MIAMI (Reuters) - Get ready, baseball fans. Miami, the city of sun and fun, wants to bring some flair to America’s favourite pastime.
When baseball’s Opening Day kicks off next week, the Miami Marlins will inaugurate a new $515 million ballpark built with all the trappings of South Florida -- two enormous fish tanks, palm trees and a kitschy (of course) home run celebration display.
The stadium, named Marlins Park, “screams Miami,” team owner Jeffrey Loria has said.
The white semi-domed stadium is an attempt by Loria and city officials to reignite fan interest in a team that won the World Series in 1997, and again in 2003, but finished at the bottom of the National League East Division standings last year.
They also hope it will help revitalize Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood, a rough-and-tumble district near downtown and a cultural symbol for many in Miami’s large Cuban community.
The stadium’s official opening on Wednesday will mark a new chapter for the Marlins, who have changed their name, redesigned their uniforms and embarked on a spending spree for a high-profile manager and free-agent players to breathe new life into the team.
To win over fans, the Marlins are offering up a baseball experience with a dash of Latin and South Beach style.
The stadium’s signature feature will be its backdrop at home plate. Two 450-gallon salt water aquariums sit on either side and will be stocked with 100 tropical fish.
“When you think of Miami, you think of water, right?” said Claude Delorme, a Marlins executive vice president. “We wanted a unique piece that identifies where we are.”
The fish tanks are built of durable fibreglass and protected by a material used in bullet-proof glass. To ensure they would withstand impacts from baseballs, team officials brought in a Marlins player to hurl balls to test out the glass.
The tanks will be lit with blue lights during games to make sure players do not lose sight of the balls.
‘HOME RUN SCULPTURE’
Behind the outfield is a home run celebration display few will confuse with being anywhere but South Florida. Team officials call it a “home run sculpture.”
Designed by American pop artist Red Grooms, the 72-foot yellow, blue and neon pink structure features seagulls, flamingos, and a pointy-billed teal marlin that will leap every time a home run is hit. It is set next to - what else - palm trees.
The home run celebration will also include a 34-second splash effect and laser show.
“Some people have been critical of it,” Delorme joked. “But it adds to the experience of coming out to the ballpark.”
No new ballpark in Miami would be complete without a swimming pool.
Marlins Park will be the second major U.S. baseball stadium after Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona, to feature a swimming pool for fans looking to enjoy the game from a different vantage point.
“We wanted to have this party area in left field,” Delorme said. “So people would see it on TV and say, you know what, I want to go there.”
About four feet deep, the pool is part of an area that was conceived with the Clevelander, a well-known South Beach party-goers hotel. The pool side area includes a bar and DJs.
“There will be home run balls landing in the pool, so people will have to be alert,” Delorme said.
Built on the old site of Miami’s Orange Bowl, the stadium offers an intimate setting that will hold a mere 37,442 spectators - the smallest capacity in baseball.
It also has a host of other amenities that fans complained were missing from the Marlins’ previous home, Sun Life Stadium, in suburban north Miami, where the Miami Dolphins also play.
The stadium’s roof is retractable - key when Miami’s rainy season sets in. Air conditioning in the stadium will maintain an average temperature of 75 degrees to keep fans comfortable during Florida’s muggy summer months.
The stadium, however, has not been without controversy.
When plans for its construction were first announced, it drew howls from some Miami residents who complained taxpayers were picking up the tab for three-fourths of the stadium’s costs. It was financed using municipal bonds.
The stadium’s financing is now the focus of a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Still, it has generated buzz in Miami and team officials say they hope it proves to be a draw not only for baseball fans.
“You could bring someone here who does not like baseball and they could have a really good time,” Delorme said. “And they’ll want to come back.”
Editing by Greg McCune and Philip Barbara