For their first 19 years, the Florida Marlins toiled as tenants in the charmless and oft-renamed (Joe Robbie, Pro Player, Dolphins, Dolphin, Land Shark, Sun Life) football stadium in Miami Gardens that the Dolphins call home. With traffic, it can take 80 minutes to drive the 15 miles north from downtown to the stadium, which has no roof to shield fans from the storms and heat of Florida summers. Inside the Marlins' front office, the belief is that the team's dour attendance figures were due in large measure to the lack of a decent ballpark—and not an indicator of baseball apathy in South Florida. "I spent every day saying, don't tell me about fans," Loria says. "The fans are here, but who wants to sit in the rain every night?"
The new park is visible from downtown—it's a mere two miles away—and will be chilled to a dry 75º most nights. (The Marlins expect to play with the roof open just 10 times a season.) It features amenities both expected (fine food, good sightlines, comfortable seats) and otherwise, such as the pair of 450-gallon saltwater aquariums built into the backstop and the outpost of a South Beach club behind the leftfield fence, which will stay open until 3 a.m. Loria & Co. are certain that fans will flock to Marlins Park. One encouraging sign: By spring training Miami had already sold around 15,000 season tickets, surpassing the team's record of 10,000 in 2004, and only four of the park's 40 luxury suites were still available.
The payroll hike is based on the expectation that, since the Marlins built it, the fans will come—and then continue to do so beyond 2012. But a new ballpark is not necessarily a franchise panacea. Since '01, 10 clubs have opened new homes, and the long-term results have been mixed. The Pirates, for example, had sustained eight straight losing seasons when they moved into PNC Park and bumped their payroll from $26.6 million to $57.8 million in '01. Ten more losing seasons have followed, their payroll hasn't increased beyond its '01 level and they have had seven seasons with attendance no higher than it was in their last year in Three Rivers Stadium.
While the Phillies have thrived since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, the Padres, Brewers, Nationals and Mets have also discovered that a new stadium does not instantly make a healthy franchise. The key is also to win. Guillen understands this. "I don't want people to say, let's land in Miami, take a look at a nice place, and leave," he says. "They want to do that, go to Aventura Mall. I want people to say, I want to come back to watch these guys play again."
The good news for the Marlins is that, despite their winter cash outlay, they didn't necessarily overspend. "The Reyes deal looks excellent, in light of the Pujols and [Prince] Fielder money," says a rival team executive, referring to Pujols's $240 million and the nine-year, $214 million deal the slugging Fielder got from the Tigers. "Buehrle's solid, and Heath Bell at $9 million a year, that's not the end of the world."
What's more, Reyes, Bell and Buehrle—and righthander Carlos Zambrano, the one-time Cubs ace whose tempestuous clubhouse presence in Chicago allowed Miami to acquired him for a song in January—aren't just All-Star Band-Aids covering an otherwise flawed roster. As one NL executive says, "I don't think there's anyone who's not scared of playing this team." That's because the Marlins, despite missing the playoffs for eight straight years and going 72--90 last season, have been quietly building a young nucleus. Outfielders Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton and first baseman Gaby Sanchez are all 28 or younger, and they combined to hit 76 homers in 2011. Most important, Miami's roster also includes a pair of 28-year-old All-Stars: Johnson and three-time All-Star Hanley Ramirez.
The 6'7'' Johnson won the NL ERA crown in 2010, his fifth full big league season. Although his profile in South Florida has been so low that he has occasionally been accused of being Lakers forward Luke Walton in supermarkets, he was also a contender for the title of the league's best pitcher entering '11. Last spring he added a slow curveball to his 94-mph fastball and slider, and batters were staggered. Johnson took no-hitters into at least the fifth inning in three of his first four starts, and through nine outings he had an ERA of 1.64 and a batting average against of .185. But then he developed scapular dyskinesis—an abnormal movement of the shoulder blade—and he didn't pitch again after May 16. After nearly eight months of rest, though, Johnson is throwing freely and on track to start Opening Day in a climate-controlled environment that the Marlins believe will help keep him healthy. No longer will Johnson regularly pitch in extreme weather, and no longer will his pregame routines be frequently disrupted by rain.
Then there is the mercurial Ramirez, who struggled with a left-shoulder injury last season and had his worst year as a pro (he hit a career-low .243). Ramirez, the NL batting champion in 2009, must now move from short to third base to make room for Reyes, his good friend and fellow Dominican. Reyes and Ramirez text regularly and hung out at the house of former Mets second baseman Luis Castillo in the Dominican Republic in December. In recent weeks Ramirez has tweeted several pictures of himself socializing with Reyes (see Hanley and Jose playing the MLB 2K12 video game; see Hanley and Jose having dinner), images that seem to contradict off-season reports that Ramirez was unhappy about his involuntary position change. Ramirez arrived at the club's spring training complex in Jupiter on Feb. 20, six days before the first mandatory position-player workout. "Why not?" he said when asked if he thought he could return to the All-Star Game as a third baseman after three trips as a shortstop. "I know what kind of player I am, and I know what kind of player I'm going to be this year because I feel good."
Still, Guillen says that he does not expect Ramirez, who was anointed the unofficial Mr. Marlin when he was given a six-year, $70 million contract during the 2008 season, to be entirely pleased about having to leave the game's preeminent position. "I would never be happy, if they moved me," says Guillen, a former slap-hitting shortstop. "But Hanley's got to understand, this is his ball club. We built this ball club around him. You know, if Hanley Ramirez was replaced by Ozzie Guillen, I would be pissed. But Hanley Ramirez is being replaced by a pretty good [shortstop]. I expect Hanley to be fine."
As Guillen and Reyes posed for a photo shoot inside Marlins Park in mid-February, a week before pitchers and catchers reported, it was easy to feel good about the franchise's great gamble. The stadium's so-called "home run feature"—a $2.5 million, 73-foot tall, technicolor sculpture by the noted pop artist Red Grooms, complete with diving marlins and flamingoes and seagulls that will spring to life in centerfield whenever a Miami batter hits a ball over the wall—seemed not an eyesore, but full of potential. So did the unusually vibrant new uniforms Guillen and Reyes were wearing, black with accents of blue, orange and yellow. "The colors are a reflection of the bright sunsets you see in Miami," explains Loria, an art dealer by trade. "Yellow of the sunlight, blue of the water."