The Marlins preceded their season-opening game by studding the baseball diamond with six former 2003 World Series stars, including Mike Lowell, Jeff Conine and Charles Johnson.
After the golden oldies threw the ball around the horn and completed a creative ceremonial first pitch routine, they gave way to the new-look Marlins.
The revamped lineup holds such enticing promise that the Marlins are daring to think another World Series could be in the franchise’s future.
The first stage would be making the playoffs, which the Marlins haven’t done since that triumphal season 11 years ago.
And the first step of that first stage was taken Monday, in a 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves. Although one run was a paltry offering to the curious and optimistic sellout crowd of 36,969, it’s too early to judge this team and declare what it can accomplish over the next 161 games.
It’s too early to say hopes were dampened, despite a sneaky spring rain shower that descended before the Marlins’ roof crew could get the hatch closed. Everybody got a little wet, but everybody laughed at the only-in-Miami moment: A rain delay in a domed stadium built to prevent rain delays.
“I tried to predict that the cloud would go north, and it went south on top of our ballpark,” team president David Samson said. “But it was a memory, and we like to make memories.”
A new feeling of goodwill permeated the air-conditioned air inside Marlins Park, a place that has been the source of so much bitterness toward owner Jeffrey Loria and spineless politicians.
There were new faces on the field — three new infielders — and new blood on the pitching staff — two new starters and one new reliever. The outfield consists of three players age 25 and under and is considered tops in the sport.
Through all the incarnations of this boom-or-bust franchise that has been the best twice and the worst all too often in its 23 years, this one seems embraceable because of the commitment to the future.
Who would have thought that Loria, of all people, would sign Giancarlo Stanton to the 13-year, $325 million that made him the highest paid athlete in North American sports history? But he did, and he signed Christian Yelich to a seven-year, $49.5 million deal. In October and November, Loria gave approval for six trades, a free agent signing and a draft selection.
Let’s not get carried away and compare Loria to George Steinbrenner. Miami’s payroll of $68 million remains among the cheapest in baseball, but it’s going up and will continue to do so with its back-loaded contracts.
Loria wants to win, and after the glitzy roster of 2012 backfired, he seems finally ready to stick to a plan and build around nurtured talent.
Local fans, jilted in their love for the game by the weird history of this team, remain skittish. They came out to take a peek.
They weren’t seduced by the debut performance, but they could be by this group of players.
“We had some chances,” manager Mike Redmond said. “We didn’t get that one big hit.”
Stanton tried to provide a spark. Six months after a pitch smashed into his face and left him in a pool of blood, he was wearing his new protective helmet that looks like something out of the Mad Max movies. He ripped a single in the fourth inning, then got overly aggressive attempting to grab an extra base on a hit by Martin Prado. He was thrown out sliding into third base.
“Just mental mistakes,” he said afterward. “We’ve got to play smarter.”
The Marlins had their golden opportunity in the seventh when Michael Morse, Prado and Marcell Ozuna singled to load the bases with no outs. Then Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit into a double play and Adeiny Hechavarria popped out in foul territory to end the inning with an audible sigh of regret from the crowd.
More frustration in the eighth, when Dee Gordon crafted a perfect bunt, then slipped 10 yards out of the box and fell on his stomach.
In the ninth, Stanton could have saved the day with one of his mammoth home runs, but he struck out. The flamingos and marlins on the center field sculpture remained frozen.
A cure for the Marlins’ lack of offense wasn’t evident, but give them time. On the bright side, pitcher Henderson Alvarez had a solid outing, allowing six hits and two runs in seven innings, and hitting a double. He will help offset the shallowness of the pitching staff — and that’s even after Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery.
Overall, the Marlins have assembled a terrific mix of speed, power, experience, youth, righties and lefties. They were already on the upswing from 62 wins in 2013 to 77 in 2014.
It was fun to look back and celebrate the past Monday.
But have faith. It’s exciting to look forward.