The grand scheme

FOR THE 11TH TIME IN A DOZEN YEARS, we cue the lights and unveil another state-of-the-art ballpark. This time it's in Miami -- my old town, the northernmost city in South America. But this opening ceremony is more than just another stadium upgrade: Down here, the stakes feel a little higher, if not desperate.

Despite two World Series titles in their first 11 years, the Marlins have managed to earn total irrelevancy. The locals will always love Dan Marino more than Dan Uggla. Over the past decade, playing in Sun Life Stadium, the Marlins averaged 29th in league attendance.

In 2003, the last season Florida won it all, the Marlins were ... 28th. And on Aug. 24 of last year, a season in which the team was mired so deep in woeful attendance it made Pittsburgh look like a baseball mecca, 347 (unofficially) people watched a game against the Reds, scattered around the stadium like the last Rice Krispies clinging to the sides of the bowl.

A new name -- the Miami Marlins, finally -- a new logo, a new color scheme and the glistening new ballpark are supposed to signal a new beginning for an annually yawn-inducing team. But let's not kid around: In a football-mad city, this gleaming domed saucer planted in an outback of a neighborhood is the last, best shot for Major League Baseball to gain a foothold in this impatient, internationally flavored town. The Marlins' new forum will either reflect and entice the hip set -- and do so for years to come -- or be doomed to stand as a glorious but lonely edifice, abandoned like so much South Florida real estate.

LET'S START WITH the rose-colored view: Against a national landscape of classic-looking stadiums, Marlins Park's postmodernist structure will give it a lot of buzz. And in Miami, when anything tropically lit and fashionably accoutred can attract people, buzz counts. This is the city, after all, where South Beach brought Euro-hip to the streets and fashion-mag cameras to the pastel deco hotels. The city where visionary Bulgarian sculptor Christo wrapped Biscayne Bay's barrier islands in hot-pink plastic because he could and where LeBron famously took his talents in the gaudiest of all prime-time coronations.

I've covered baseball in every kind of park, written about stadiums for serious architecture mags, even written a book about the building of a stadium, and for the first time, I can say that an architecture team (Populous) has dressed the national pastime in a structure very much of the present. Marlins Park, on the site of the old Orange Bowl in East Little Havana, is a head-turning beauty befitting its art-dealer owner, Jeffrey Loria.

It's also an impressive feat of engineering. The turtleback 8,000-ton dome slides sideways off the top of the stadium onto two thin rails, each supported by columns sculpted like intertwined tree trunks. Behind leftfield, huge letters jut out of the ground at crazy angles, representing what the letters of the old "Orange Bowl" sign might have looked like as they tumbled to the ground during demolition.

"Jeffrey wanted a gallery feeling, and inside the gallery you'll find baseball," Claude Delorme, executive vice president of operations and events, told me on a private tour in December. The inside of the park is intimate -- 36,000 seats represents the fewest in MLB -- but also showy: Most fans will have an impressive view of the downtown skyline through large sliding-glass windows that will open to the tropical air beyond the leftfield swimming pool. The seating is divided into four color-coded sections, each tone based on the palette of Spanish surrealist Joan Miro, a Loria favorite. The view of home plate from centerfield is pure Miami, with 24- and 34-foot fish tanks embedded in the walls on either side of the dish. (Even the video screen isn't rectangular.)

Capping this gallery is a 74-foot home-run-celebration machine designed by heavyweight artist Red Grooms, whose delightful work can be found in the permanent collections of MoMA, the Met and the Art Institute of Chicago. With each Miami home run, a colorful, sculpted marlin surrounded by seagulls will soar up a deco-themed arch before plummeting to the water. Like a lot of Grooms' stuff, the piece is kaleidoscopic, playful and bizarre.

In other words, this ain't Milwaukee's Bernie Brewer sliding into the Splash Zone.

In a way, the wild mix of the design mirrors the crazy-quilt makeup of the region it hopes to entertain: a fantasyland where transplants from numerous cultures complement one another's tastes and bond around their shared setting, creating something unique and alluring. People of every nationality, for example, head to Little Haiti for the conch at Chef Creole, and the Wynwood Arts District blocks away is just as well-known for its eclectic cuisine as for its abstract expressionism. With considerable help from the taxpayers (and bond sales being examined by the SEC), Loria has built his city a symbol of glitter and hype. Placing it in East Little Havana gives the stadium the imprimatur of Latin legitimacy; the hope is that Miami's 65 percent Hispanic population will produce a large fan base that spends its dollars in the neighborhood, which then itself will rise. "The next growth in Miami will move toward the ballpark," Delorme tells me as we walk the grounds. Near the end of my tour, he stops and stares out at the skyline: "See how impressive that is? You don't even have to appreciate baseball."

THE GAME TOOK root in Northern cities more than a century ago, a pastoral sport planted in spare lots amid the factories, a reminder of the rural in all of us. From the start, baseball's grip on our sporting souls has relied on the pull of the past and the game's generational bloodlines -- granddads to dads to sons -- in parks that summon the ghosts of Comiskey and Tiger and Crosley.

Camden Yards' retroaccessorized, brick-skinned comfort, with the old B&O Warehouse nodding its approval, spawned new parks with their own historical features: Think PNC's view of the Three Rivers' steel-trussed bridges, Comerica rubbing up against Woodward Avenue. The modern ballpark usually is designed to evoke a storied past. Which brings us to this ballpark's striking gestalt and what it tells us about the Marlins' plans.

No other stadium that has successfully sprung up in this millennium, from San Diego to Milwaukee, has relied on itself as the main attraction. Most have a distinct aesthetic, but it's usually one with a nod to casual, nostalgic familiarity, like the game's own relaxed allure: Come as you are, sip a few beers, catch a game and root like hell for the beloved home nine.

Selling each visit to the ballpark as an event, as the Marlins propose, is untrodden MLB ground. The park's sparkling adornments, which the ownership says are meant to enhance the game, actually seek to distract. The Marlins plan for pre- and postgame concerts makes the baseball game itself an intermission. Even during play, the Clevelander nightclub beyond leftfield will accept around 200 paying revelers to dance to, say, Skrillex's latest single. The Marlins' website pushes the stadium as an exclusive enclave replete with a palm-fringed pool, disc jockeys, dancers and body-painting -- and, incidentally, baseball. The goal is to turn a distinctly blue-collar, metal-turnstile game into the sport's first velvet-rope experience.

If there's any town where that might work, I guess it'd be Miami -- if Marlins Park didn't have so many other drawbacks.

Let's start with the water. Where is it? In Miami, rippling turquoise waves and perfumelike sea breezes are the city's selling point and emotional lure. Practically everything that matters in Miami is on or near the waves, from the forthcoming Museum Park to the Heat's fanciful AmericanAirlines Arena to the ever-growing Ultra Music Festival to the dozens of bayside acres a Malaysian company just bought to build an enormous casino complex.

In baseball, and in particular in San Francisco and Baltimore, proximity to water proved essential to success. The sight of kayakers bobbing for balls beyond AT&T in San Francisco is now as iconic as the frieze of Yankee Stadium. And if, yes, Baltimore has more or less deserted Camden Yards, the fans will be back when (if?) the Orioles ever win again. In the meantime, the park helped invigorate the Inner Harbor.

But Marlins Park lies more than two miles inland. East Little Havana is an impoverished neighborhood that has gone distinctly downward since the Orange Bowl heyday of that 17–0 1972 Dolphins team. Few people outside the area choose to go there. And it's unlikely that anyone from, say, the spooky apartment building a few yards beyond centerfield to the woman a few blocks away doing her ironing on the porch of her modest cottage will be regular attendees -- and not just because of current major league ticket prices.

No, people from this neighborhood and others are as likely to follow players from their own native lands playing for other teams as they are the Marlins. "What we have here are pockets of Latin Americans who are more connected to the country and city they came from," says Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times. In other words, a 65 percent Hispanic populace in Miami does not a Marlins fan base make -- as the past two decades' attendance up on the Broward County line testifies.

Hoping for a ballpark to reinvigorate a neighborhood didn't work in Detroit or Phoenix, and already empty new storefronts haunt the retail row of the stadium's north side: 53,000 square feet of barren space. A broker hired out of Miami Beach hasn't leased to a single restaurant or boutique. That could be because one block away, for about 5 bucks, you can get a great plate of masitas de cerdo or pan con bistec at the Palace Cafe and Dairy.

The hurdles to 3 million fans a year don't end there. The train stations are too far away for comfortable strolling. And if the park's soft opening in early March is any indication, it will be little easier arriving by car. With two parking garages holding fewer than 6,000 vehicles -- and those spaces largely promised to VIPs -- fans driving in for a Marlins exhibition game had to endure a jam on the nearby Dolphin Expressway, then snarled as they sought out driveways and front yards to park in. During the season, fans coming from the nearby 12th Avenue Bridge won't fare much better -- especially when the drawbridge is up.

Winning, of course, unites even the disgruntled among us. Hiring the wildly entertaining Ozzie Guillen was a perfect move for Miami: He not only won a World Series, he swept it, outgaming Houston's Phil Garner by a Texas mile. Enigmatic big-ticket shortstop Jose Reyes will electrify if his hamstrings work. Heath Bell averaged 44 saves over the past three years. Mark Buehrle carried a 3.59 ERA last season. If the team can keep trip wire Carlos Zambrano from taking a bat to the fish tank and Josh Johnson's shoulder stays healthy, all might be well: The park's dimensions are generous.

The bigger question is whether twice-burned, now-wary Miamians will care. After the first Series title in '97, owner Wayne Huizenga jettisoned the likes of Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou. The Marlins became the first -- and only -- team in history to lose 100 games (actually 108) after winning the Series.

"Instead of building on the momentum," says Linda Robertson, a sports writer at the Herald since 1983, "it's like [Huizenga] said, 'Ah, this is too expensive.' The fans got disgruntled. It was like a spurned lover sort of thing -- an immediate, bitter feeling. They felt betrayed: 'We gave loyalty and you give us this? Screw you.'?"

The year after winning the second title in 2003, under Loria, the Marlins were third from last in attendance. Two years later, Loria denuded the roster again, and the Marlins drew a dead-last 1.16 million -- 14,000 a game.

That will change this year as Loria's monument initially draws some of the cool and curious, as well as the baseball fans who want to see whether Guillen can mold this new roster into a serious contender and art aficionados who want to see the Grooms sculpture unveiled in center. It may even be worth an hourlong traffic jam or a stroll over the 12th Avenue Bridge in 111 percent humidity.

I HOPE THAT SUPPORT WILL LAST. I want it to. I want fans to flock to the spaceship and focus on a team, not on aesthetic trinkets. I want them to show patience and give Guillen a chance to do for this dormant bunch what Pat Riley did for the Heat: bring challenge-for-the-title credibility, year in and year out. I want the supremely talented Reyes to be both Alonzo Mourning and King James, a singular performer whose star glows brightly enough to make his party the place to be that night -- and to be a team leader while doing it. I want the owner to go against all his previous form and commit to the long term, creating a fearsome atmosphere where players throughout the majors want to wear the Marlin orange, black and white (with incongruous hints of tropical yellow and blue).

But alas, it's all simply too much to want. Marlins Park is a stunning building. It really is. But a baseball franchise isn't a piece of sculpture. It's a public trust. It's the foundation of a civic identity. For lifelong fans of the national pastime, the bond with their teams has furnished one of the strongest bonds of their lives.

As Delorme gave me his tour, he didn't mention that. He kept talking about the stadium's aesthetics and said surprisingly little about the game to be played there. If he's right, if you don't have to appreciate baseball to enjoy the stadium, then why expect the public to appreciate the team?

As we walked toward the seats behind home plate, where the fish tanks awaited the delivery of their finned tenants, my eye caught a sign that summed up Delorme and Loria's vision: Marlins Park will feature a Bobblehead Museum, filled with toys that are about as meaningful to their sport as the prizes in a box of Cracker Jacks are to a great meal.

It won't be toys, regardless of their price, that create the tradition that Miami deserves.

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