Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to Be a Met Fan In Miami

I'll have a rant about the new Devils' coach tomorrow.

This weekend, thee Mets head down to Miami – or, at least, the suburbs of Miami – to play the Florida Marlins.

Next season, the team will move into a new stadium in the City of Miami, and officially rename themselves the Miami Marlins, which was also the name of a team in the Florida State League. Therefore, this information is only applicable to their final 2 trips there in this season, this weekend and September 5 to 7.

I should also issue a disclaimer that, while I have been to Orlando and Tampa, I have never been to Miami; therefore, all of this information is secondhand. However, I have based it on information from local sources, including the Marlins’ own website, so it is presumably accurate and up-to-date.

Before You Go. Presume that it will be hot, and that it will be rainy. This is why the new ballpark will have a retractable roof. The current stadium, however, has no roof, which means there’s no protection from either rain or sun at your seat. So dress lightly, wear a hat, keep hydrated, and you should probably bring an umbrella.

Getting There. It’s 1,283 miles from Times Square in New York to downtown Miami, and about the same distance from Citi Field in Flushing Meadow to what’s currently named Sun Life Stadium, in a location that’s been called, at various times, Miami, Miami Lakes, Miami Gardens, Carol City and Opa-Locka. Sounds like a bad variety show sketch.

Knowing this distance, your first reaction is going to be to fly down there. This is not a horrible idea, but you’ll still have to get from the airport to wherever your hotel is. If you’re trying to get from the airport to downtown, you’ll need to change buses – or change from a bus to Miami’s Tri-Rail rapid transit service. And it is possible, if you order quickly, to find nonstop flights, lasting 3 hours, for under $600 round-trip.

The train is not a very good idea, because you’ll have to leave Penn Station on Amtrak’s Silver Star at 11:02 AM and arrive in Miami at 6:05 the next day’s evening, a 31-hour ride. The return trip will leave at 8:20 AM and return to New York at 11:06 AM, “only” 27 hours – no, there’s no time-zone change involved. Round-trip, it’ll cost $434. And the station isn’t all that close, at 8303 NW 37th Avenue. Fortunately, there’s a Tri-Rail station there that will take you downtown.

How about Greyhound? There are 5 buses leaving Port Authority every day with connections to Miami, only one of them nonstop, the 10:45 PM to 7:30 AM (2 days later) version. The rest require you to change buses in Richmond and Orlando. (This is not fun.) The ride, including the changeovers, takes about 33 hours. Round-trip fare is $309. The station is at 4111 NW 27th Street and, ironically, is right across 42nd Avenue from the airport. It’s worth the fact that it’ll cost twice as much to simply fly down. Plus, you might be reminded of the end of the movie Midnight Cowboy, and nobody wants to be reminded of that.

If you want to drive, it'll help to get someone to go down with you, and take turns driving. You’ll be going down Interstate 95 (or its New Jersey equivalent, the Turnpike) almost the whole way. It’ll be about 2 hours from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, 20 minutes in Delaware, and an hour and a half in Maryland, before crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, at the southern tip of the District of Columbia, into Virginia. Then it will be 3 hours or so in Virginia, another 3 hours in North Carolina, about 3 hours and 15 minutes in South Carolina, a little under 2 hours in Georgia, and about 6 hours and 15 minutes in Florida before you reach downtown Miami – maybe a little under 6 hours if you get a hotel near the stadium. Given rest stops, preferably in one in each State from Maryland to Georgia and 2 in Florida, you’re talking about a 28-hour trip.

Tickets. The Marlins are averaging 17,101 fans per game – dead last in the major leagues. Although they opened strong as an expansion franchise in 1993 with 37,838, and were doing well in 1994 with 33,695 before the strike hit, only in their 1997 World Championship season, 29,190, have they since topped 24,000. Even in their World Championship season of 2003, they averaged just 16,290. Although Sun Life Stadium (the 7th name the facility has had in its 24 years of operation) has 75,192 seats for football and, during World Series play, topped out at 67,498, much of the upper deck has been tarped off, and official baseball capacity is 38,560 turning what could be the largest stadium in the majors into one of the smallest.

So getting tickets will be no problem: Pretty much anything you can afford will be available. We’re talking about the kind of situation where you can call the ticket office and ask, “What time does the game start?” and have them say, “What time can you get here?” Hopefully, that will change next season, with the new downtown (sort of) ballpark. Infield Boxes cost $48, Bullpen Boxes (lower level, down the lines) $33, Outfield Terrace $26, and the “Fish Tank” (center field bleachers) $15.

Going In. Sun Life Stadium is probably best known under its original name, Joe Robbie Stadium, named for the owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, who had it built for them and for a hypothetical MLB team that became the Marlins. It’s 15 miles north of downtown Miami. The best way to get there from downtown is to take I-95 North to the Florida Turnpike (renamed the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, and contrary to “conservative principles” the Gipper did believe in good roads), to Exit 2X for Northwest 199th Street. NW 199th is also known as Dan Marino Boulevard, named after some guy who never won a championship, college or pro. The Stadium is between 199th and 203rd, and between the Turnpike and 27th Avenue, across 203rd and Snake Creek from Calder Race Course.

Since 1984, Miami has had a rapid-transit rail service. Take Metrorail toward Palmetto, and get off at the Martin Luther King Jr. station. (I doubt if a sports stadium in the Miami suburbs was a part of Dr. King’s dream, although stadiums and performing-arts venues with racially-integrated seating sure was.)

The gates go from A, on the 1st base side, around the stadium clockwise, to H, in the right field corner. Gates G and H open an hour and a half before first pitch, all others one hour before.

In spite of South Florida’s climate – the stadium probably gets more rain than any other in the majors, including Seattle – umbrellas are not permitted inside. “Safety concerns.” No, I’m not making that up, it’s on the Marlins’ website.

Of course, having been built for the Dolphins first, the seats are all orange, the trim aquamarine. The Marlins might call it “teal,” to match their main solid color, but it’s aquamarine. As a Met fan, and possibly also as a Knick or Islander fan, you probably won’t mind all that orange; as a Jet fan, who probably feels about the Dolphins the way Republicans feel about Medicaid, you might mind it.

The field points southeast, toward downtown, but, as the stadium is completely enclosed, you won’t see anything. Not that there would be much to see, anyway, since the 15-mile gap between stadium and downtown means that even the taller buildings in the city wouldn’t look like much from that distance.

Food. With a great Hispanic, and especially Cuban, heritage, and also being in Southeastern Conference country (hello, tailgating), you would expect the baseball team in Miami to have great food at their stadium. Unfortunately, the fact that that Marlins are promoting the heck out of their new ballpark on their website means that certain details about the current stadium are lacking.

I had to go to the Dolphins’ website to even tell you this much: Centerplate runs their concessions, and they offer the usual ballpark fare, plus things like Cuban sandwiches and Cuban coffee (certainly understandable, given the area’s ethnic makeup), Chilean sea bass, Asian stir-fry, Margaritas (some people claim that there’s a woman to blame, but I know… it’s Centerplate’s fault), salads, and baked goods such as cookies and pies. Sounds great; hopefully, the same items are available for Marlins games, but considering the franchise’s cheapness, first under Wayne Huizenga and now under Jeffrey Loria, I have my doubts.

Team History Displays. Not much. The Marlins hang outfield banners for their 1997 and 2003 World Championships, their only trips to the postseason. Their only retired number is for Carl Barger, their team president, who organized the team for the start of the 1993 season and then died right before it. He was a friend of Joe DiMaggio, who lived in nearby Hollywood, Florida, and threw out the first ball at the Marlins’ first game. In Barger’s memory, and in connection with his friendship with the Yankee Clipper, Huizenga retired Number 5 for Barger, who never wore it – not even for fun.

The Marlins do not have a Team Hall of Fame. Two uniformed men involved with the franchise have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, neither of whom got in due to anything they did with the Marlins: Tony Perez, a Cuban exile who lives in Miami and who was briefly their manager, and Andre Dawson, a Miami native who closed his career with the Marlins and now works in their front office.

Stuff. The Marlins have team stores in the stadium, but nothing out of the ordinary: Caps, jerseys, T-shirts, bats, gloves, stuffed Billy the Marlin dolls.

A few books have been written for the Marlins, and may be available in the team stores. Dan Schlossberg, Miami Herald columnist Dave Barr, Kevin Baxter and Marlin star Jeff Conine collaborated on Miracle Over Miami: How the 2003 Marlins Shocked the World. Jenny Reese wrote The History of the Florida Marlins, published just last year and thus, more or less, up to date. One book you will almost certainly not see in the stores is Dave Rosenbaum’s book about how Huizenga “went all in” to win the 1997 World Series, then broke the team up, going from 92-70 that season to 54-108 the next, having practically come out and told everyone that a 100-plus-loss next season was likely. The title of the book? If They Don’t Win It’s a Shame. (Yeah, tell that to the Giants, who they beat in the NLDS and who had never yet won a Series in San Francisco; and to the Indians, who blew a 9th-inning lead in Game 7 of the Series and still haven’t won a Series since 1948.)

Although the Marlins have won 2 World Series and have been around for nearly 20 years now, there is, as yet, no commemorative DVD of their World Series highlight films, and no The Essential Games of the Florida Marlins/(Name of Stadium).

During the Game. South Florida is loaded with people who came from elsewhere, including ex-New Yorkers. The stereotype is that, when a New Yorker gets old, if he has enough money to do so, he moves to Miami. Especially if he’s Jewish. Or Italian. As a result, you may see a lot of Met fans, few of whom switched to the Marlins. You may run into a few Yankee Fans who adopted the Marlins are their “second team” or their “National League team,” although how many of them kept that status after the 2003 World Series (blast you, Jeff Weaver – Alex Gonzalez sure did) is debatable.

However, your safety should not be an issue. The new ballpark, on the site of the Orange Bowl, is in a questionable neighborhood; and the Miami Arena, first home of the Heat and the Panthers, was on the edge of the Overtown neighborhood. But at Dolphin Stadium (whatever you want to call it), you will almost certainly be fine. Miamians might fight if they’re at a Dolphins game and provoked by visiting fans, but not at a Marlins game.

The Marlins’ mascot is Billy the Marlin, whose name was chosen by Huizenga because a Marlin is a “billfish” – and it has nothing to do with Billy Martin, in spite of the character’s large nose. Billy sometimes “water-skis” in behind a golf cart built to look like a boat. Any resemblance to Richie Cunningham driving the boat that allowed the Fonz to jump the shark on Happy Days is strictly coincidental.

Worse than a dopey mascot, the Marlins have cheerleaders. No, I’m not making this up: They are the one MLB team with cheerleaders. Or, as they would put it, a dance/cheer team. The Marlins Mermaids debuted in 2003. As noted Phillies fan Bill Cosby would say, “Don’t ever say, ‘It can’t get any worse. It can always get worse!’” In 2008, the team debuted the Marlins Manatees, an all-male “dance/energy squad” who perform alongside the Mermaids. You want to blame the Yankees for having the grounds crew dance to “YMCA,” go ahead, that’s one “Yankee Tradition” I don’t like, anyway; but this, as noted Met fan Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman on The Odd Couple) would say, is as ridiculous as Aristophanes.

Sun Life Stadium is 330 feet to the left-field pole, and 361 to left-center. Sounds like a good park for a righthanded hitter, especially in Florida heat. But Florida humidity slows fly balls down. And it’s 345 feet to right, 361 to right-center, 404 to center, and the deepest part of the park is 431 feet. This is a pitcher’s park.

The Marlins do not have a regular song to play in the 7th inning stretch after "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Nor do they have a postgame victory song.

After the Game. Miami has some rough areas, but you’re starting out in the suburbs, so you should be safe. As for where to go after the game, I can’t be sure. I checked for area bars where New Yorkers gather, and found one for each of the city’s NFL teams.

J.C. Wahoo’s Sports Bar and Grill is supposedly the home of the South Florida fan club of the Giants. But it’s at 3128 N. Federal Highway (yes, the same U.S. Route 1 that goes through The Bronx and New Jersey) between Northeast 31st and 32nd Streets, 40 miles north of downtown – further north than Fort Lauderdale, or even Pompano Beach, almost up to Boca Raton. It’s not even all that close to the stadium. The South Florida Jets Fan Club meets at Hammerjack’s, at 5325 S. University Drive in Davie, a bit closer to the stadium, but still 24 miles north of downtown.

Sidelights. Miami’s sports history is long, but aside from football, not all that involved.

Site of Orange Bowl/New Marlins Ballpark. The home of the team that will become known next April as the Miami Marlins is well on its way to completion, at the site of the stadium known as the Miami Orange Bowl. Opening in 1937, and known as Burdine Stadium until 1959, it hosted the Orange Bowl game on (or close to) every New Year’s Day from 1938 to 1995; the University of Miami football team from 1937 to 2007 (famed for its fake-smoke entrances out of the tunnel), the Miami Seahawks of the All-America Football Conference in 1946 (they moved to become the Baltimore Colts after just 1 season, but this was arguably the first “major league” team in any of the former Confederate States), the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl (a game involving the 2nd-place teams in each of the NFL’s divisions from 1960 to 1969, also known as the Playoff Bowl, a game so lame that Vince Lombardi once called it “the only game I never want to win” – and he didn’t), the Miami Dolphins from 1966 to 1986, the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League from 1972 to 1976, and 5 Super Bowls, most notably (from a New York perspective) Super Bowl III, when the Jets beat the Colts in one of the greatest upsets in sports history, on January 12, 1969. Super Bowl XIII, in 1979, was the last Super Bowl to be held here; all subsequent South Florida Super Bowls, including the next one, Super Bowl XLVI, have been held at the Dolphins’ stadium.

The Orange Bowl was where the Dolphins put together what remains the NFL’s only true undefeated season, in 1972. The Canton Bulldogs had gone undefeated and untied in 1922, but there was no NFL Championship Game in those days. The Chicago Bears lost NFL Championship Games after going undefeated and untied in the regular seasons of 1932 and ’42. And the Cleveland Browns went undefeated and untied in the 1948 AAFC season, but that’s not the NFL. The Dolphins capped their perfect season by winning Super Bowl VII, and then Super Bowl VIII. And yet, despite having reached the Super Bowl 5 times, and Miami having hosted 10 of them, the Dolphins have never played in a Super Bowl in their home region. (They’ve done so in New Orleans, Los Angeles twice, Houston and San Francisco.) They also haven’t been to one in 26 seasons, or all of their history in their new stadium. Curse of Joe Robbie, anyone?

The Orange Bowl was, and the new Marlins ballpark will be, at 1501 NW 3rd Street, between 7th Street, 14th and 16th Avenues. Number 11 Bus west on Flagler Street, then 3 blocks north on 15th Avenue. Be careful, this is in Little Havana.

Comfort Inn. This hotel, across 36th Street from the airport, was the site of the Playhouse, once considered one of South Florida’s finest banquet halls. It was here, on January 9, 3 days before the Super Bowl, at a dinner organized by the Miami Touchdown Club, that Joe Namath of the Jets was speaking, and some drunken Colts fan yelled out, “Hey, Namath! We’re gonna kick your ass on Sunday!” And Joe said, “Let me tell you something: We got a good team. And we’re gonna win. I guarantee it!” He was right. NW 36th Street between Curtiss Parkway and Deer Run. MetroRail toward Palmetto, to Allapattah Station, then transfer to the 36 Bus.

Site of Miami Stadium. Also known as Bobby Maduro Stadium, this was the home of the original Miami Marlins, of the Florida State League. Seating 13,000, it was known for its Art Deco entrance and a roof that shielded nearly the entire seating area, to protect fans from the intense Miami weather. The FSL team that played here was known as the Sun Sox from 1949 to 1954, the Marlins from 1956 to 1960, the Marlins again 1962 to 1970, the Miami Orioles 1971 to 1981, and the Marlins again from 1982 to 1988. It was the spring training home of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1950 to 1957, the Dodgers in their first season in Los Angeles in 1958 (it can be said that “the Los Angeles Dodgers” played their first game here, not in California), and the Baltimore Orioles from 1959 to 1990. It was demolished in 2001, and The Miami Stadium Apartments were built on the site. 2301 NW 10th Avenue, off 23rd Street. It’s just off I-95, and 8 blocks north and east from the Santa Clara MetroRail station.

American Airlines Arena. The "Triple-A" has been the home of the NBA’s Miami Heat since 2000, including their 2006 NBA Championship season, and their 2011 Championship season with LeBron Ja – oooops… 601 Biscayne Blvd. (U.S. Routes 1 & 41), between NE 6th and 8th Streets, across Port Blvd. from the Bayside Marketplace shopping center (not exactly their version of the South Street Seaport) and the Miami outlets of Hooters, the Hard Rock Café and Bubba Gump Shrimp. The closest rapid-trail station is Overtown – ironically, the same stop for the previous sports arena…

Site of Miami Arena. Home of the Heat from 1988 to 1999, and the NHL’s Florida Panthers from 1993 to 1998, this building was demolished in 2008. Only 20 years? When the Overtown race riot happened in January 1989, just before Super Bowl XXIII, area residents took great pains to protect this arena from damage, and succeeded. Apparently, like the multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the Meadowlands Arena and (soon?) the Nassau Coliseum, it served its purpose – getting teams to come in – and then quickly became inadequate. 701 Arena Blvd., between Miami Avenue, NW 1st Avenue, and 6th and 8th Streets. Overtown/Arena rail station.

Bank Atlantic Center. The home of the NHL’s Florida Panthers since 1998, and there’s a reason the team is called “Florida” instead of “Miami”: The arena is 34 miles northwest of downtown Miami, and 14 miles west of downtown Fort Lauderdale, in a town called Sunrise. 1 Panther Parkway, at NW 136th . If you don’t have a car, you’d have to take the 195 Bus to Fort Lauderdale, and then the 22 Bus out to the BAC.

Miami Beach Convention Center. Opened in 1975, it seats 15,000 people. The American Basketball Association’s Miami Floridians played here from 1968 to 1972. The 1968 Republican Convention, and both major parties’ Conventions in 1972, were held here. Why? Simple, they wanted to be away from a downtown, putting water between themselves and wherever the hippies and another antiwar demonstrators were staying.

This building hosted the heavyweight title fights of 1961 (Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson III, Floyd won) and 1964 (Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston I, Clay winning and then changing his name to Muhammad Ali). Just 9 days before Ali forced his “total eclipse of the Sonny,” on February 16, 1964, the Beatles played their 2nd full-length U.S. concert here. (A photo exists of the Beatles visiting Ali at his Miami training center, and he knocks the 4 of them over like dominoes.) Elvis Presley gave a pair of concerts here on September 12, 1970.

Convention Center Drive between 17th Street and Dade Blvd. The Jackie Gleason Theater, where “The Great One” taped his 1960s version of The Jackie Gleason Show (including a revival of The Honeymooners) is next-door. This, and any other Miami Beach location, can be reached via the 103, 113 or 119 Bus, or car, over the MacArthur Causeway.

Coconut Grove Convention Center. This former Pan Am hangar, attached to the Dinner Key Marina, has been used as a Naval Air Station, convention center, concert hall and sports arena (the Floridians played a few home games here). It’s also been known as the Dinner Key Auditorium. On March 1, 1969, The Doors gave a concert here, and lead singer Jim Morrison supposedly committed an indecent act there. (Yeah, he told the crowd, “I’m from Florida! I went to Florida State! Then I got smart and moved to California!”) Pan American Drive at 27th Avenue. Number 102 Bus to Number 48.

Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Formerly the Olympic Theater, Elvis sang here on August 3 and 4, 1956. 174 E. Flagler Street, downtown.

Several TV shows have been set in Miami. A restaurant called Jimbo’s Place was used to film scenes from Flipper and Miami Vice, and more recently CSI: Miami and Burn Notice. It’s at 4201 Rickenacker Causeway in Key Biscayne, accessible by the Causeway (by car) and the 102 Bus (by public transportation). Greenwich Studios has been used to film Miami Vice, True Lies, There’s Something About Mary and The Birdcage. It’s 16th Avenue between 121st and 123rd Streets, in North Miami, and often stands in for Miami Beach for the TV shows and movies for which it’s used. 93 Bus.

The penthouse used by the Kardashian Sisters to tape Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami is on Ocean Drive between 1st and 2nd Streets in Miami Beach, but I don’t think they use it anymore, especially since Kourtney and Kim have now “taken New York.”

If you’re a fan of The Golden Girls, you won’t find the house used for the exterior shots: It’s actually in Los Angeles.

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You don't have to be old to be a New Yorker in Miami -- but it helps to be a sports fan. Who knows, the Mets might even get a little bit of revenge for those season-ending series of 2007 and '08.

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