Champion Stadium

Miami Marlins @ Atlanta Braves

Spring Training 2012 at Champion Stadium; part of ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex located in Walt Disney World (Lake Buena Vista, Florida). Atlanta Braves hosted Miami Marlins in late March, as teams finalized their rosters. But, the news throughout baseball broke here just moments before the game. Atlanta Braves third base star Chipper Jones announced he would retire at the end of the season. On this day, he took a pre-game walk to home plate and exchanged starting line-ups with Joey Cora of the Miami Marlins and to exchange pleasantries with Joe West and the three other umpires on duty. He received a lengthy standing ovation on his way back to the dugout, rightly so. In 18 years with the Atlanta Braves, he is an 8-time all-star, a 2-time silver slugger, the 1999 NL MVP, a 2008 batting champion, and a 1995 World Champion. Chipper Jones was the face of all those post season years for the Atlanta Braves.

Over in the other dugout was the newly minted Miami Marlins team. Over the off-season, the Franchise in South Beach was preparing to open the New Marlins Park; launching a marketing campaign that rebranded the team from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins, a throwback to the Triple-A Minor league team (1956-1960). Satchel Paige played for that team in the twilight of his career. The front office also worked feverishly in the hot stove to make good on their promise of putting a team on the field that would go the World Series. Free agents like Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez singed on to the build. The Marlins were also close to signing Albert Pujols, who was also on the free agency market after winning the 2011 World Series. He would reject a contract worth up to $300 million over 10 years from the Marlins. Apparently, the deal breaker was a no trade clause that was non negotiable as far as Pujols was concerned. He would sign with the Los Angeles Angels at $254 million, also over 10 years. It was substantially less money but included a full no trade clause from the Angels. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Marlins would be plagued by controversy. For the Marlins, the season would fizzle into a bad ending to a B-movie.

Champion Stadium was the Spring Training home for the Atlanta Braves from 1997 (opening year) to 2019. The team now trains at CoolToday Park (Sarasota, Florida). Technically, it opened for the last spring training game of 2019. But, 2020 was to be the inaugural year. Over the years the 7500 seat Champion Stadium has been home to baseball tournaments at just about every level of amateur, as well as professional, competition. This was the site of the 2006 World Baseball Classic; First round, Pool D. In an effort to promote Tampa Rays fandom. The team scheduled a regular season series in the 2007 (Texas Rangers) and the 2008 Regular Seasons. The Rays won all six of those games. Champion Stadium is one of the ballparks most visited in my baseball pilgrimage; purely by default. I lived nearby for over 15 years. I was here when Sammy Sosa, with the Texas Rangers, returned to the team that first signed him to play his final year in 2007.  I also had the fortune of seeing David Ortiz and Team Dominican face Mike Piazza and Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Hall of Famer Mike Piazza would go on to coach Team Italia under the counseling of legendary Tommy Lasorda.

And speaking of legends, with the passing of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron today, the Braves family, along with the rest of the world, mourn the loss of an icon that was a legend among legends. In the last nine months, (10) Hall of Famers have passed away. The annual induction ceremonies in August of 2020 were cancelled. When the Hall of Fame does reconvene, roll call will be difficult.   

Marlins Park

Chicago Cubs @ Miami Marlins

2012 Regular Season at the New Marlins Park; the inaugural year. The Marlins were completing an organizational facelift, a campaign that ushered in a new image and the opening of a $551 Million complex at the site of the Old Orange Bowl. Jeffrey Loria, (owner of the Marlins at that time) built his wealth as an international art dealer, hence the placement of artwork throughout the hallways, the eclectic fish tank behind home plate. Then there was the sculpture; behind center field, with moving parts, sounding bells and whistle, that lit up and blew steam when a Marlins player hit a home run. The view beyond the huge glass panels of the Miami Skyline is impressive. Along with a retractable roof, the glass panels behind left field slide open to create a breeze way. New brand also meant new colors, new uniforms, new logo, and new name as the “Miami” Marlins, a throwback to the triple A Minor league team (1956-1960). Satchel Paige played for that team in the twilight of his career.

Amid the pompous circumstance of an inaugural year, the Miami Marlins faced a fallout in community support for two primary reasons. One, Jeffrey Loria worked with key figures in Miami Dade Politics to get a large share of construction cost covered by Miami Dade County through the sale of bonds, and with little community support for this project. Jeffrey Loria justified the need for public funding by arguing that the team was losing money. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez was responsible for huge property tax increases to residents during a mortgage crisis in the State of Florida; in order to help fund development of Marlins Park and pay hikes to the Mayor’s top staffers. The controversial relationship prompted locals to an election that ousted Mayor Carlos Alvarez by a vote of 88%. It was the largest municipal recall election in U.S. history.

The Marlins were hosting the Chicago Cubs here for the first time. It was also the first game back for Manager Ozzie Guillen who was returning from his suspension for comments he made about Fidel Castro that infuriated the Cuban Community. If he was still in Chicago, it would not have been an issue. But, it’s a cardinal sin to speak favorably of Fidel Castro in South Florida. Protests demanding the firing of Manager Ozzie Guillen also threatened to wreak havoc on the Marlins season. Guillen was a vital part of the Marlins marketing plan to connect to the Latino fan base. More money was spent on signing a high caliber of free agents to jumpstart the team into the post season. Fanfare began to fizzle out when a change of plans mid-season prompted the front office to start trading away their highly minted free agents one by one. Showtime pulled the plug on their series “The Franchise,” featuring the Miami Marlins in their inaugural season. The new Miami Marlins, who promised a “World Series” relevant team would eventually go out like just another tragic ending to a “Miami-Vice” tv episode.

But the Marlins story is a resilient one. Despite the odds, the franchise has won the 1997 & 2003 World Series. In 2017, Derek Jeter, with New York Businessman Bruce Sherman, bought the team for $1.2 billion. Since then, the organization has been liquid to say the least. The high turnover and change in direction have challenged the team to find its place in the league. At the end of the day, the Marlins have been historically resilient. Their scouting has paid dividends and those winning seasons have apparently been perfectly timed.

They’ve always managed to field a roster and compete in uncertain circumstance. So, when the pandemic hit the Marlins recently with an outbreak of over half the team with positive covid-19 cases, I was sure that it was game over. Within a week, they re-signed players needed to fill the roster while dealing with logistics of travel, eating, and sleeping. Their ability to follow the protocol requirements is a different game. As of Aug 12th, they have an 8-4 record and a .667 winning percentage that puts them in first place in the NL Eastern Division. Regarding how much bearing actual records will have; it remains to be seen. But, in the last game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Marlins won a 10-inning slugfest 14-11.

The Marlins confirm my faith in the player who is hungry. If there is a silver lining in the 2020 season, it’s that doors will open for players who have waited a lifetime for that one chance. So far, there are 40 MLB new debuts. In the tradition of Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cabrera, 2020 will be the year of the unknown player.