A-Rod, Girardi happy for Marlins, city of Miami
New ballpark signals new era for ballclub, South Florida
MIAMI -- It took Alex Rodriguez three or four different buses to make the trip from his Miami home to the Orange Bowl as a kid. Then, he and his buddies would sneak into the fabled stadium and watch football games.
Sometimes it was the University of Miami Hurricanes. Other weekends it was the National Football League's Dolphins. This was in the 1980s, and no matter how difficult it was for the young Rodriguez to make the trip, even with the transfers, it was always worth it. Making memories that would last a lifetime.
Rodriguez is 36 now, but when he returned Sunday to the scene of all those childhood escapades, the memories were vivid even though his cathedral that was the Orange Bowl is gone.
It seemed only fitting that the Yankees' All-Star third baseman would be on the field for the first game featuring Major League teams to be played in the Florida Marlins' new $634 million futuristic ballpark. It was built on the hallowed grounds where the Orange Bowl once stood.
The ballpark, with its retractable roof, is magnificent, providing the Marlins with their very own abode after 19 mostly grueling years in a venue built for football. They have a new look, a new name and a rejuvenated team thanks to the $191 million owner Jeffrey Loria has spent to sign shortstop Jose Reyes, left-handed starter Mark Buehrle, and closer Heath Bell. That all fell into place after former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen was hired as the dugout chief.
For A-Rod, Sunday was a homecoming of sorts. He walked into the new park in the morning oozing with a sense of pride.
"I don't want to be corny or cheesy because this is just a Spring Training game, but for me, this is a very special day, to have grown up in the streets in these square blocks," he said. "We took three or four buses to get to the football games, to sneak into the Orange Bowl to watch Dan Marino or Gino Torretta.
"I never imagined, as a child, such a beautiful stadium would be built in the middle of Miami. I'm certainly very proud of the City of Miami and the Marlins to be able to achieve this in my hometown."
Later, Rodriguez singled home a run in the Yankees' five-run fifth inning during their 10-8 victory over the Marlins.
For Yankees manager Joe Girardi, seeing this much-needed facility finally become reality has to be bittersweet.
Managing the Marlins in 2006 was both good and bad. He was nearly fired in early August that summer when he got into an argument with Loria at a game. It happened witnesses saw the owner yell from the stands at home-plate umpire Larry Vanover, and Girardi asked him to stop.
The irony was Girardi was rewarded as 2006 National League Manager of the Year but was fired anyway after the season.
"It was important for them to get their own home," said Girardi, who coincidentally talked briefly with Loria at the Yankees' hotel Saturday night. "At times, they were losing players they would have liked to hold onto. They just didn't have the revenue sources.
"Everyone saw what they did with free agency [during this past offseason], which they haven't been able to do for a while. This ballpark is important for the organization and good for the community."
As for Loria, Girardi said "we talked. I told him I was interested to see his new home. He was going into the hotel for dinner. When I was here I knew how badly they wanted to get [the stadium] done. You knew it would take some time and there would be hurdles, but I always thought it would happen."
And to a hometown boy, the spectacular new ballpark was imperative for the Marlins to keep pace -- or move ahead -- of other teams.
"I get chills thinking about this," Rodriguez said. "It's kind of like, 'Hello, Major League Baseball, we're here!' I'm a little emotional because I live right down the street. I get to share this with my family and friends today. My two daughters will be here; they're super-excited. "Look, we know what Yankee Stadium means to us in New York and to the world. It's been a big success for us, and I really hope this will be a huge success, for not only Major League Baseball, but for Jeff and the Marlins."
A-Rod gushed that the Orange Bowl was one of the most magical places to watch a football game. He remembered a Monday night game when "Marino beat the Bears, when [the Dolphins] were about to go undefeated. That was one of my greatest childhood memories, a classic night at the stadium. It was completely synonymous to the great memories of the Orange Bowl."
Those were the days when his mother worked two jobs as a waitress to make ends meet -- a huge cry from the millions A-Rod makes as one of baseball's elite players.
"There were nights when we'd sit on the bed and count her tip money, to see if we had enough to pay the electric, to pay the bills," said Rodriguez. "Those times are all part of the memories we have."
He said he had several opportunities to tour the new park during the offseason, "but I made an effort not come, so that my first experience would be when we played here. For the Marlins to win two championships (1997, 2003) in such a short period of time for the franchise is amazing. But the bottom line is without a building like this you cannot compete the way Major League Baseball is right now."
Rodriguez was signed out of Westminster Christian High School by the Seattle Mariners in 1994 and played 17 games that season with the Mariners when he was just 18.
A-Rod no longer has to sneak into any ballpark, or anywhere on the planet for that matter.
Somehow, I got the impression he had more fun taking three or four buses to the Orange Bowl than he would have today riding in the back seat of a long, black limo.
But just like the Orange Bowl, those days are gone.
Only the memories linger.
Hal Bodley is a senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.