Hurricane Andrew

After Hurricane Andrew, Homestead’s ball park remains a symbol of what might have been

 

Once a symbol of hope, Homestead’s baseball stadium has been a headache for city leaders ever since Hurricane Andrew struck, 20 years ago, on Aug. 24, 1992.

cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

Homestead’s baseball stadium sports a fresh red-and-white paint job. Palm trees surround the small ball park, and a nearby lake glints in the Florida sun. Inside, the crack of a bat rings out as cheers erupt.

But the applause is far from a roar. The parking lot isn’t close to full and neither are the stands — about 200 of the stadium’s 6,500 seats are filled. The new paint covers crumbling and rusted posts and columns. The toilets don’t flush in the bathroom.

This stadium was supposed to be Homestead’s salvation. But that was 21 years ago, just before Hurricane Andrew made straight for the small town south of Miami, and nearly leveled the ball park. These days, the stadium that was supposed to be the city’s ticket out of the backwaters has come to stand for something else entirely: how Homestead has never fully recovered from Hurricane Andrew.

Andrew sent major league baseball packing. Though the city promptly rebuilt the stadium, attempts to sell or rent it always seemed to fall through. At one point, the city considered imploding the multi-story structure until that proved too expensive. Last summer, when the city finally thought it had found a stable tenant — a budding sports media company — the relationship soured, spawning two lawsuits.

In the two decades since Mother Nature stole its momentum, Homestead’s stadium has stood largely unused, a symbol of what could have been. Over the years, the city has paid about $6 million to keep it ready, on an increasingly slim hope: If you rebuild it, they will come.

“I love that stadium,” said Homestead Council member Judy Waldman. “I’m not a quitter, and I think she has great potential.”

JEALOUSIES AND OUTRAGE

Back in 1989, Homestead stunned its metropolitan neighbors when it announced that the city would build a world-class baseball stadium — using county hotel-tax dollars everyone assumed belonged to Miami and Miami Beach.

“I feel like I’ve been hit in the head by a two-by-four,” Jack Eads, Coral Gables’ city manager, complained at the time, after learning that his city also could have been eligible for the money.

Homestead’s then-city manager, Alex Muxo, had pulled off a financial coup — and may have yanked the money out from under Homestead’s more powerful neighboring municipalities — by simply reading the laws governing who could use the funds.

As Homestead’s mayor at the time, John “Tad” DeMilly, put it: “There were jealousies.”

And outrage. Miami Beach tried to take the money back. Homestead sued. A judge ordered Miami Beach to pay up. But beach officials didn’t let go easily: Convinced the deal was illegal, they ordered an independent investigation into Homestead’s actions. The investigation found no wrongdoing.

“Homestead had been, I don’t think it is today, but it had been generally a rural community separated by a fairly large tract of space on U.S. 1 that was not developed. And metropolitan Dade county — Miami, etcetera — kind of looked down on Homestead as a redneck community,” DeMilly said.

But Homestead had Muxo, an ambitious, young city manager, the first Hispanic to hold the job.

Though Muxo did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story, his mother told the Herald in 1992: “Of our three sons, he was the most concerned about being American.”

From the start, it was the Cuban-born Muxo who spearheaded Homestead’s efforts to build a monument to America’s favorite pastime: a baseball stadium.

Before the ballpark was even finished, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles all were eyeballing the location.

“We, the city, had finally arrived to where we felt we had something substantial,” said Ruth Campbell, vice mayor of the Homestead at the time. “And it was pretty.”

The salmon-pink, multi-story stadium was one of the tallest buildings around. It had a thick carpet of green grass and coveted sky boxes overlooking the whole thing.

“The buzz word was ‘awesome.’ It was just a very magnificent facility,” DeMilly recalled. “The colors were bright and very tropical.” Though the grand opening was held Aug. 20 — almost a year to the day before Andrew would strike — the real celebration had occurred a day earlier, when the Cleveland Indians signed a two-year deal, with two additional 10-year options, to move their spring training to Homestead. The famously unlucky team would make Homestead its home starting in spring 1993.

“To... demonstrate that the small community of Homestead could build something that was world class and actually attract a major franchise such as the Cleveland Indians was something to brag about,” said DeMilly, the former mayor.

Homestead’s stadium was poised to become something big, something major league — until Andrew changed everything.

THE STORM

The hurricane struck with 165-mph winds. It killed 26 people directly, another 39 indirectly, and left 180,000 people homeless and 1.4 million without power.

In Homestead, where the southern eyewall tore a path, it leveled 80 percent of the housing stock. Robbed the city of its fledgling downtown. Blew away the beginnings of a new Miami Dade College campus, tossed around fighter jets and irreparably smashed the Homestead Air Base.

The nation’s eyes were on Homestead. The town that had hoped baseball would pull it out of obscurity was well-known now — for all the wrong reasons.

And the stadium was wrecked. The once-pristine fields: shredded. The bright lights and the scoreboard: gone. And the plush sky boxes: covered in glass from shattered windows.

“The building was here, but it looked more like a ghost,” said Campbell, the former vice mayor.

For a while, the National Guard moved in, leading recovery efforts from the leaky stadium. While so many factors after the storm seemed uncertain — where would the homeless sleep? how would the city pay for the recovery? — one thing always seemed sure: Homestead would rebuild its ball park.

“I think it was a given. The question would have been, would we have it rebuilt in time for spring training and to be able to honor our contract with the Cleveland Indians?” DeMilly said.

The city poured its energy — and $6.4 million in insurance money — into rebuilding the stadium in a mere five months. Cleveland had a contract. Homestead city leaders were determined to honor it.

RENEWAL

Inside the stadium, it was as though Hurricane Andrew had been nothing but a bad dream from which the city had finally woken up. Everything was normal again.

Just beyond the stadium, though, the nightmare was relived every day. Residents were still stuck in tents. Homes remained mangled. The city was still staggering from the blow.

The Indians took a look around, and decided to start spring training a few hours north in Winter Haven. The move was supposed to be temporary. Homestead understood. The city even sent its groundskeeper up with the team, to make sure the Winter Haven fields were up to par.

But a month after Homestead hosted two full-house exhibition games between the Florida Marlins and the Indians, Cleveland announced it was moving permanently to Winter Haven.

Homestead had been socked again.

“We were just plain mad. Mad,” Campbell said. “We really wanted something sustainable. That’s what we hoped for.”

Indians officials did not return calls for comment.

FALLOUT

With the rebuilt stadium empty, Homestead officials scrambled to attract a major league team. None would come.

Slowly, the salmon-colored structure that held so much promise for the city became known as the “pink elephant.” It was costing the city, too — up to $500,000 a year, at a time when Homestead was on the edge of bankruptcy.

From 1994 to 2000, the field saw occasional use: college ball, a summer amateur league, a woman’s professional team, the Homestead Challenge Tournament. But by 2001, the city had to mothball the stadium after entertaining offers to sell it to a former University of Miami basketball coach, the Homestead-Miami Speedway and even a “military-type” religious camp.

Other ideas were floated, such as imploding the stadium to turn it into a regional park.

TODAY

For years, Homestead’s pink elephant received only the most critical maintenance.

“We would just put rouge and lipstick on her every year, and fix her up the best we could so that we could continue to rent it out,” said Waldman, the current city council member, who has taken to calling the structure “my girl.”

But in 2011, the city thought salvation had come in the form of Miami lawyer John H. Ruiz and La Ley Sports. Ruiz had built a name for himself as a Spanish-language TV foreclosure lawyer. He was looking for a home for his latest business venture: a sports broadcasting and stats-gathering company. He bid on the stadium, offering to lease it at first and buy it in a matter of years, while promising at least $2 million in repairs in exchange for two years of free rent.

“The Homestead complex would kind of be like an ESPN Wide World of Sports,” Ruiz told the Herald at the time.

Waldman and the rest of the council were impressed, voting to hand the stadium over to Ruiz in July 2011.

Warned Waldman at the time: “She’s expensive.”

“I’m used to that,” Ruiz responded.

Progress came quickly — most notably when La Ley painted over the once-derided pink exterior with red-and-white. The field was restored, 169 frogs were removed from four feet of standing water in the dugouts and dead pigeons were scooped out of the long-dormant speakers, Ruiz said.

“The electric systems were not working properly. The plumbing was a disaster. The sprinkler systems in the field were not functioning. The grass was knee high. The suites were destroyed. The drop ceiling was falling all over the place,” Ruiz said. “So we had to redo the entire, entire, entire, entire thing.”

But Waldman’s earlier warning would soon ring true.

Ruiz’s company at first failed to carry property insurance — which had been so crucial after Hurricane Andrew — and then asked the city to drop his requirement in his lease to do so. The city refused, though Ruiz asked three times.

La Ley fell behind on its utility bills, and according to the city, still owes tens of thousands of dollars — even after it was found that the city had overbilled. Then the city found out Ruiz had sublet the stadium to a company that had underage ball players living in the locker rooms. The city, citing the sublease and a host of other issues, declared La Ley in default on its lease.

Ruiz filed two lawsuits against Homestead, leaving him in something of a standoff with city officials.

The stadium, meanwhile, seems stuck in limbo again. Though Ruiz has sunk millions of dollars into repairs, the white columns that mark the entrance are crumbling at the bottom, and a wall of translucent glass blocks is shattered. The ticket counters are shuttered for use as a broom closet. A media room with marble floors and granite countertops has a leaky roof and sagging, moldy ceiling tiles.

Ruiz is undeterred. He points to the summer tournament that draws a small, but steady crowd. He has plans for the land around the stadium — a hotel, football fields — and says he plans to broadcast sporting events to a world-wide audience from small city of Homestead.

He will not be one more person to walk away from Homestead’s stadium, he says.

“I’m a visionary, and I don’t give up,” Ruiz said. “Every day it gets better.”

Read more Hurricane Andrew stories from the Miami Herald

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