The Miami Marlins boarded a charter flight to Atlanta last week with a sense of foreboding as Hurricane Irma bore down on South Florida with winds in excess of 100 mph and potentially catastrophic consequences on the horizon.
Midway through their seven-game road trip, as the Miami players monitor news reports and catch up on the damage, they're still waiting for definitive word on when they'll be returning home.
As the Marlins began a three-game series in Philadelphia, manager Don Mattingly said the team expects to learn Wednesday whether this weekend's series against the Milwaukee Brewers will be played as scheduled in Miami or be moved to an alternate, as-yet-undetermined site.
"We'll find out something tomorrow,'' Mattingly said. "It's just [a question of] the city being up and running again. It's hard to think about playing a game when people can't get around.''
Mike Berger, Marlins vice president and assistant general manager, confirmed a Miami Herald report that Marlins Park is structurally sound except for a thin membrane on the roof that was peeled back by high winds. The bigger issue, Berger said, is resolving the logistical questions that need to be addressed before the ballpark doors can open again.
"The primary concern is to make certain the area can host a major league game with all the other needs in the community,'' Berger said. "Just think of the [emergency medical services], the police and the firemen. Is the area ready to redirect those resources -- manpower, woman power -- to a major league ballpark the way we take for granted 162 nights a year when part of the community is still under water and power is still out? That's the overriding concern right now.''
Several Miami players who either rent or own homes in South Florida said their residences escaped with minimal damage. Pitcher Justin Nicolino, an Orlando native, bought a house about 90 miles north of Miami in Jupiter, Florida, last summer. He said damage in the immediate area was limited to some debris from downed trees. Nicolino's parents live in Orlando, and his wife's family is in Jacksonville. They all emerged from the storm with their homes intact with the exception of a loss of power.
"I was 1 or 2 [years old] when Hurricane Andrew hit in '93,'' Nicolino said. "I experienced Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Charley, Hurricane Jeanne and another one in '04 or '05. I was a young kid and I thought it was cool because we missed school. We were playing in the water and doing everything you shouldn't be doing. I kind of knew what to expect this time. Whenever they say you need to evacuate, you know it's pretty serious.''
While the Miami players spent several days turning the clubhouse televisions to hurricane coverage amid the obligatory baseball watching, their families came along for the ride. The Marlins' traveling party for the Atlanta-Philadelphia trip swelled to about 130 people after owner Jeffrey Loria gave the directive for wives and children to accompany the team on the road.
"Jeffrey's quote to me was, 'Lives first, baseball second,''' Berger said. "He wanted everybody out of harm's way.''
The Miami players said the emotional strain of the road trip has been easier because of the outreach efforts of their two opponents, the Atlanta Braves and the Phillies, who have made special accommodations for wives and children over the past week.
The Braves provided tickets to the Six Flags and Stone Mountain amusement parks and the World of Coca-Cola museum, along with free tickets to the games at SunTrust Park. When the Marlins arrived in the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, they found a stack of complimentary tickets to the Franklin Institute, the Adventure Aquarium and the Philadelphia Zoo. Reliever Brad Ziegler said the Phillies also told the Marlins players they would be providing catered postgame food for family members.
"The Braves and Phillies have been unbelievable,'' Ziegler said. "The Braves gave us a letter when we got there, and it basically said, 'We're sorry for the circumstances you're in and we're going to make your stay as comfortable as possible.' They were extremely generous. It was right in line with Southern, Georgia hospitality.''
As the Marlins wait for a decision from MLB on this weekend's series against the Brewers, they know they'll be returning to an area that's dealing with far bigger concerns than baseball.
"I watched CNN yesterday and they showed Coconut Grove and the little harbor they have there, and you're thinking, 'That's two minutes from my house,''' Mattingly said. "It would be really selfish for us to be irritated about [some games being moved]. There are probably some people who couldn't get out of there -- who couldn't afford to leave. That has to be first.''