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Sense of place is more meaningful in baseball than in any other sport. The ballpark is America's back deck, front porch or brownstone stoop. It is the place we gather (al fresco, preferably) to root for the home team and to bask with others in the comforting, clockless, meticulously manicured state of being known as baseball.
The nicest thing anybody ever said about a football stadium was to call it a frozen tundra. Sinatra never warbled plaintively about the loss of a basketball arena. Other playing fields are exacting in their uniformity. Not so the acreage of the baseball field. We delight in 30 distinctive footprints, with dimensions shaped by city blocks and architects' imaginations.
A hundred years ago this month, Fenway Park opened with its red brick and neighborly mien. Exactly a half century later, Dodger Stadium, with its corrugated pavilion roof and back-lot setting at the foot of the San Gabriels, put a West Coast vibe on a day at the park. Another half century after that, the ballpark experience moves further still from Great-grandpa Fenway—something to ponder as you order a Lime n' Lobster roll on your smartphone while seated behind two bulletproof polycarbonate aquariums embedded in the backstop. Marlins Park in Miami, which opens this week, is not just another new stadium in a two-decade construction boom. It's a physical symbol of the 2012 season, when the game will look forward more than back. Get ready for baseball as you've never seen it before: new faces in new places, new big spenders, new revenues and a new postseason format.
Marlins Park, with its sexy curves, retractable white lid, splashes of color and only-Miami-can-get-away-with-this outrageousness (see the 73-foot, $2.5 million neon-colored, fish-and-flamingo-studded piece of performance art beyond the centerfield wall), puts an end to the redbrick, green-seated, retro ballpark trend. Even the idea of baseball taking hold in Miami is novel. The erstwhile Florida Marlins, last in attendance in the National League the past six years while playing in a football stadium, have been rebranded as the Miami Marlins, draped in whimsical stylings and featuring $201 million worth of new faces (manager Ozzie Guillen and free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell).
Only three years ago the Marlins were reprimanded by the players' association for pocketing money rather than spending it. And just one year ago the Marlins, Dodgers and Mets—despite playing in three of the country's top 16 television markets—were weak links in the MLB chain. Los Angeles suffered the biggest attendance decline in the NL while owner Frank McCourt, squeezed by debts and divorce, sank the team toward bankruptcy. Mets owner Fred Wilpon, his hold on his team imperiled, faced a $1 billion lawsuit from the trustee seeking to recover funds in the Bernard Madoff investment swindle. But in a remarkable span of 17 days starting on March 19, Wilpon settled the lawsuit on such favorable terms that he might actually receive money, the Dodgers were sold to an investment group that includes NBA legend Magic Johnson for $2.15 billion (by far the highest price ever for a sports team), and the Marlins opened their downtown ballpark in front of a sellout crowd—including about 15,000 season-ticket holders, triple the number from last year.
The Dodgers fetched such a staggering price in great part because the club is poised to cash in on the explosion in local cable-television rights fees. It was TV money that helped place slugger Albert Pujols with the Angels this winter under a $240 million contract, and pitcher Yu Darvish with the Rangers after a $107.7 million investment, including a $51.7 million check just to win his rights from his club in Japan. Fueled by their cable largesse, the Angels and the Rangers have forged an AL West version of the Yankees--Red Sox rivalry.
The biggest change this season is the addition of a second wild card in each league, making it possible for a third-place team to win the World Series. The added playoff spot also keeps more teams in contention. If the second wild card had been in play last year, Toronto, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the Mets, all middling teams, would have entered August four or fewer games from a playoff spot. In 20 years the number of postseason teams has increased from four to 10, with this year guaranteeing that four of those 10 teams (the wild cards) will face a win-or-go-home game, a staple of March Madness and the NFL playoffs but a baseball rarity. In 42 postseason series from 2005 to '10, there were only five games in which both teams faced elimination. Now we are guaranteed two such games every year. The tournament style of determining champions is how sports work in the era of expanded leagues and maximized TV revenue. It's a long way from the first 65 World Series, when four wins, all of them in daytime, made for a world champion.
The shape of the modern game, in a literal sense, occurred to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria about four years ago in the lounge of a luxury hotel in London. An art collector and student of art history, Loria met there with architects to discuss a new ballpark. He talked about white concrete, glass, steel and curves, not straight angles. He reached for a napkin and sketched what he had in mind. Three weeks later the architects came back with drawings of baseball's future. "The game is great," Loria says, "but when you get up out of your seat and walk around, you should be amused. It should be about having fun."
Fenway's architects didn't sweat amusements. The game was enough in 1912. Not so today. The ballpark is a theme park, an art gallery, a TV studio, a shopping mall, a small city unto itself—and Marlins Park moves those experiences forward. "There's nothing here that looks back," Loria says, "other than the game and the playing field."
And so we gather, be it at century-old Fenway, the last ballpark standing in which Ted Williams played, or at spanking-new Marlins Park, with one sense of wonder that never changes: the wonder of what comes next.