Thursday, August 29, 2013

Building Baseball Tradition with Conch Fritters and Air Conditioning

Marlins Park
501 NW 16th Ave.
Miami, FL

I’m a baseball traditionalist.

To me, the best ballpark in America is Wrigley Field in Chicago, with its 100 year old history, manual scoreboards, ivy covered outfield walls and shirtless drunks in the sun-splashed bleachers.

Wrigley blends perfectly into the quaint urban neighborhood that surrounds it. For generations, Cubs fans across the street watched the games from their rooftops.

Newer ballparks like PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Camden Yards in Baltimore successfully incorporated traditional elements of what made old parks like Wrigley so special into modern design.

But when Marlins Park opened last year in Miami, it marked the official demise of the “retro” ballpark era.

There is not a shred of the traditional or quaint in the design of this monstrous spaceship-shaped dome accented in neon green.

So I have to own up to a bit of anti-Marlins Park prejudice before I even set out from my Springhill Suites hotel room to walk over to the new ballpark.

But I promised myself I’d try to keep an open mind about the Marlin’s 21st Century take on America’s Favorite Pastime.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it to the game alive.

The neighborhood surrounding my hotel was…


…NOT quaint.

Let’s just put it that way.

According to Google Maps, Marlin’s Park was less than a mile away from my brand new sparkling Marriott property.

Cool. No parking hassles or expense. I’ll just walk it.

Well, there are some things Google Maps can’t tell you.

Like, “Yo, dude, don’t walk through that neighborhood unarmed.”

Mental note to self: Find a different route back to the hotel at midnight after the game.

It turns out I picked a good night to be in Miami.

The Marlins were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team sporting one of the hottest winning streaks in the history of baseball. 42-8 over the previous 50 games.

Yasiel Puig was a big reason why.

The Dodgers were toiling at the bottom of the standings before they called up the Cuban defector. They’ve run away with the National League West since then.

Puig is the hottest hitter in baseball -- and a cult hero in the Cuban-American community which just happens to be centered in the Little Havana section of Miami, surrounding Marlin’s Park.

That explains why the first two games of the Marlins – Dodgers series attracted the largest crowds of the season to Marlin’s Park.

So you can only imagine the outrage when the Dodgers announced the starting lineup for the evening -- and Yasiel Puig wasn’t in it.


Clearly, Dodgers’ Manager Don Mattingly isn’t planning to run for mayor of Miami any time soon.

If Cubans weren’t so good natured, you might see the reenactment of the LA riots in Miami on this Tuesday night.

Of course, the thousands of Cuban baseball fans filing into the ballpark weren’t the only ones disappointed.

I was pissed too!

Seeing the Cuban phenom in the flesh was going to be one of the highlights of the baseball season for me.

At least I didn’t have to pay a scalper more than ten bucks for my ticket -- who sold it to me with the added marketing pitch, “It’s in Right Field, right above Puig!”

Oh well. There’s always beer, right?

Unfortunately, Marlin’s Park doesn’t offer up much beer variety.

Miller Light, Coors Light, Corona Light and Heineken.

That’s like choosing between electrocution, hanging, firing squad and lethal injection.

Eventually I found the one token microbrew stand behind home plate with four tap handles.

One of the tap handles simply said “Florida Avenue”, which is the name of a brewery in Tampa.

That should tell you all you need to know about the state of the craft beer industry in South Florida.

There isn’t one.

Miami has to borrow a microbrew from the other side of the state.

I asked the guy manning the taps which Florida Avenue beer he was serving.

“Um. It’s kind of like a pale ale.”

That didn’t inspire much confidence.

But for ten bucks, I tried it anyway.

Much to my surprise, it was darn good, coppery colored with a strong bite of hops.

A little research on my smart phone and I concluded that this “kind of like a pale ale” is actually Florida Avenue’s version of an IPA.

It would have been nice to have that tidbit of detail printed on the generic tap handle.

Unfortunately, when I went back for seconds, I immediately caught on to the conspiracy of disinformation.

“That Florida Avenue was really good! I’ll take another,” I told the beer man as I handed him another ten spot.

As soon as he slid me my second beer I knew something was terribly wrong.

It wasn’t the same color.

I took a sip.

Pale, water flavor followed by a nasty blueberryish aftertaste.

Same tap handle. Same ten dollars. Entirely different beer.

What the hell???

A check of the smart phone again and much to my horror I discovered I just spent ten bucks on Florida Avenue Blueberry -- entirely under false pretenses.

Can I hire a lawyer and sue?

Instead I’ll just take to the blogosphere to excoriate the Miami Marlins and all of Florida for horrendously bad taste in beer.

Florida is to beer drinkers what Long John Silvers is to seafood lovers.

Hell, in other words.

I mean, what is the deal?

The Marlins have one stand in the entire ballpark selling craft beer with just four tap handles and the one guy whose only job it is to serve that beer has no idea what he’s serving -- at ten bucks a pop?

Maybe Marlins Park should just stick to selling Bud.

In fact, that’s exactly where I headed after I choked down my blueberry abomination -- the Budweiser Bow Tie bar out in Left Field which seemed popular with the cool under 40 crowd.

Because Anheiser-Busch bought up Chicago microbrewery Goose Island, the Goose Island Honkers Ale was on tap at the Bud bar.

And get this -- it was selling for a buck less in a 25% bigger cup than the microbrews.


Honkers Ale isn’t that exciting of a brew, but it beats the heck out of Budweiser -- and Florida Avenue Blueberry.

That’s for sure.

The view from Left Field gave me a nice panoramic view of Marlins Park -- the retractable roof, the glass wall overlooking downtown and the weird neon rainbow colored kaleidoscope wheel thingy that twirls after rare Marlins’ home runs.

How’s that for baseball tradition?

While an improvement over the dungeon-like atmosphere of the Astrodome and Tropicana Field, there is still something wrong about watching baseball indoors with the air conditioning blowing on the back of my neck for nine innings.

I’d much rather watch the game out doors on a hot summer night under the stars with a cold beer in hand.

Unfortunately, the Marlins only open their retractable roof for less than 10% of their home games.

I mean, I know it gets hot in Miami, but this is a night game for cripe’s sakes. If you can’t handle a humid 80 degree evening, why are you living in Miami anyway?

So why gouge the taxpayers for the extra $200 million for a retractable roof that hardly ever gets opened on game day?

Because grass can’t grow indoors.

So you and I just spent an extra $200 million to grow grass at Marlins’ Park?

Yep. That’s about right.

Spare no expense when the taxpayers are picking up the tab.

By the Seventh Inning Stretch I was getting a bit hungry so I walked over toward the sign that read “Taste of Miami.”

Down a hallway, completely out of view of the playing field is a high school cafeteria-like row of food booths serving up South Florida delicacies like Cuban sandwiches, roast pork, raw oysters and sushi.

Raw fish at a baseball game?

The raping of baseball tradition continues, I mumbled to myself.

The conch fritters on the other hand looked pretty good.

If there was any doubt about the effort to make fresh top notch cuisine in this gourmet corner of the ball park, it was dispelled when I ordered my fritters.

“It will be about ten minutes”, the lady said. “We’re just dicing up some fresh conch right now.”

Wow. Did they just run out to Key Largo and scoop up the conch off the beach during the 7th Inning Stretch?

Meanwhile I decided to tide myself over with a ten dollar “Nacho Dog”.

Yes, I paid ten dollars for a hot dog.

And you know what? It was worth every penny.

Just like it sounds, this was a big hot dog buried under a plate of nachos.

Colorful as the Marlin’s rainbow uniforms, the chili and cheese laid down a nice base for the spicy jalapeños and crunchy tortilla strips piled on top.

People in Miami like their food spicy. Marlins Park is the only ballpark I’ve seen that sports a jalapeño toppings bar.

By the time I polished off my nacho dog, I was ready to retrieve my conch fritters.

The friendly conch fritter girl was happy to see I had returned and warned me that they just came fresh out of the fryer.

Ten bucks again. But again, worth every penny!

Eight decent sized fritters with a dill dipping sauce and a slice of lime, this was an appetizer fit for a table of four.

Soft, warm, seasoned fried dough spiked with real chewy chunks of seafood, these fritters were better than any I’ve ever had at Florida’s famous seaside fish camps.

Definitely can’t complain about the dining options at Marlins Park.

As I was munching my fritters from my perch above Left Field in the Bud Bar, suddenly a roar arose from the crowd.

There he was in the on-deck circle -- the Cuban hero the Miami crowd came to see -- Yasiel Puig.

Tension filled the air conditioned air as he strode to the plate in a tie game in the Eighth Inning.

The crowd and I settled in for the high stakes at bat.

This was going to be good.

Marlins Park buzzed with excitement as Miami reliever Dan Jennings faced down Puig wiggling his bat in the box.


Very first pitch.

Puig smacked the ball on a line deep into Left-Center.

It was coming right towards me!


The ball bounced on the top of the outfield wall right below me for the game winning home run.

How cool was that?!?

A few of the Marlins die-hards were dejected, but most of the fans were excited to be witness to a great moment and a hell of a game.

And that’s how I felt about it.
Despite the raping of baseball tradition, the hum of the industrial air conditioners and the pathetic attempt at serving craft beer, the top notch food and dramatic action on the field added up to a hell of an entertaining Tuesday night.

Tradition is great.

But it is games like this upon which the tradition of America’s favorite pastime was built.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.

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