County Commissioners Jimmy Morales and Katy Sorenson or Miami mayoral hopefuls Maurice Ferre or Xavier Suarez, all of whom have expressed their opposition to a stadium in the park.)

Under escort I was allowed to examine -- but not photograph -- the visuals. Most imposing was the scale model of downtown Miami, an idealized utopia featuring a low-slung, inoffensive I-395; a lushly landscaped esplanade and canal stretching from the bay to the old Miami Arena; green spaces aplenty in the Park West area; an alluring Biscayne Boulevard softened by verdant medians; a string of sleek skyscrapers stretching north from the Freedom Tower; and of course a massive baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park.

As envisioned by Henry's imagineers, the stadium would sit on the northern half of the park as close to Biscayne Bay as possible. It would be aligned such that the base path from home plate to first base fell on a north-south axis. Behind it, next to I-395, sat three chunky blocks representing parking garages for 1500 cars, and above it perched a three-part retractable roof on rolling girders that, when not in use, stood to the rear like gigantic nesting tables. And gigantic is the word. According to the architects, the 40,000-seat structure, from ground level to rolling roof, would stand 280 feet tall. By contrast the new American Airlines Arena rises 160 feet at its highest exterior peak.

The meeting opened with a representative of Pittsburgh's renowned Urban Design Associates welcoming the distinguished guests and introducing Miami architect Roney Mateu, who began by asserting that John Henry had provided the city an opportunity to erect an "iconic building" that would be a catalyst to improving downtown.

The notion that Henry was doing us all a favor apparently was too much for Jorge Espinel, a bomb-thrower-of-an-activist architect and head of the nonprofit group Urban Watch. Without warning he rose and launched into an impassioned tirade I could hear from my exile in the hallway. His message: What gall the Marlins had in moving ahead like this when they'd made no effort to develop community consensus, when the waterfront park was the worst possible site for a stadium, when this very meeting was private instead of public. Marlins executives politely tried to shut him up. He resisted, passed around a flyer, then stormed out.

According to my trusty sources, everything that followed was anticlimactic, even boring. The designers noted the seductive camera angles available from a bayfront stadium and stressed how important that would be for Miami's image. Traffic experts pooh-poohed gridlock doomsayers. Urban planners dismissed any thought of a site west of Biscayne Boulevard by complaining about street closures, railroad rights-of-way, supposedly poor access, and allegedly unattractive camera angles.

A question-and-answer period elicited three interesting queries but no interesting answers: 1) Why did it appear that most of Overtown was left out of the heavenly visions for a new downtown? 2) Where on earth would the money come from for those visions? 3) Wouldn't such a hulking structure in Bicentennial Park obliterate the bay views planned for the nearby performing arts center?

Evasive answers are consistent with the unspoken message conveyed by secretive meetings, awkward attempts to ban the press, and John Henry's dreadful decision to rely on political lobbyists and media spin-doctors. The message is that this deal will be accomplished the way deals have always been accomplished in Miami: behind closed doors.

All the talk about inclusiveness and community involvement is just a kind of cynical doublespeak designed to disarm and obfuscate. If you don't believe it, consider these three examples from the meeting last week:

Several members of Henry's crew used the term charrette to describe the meetings they've been holding with various government bureaucrats. This was shamefully dishonest as they well knew that true charrettes -- marathon brainstorming sessions -- draw on the broadest possible range of participants, from professionals to peons.

Others on the design team managed to keep straight faces when they argued that destroying Bicentennial Park and replacing it with a mammoth concrete stadium would actually "complete a series of parks" along downtown's waterfront.

Most revealing, however, was the little joke Henry's hired guns shared with their privileged confidants at the Marriott. Anyone who slipped and used the word stadium would be fined five dollars. The operative word these days is ballpark. There's a big difference, you know.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin