Number of games seen: 16
First game: April 13, 2012
Most recent game: September 22, 2019
PHOTO GALLERY at bottom of page
By: Cole Shoemaker
Part of introduction written in 2012; everything else written in 2017; ratings updated yearly when necessary
Note: This review refers to loanDepot park by its previous and not god-awful name, Marlins Park.
While I’ve grown to love it as a building, the media’s initial reaction to Marlins Park represented how much our standards for ballpark architecture have declined in response to the latter retro years. In light of the Loria fire sale and the stadium-funding furor (the political side of this is well documented, so I won’t discuss it here; I briefly touch upon what it should mean in the conclusion), it’s easy to forget the ballpark itself opened to universally fawning press reviews in 2012.
Yes, I think that it’s fantastic that we finally demonstrably deviated from the red brick retro years, even evolving past the self-proclaimed “organic” faux-regional stone ballparks like Petco Park (San Diego) and Target Field (Minnesota). I get it more than anyone, because I’ve been preaching this for years. The Marlins want their park to be seen as a 21st century modern piece of art, and trying something new is what we need.
For a website that claims it doesn’t do “original research,” Wikipedia sure has had fun labeling Marlins Park the world’s first “contemporary ballpark,” in what is one of the wiki’s largest ballpark pages, sighted with scores of articles handing out high acclaim in terms of vague modernity. However, building the first “contemporary modern” ballpark in baseball history doesn’t necessarily equate to building a great ”contemporary modern” ballpark. And constructing a captivating edifice doesn’t equate to constructing a great ballpark.
Don’t get me wrong. Marlins Park is a breath of fresh air almost by default, and I love the exterior design even on its own merits. The architecture is clearly the park’s strongpoint in comparison to the inside. I appreciate that they showed a modern ballpark could reflect its city without resorting to bricks and steel. But Marlins Park is simply not the paradigm-breaking ballpark everyone seems to be portraying it as.
By labeling Marlins Park a visionary modern contemporary ballpark, and it is indeed a radical departure from 20 straight retro or quasi-retro parks, the media seems to be implying that this structure reclassifies the nature of the major league ballpark, akin to what Camden Yards in Baltimore did.
On multiple levels, that just seems ridiculous to me.
First of all, Marlins Park is going to benefit from a great coincidence of timing, as it opened at the very end of the ballpark building boom. Critics seem to be inevitably associating Marlins Park with some sort of revolution in ballpark aesthetics, which is totally unfalsifiable because we aren’t going to see another ballpark for a long time (2017 check: the claim that Marlins Park was going to start a contemporary ballpark craze or remake the 21st century ballpark looks ridiculous).
While the retro movement was somewhat inevitable due to the coming ballpark building boom and the flow of the country, I would also argue that this movement in ballpark architecture was so pervasive because Camden Yards was so transcendental.
Camden Yards wasn’t just the first retro park. In many ways, according to my analysis and others, Camden Yards was, and still is, one of the best retro parks in terms of interior design. We have taken much of what that ballpark did for granted, as it is no hyperbole to say it’s the most influential sporting facility in modern time. The attention to detail, the aesthetic balance, the downtown location, and the contextual integration of the warehouse is still unmatched.
My point is Camden Yards is certainly one of the greatest retro ballparks of all time. I don’t think Marlins Park would be one of the greatest contemporary ballparks ever, especially on the inside. Camden Yards was a once in a lifetime occurrence. What it did for a generation of retro parks, Marlins Park isn’t going to do for a generation of “contemporary parks,” or whatever fancy classification you want to give it.
Getting that out of the way, Marlins Park looks pretty good today, falling squarely in the middle of the pack in a crowded landscape of solid ballparks.
While there’s a ceiling on how high ballparks with retractable roofs can score here, its architecture and aesthetics at least have a distinct and coherent vision. The new SunTrust Park, on the other hand, has none, in a signal that we may have reached the point where ballpark architecture no longer matters. Amenities are the primary focal point of the design. In other words, team financial officials in boardrooms dictate all aspects of the interior and exterior design, with no regard for regional appeal and little original input from fresh architects.
Marlins Park is not one of those. And honestly, we have Jeffrey Loria to thank for that. With the new Rangers ballpark trending in that direction as well, Marlins Park may be the last ballpark built before the “mallpark” (a word I’ve been reluctant to use for a variety of reasons) totally took over baseball’s cathedrals.
Marlins Park’s primary flaw is its extremely poor structure-site relationship.
First of all, I don’t understand why they went for an enclosed retractable roof design, instead of the sliding glass door model like at Minute Maid Park (Houston). While an enclosed environment leads to a poor sense of place, Marlins Park isn’t in symbiosis with it’s setting to start with. The disconnect between the massive park and the intimate Little Havana neighborhood is as unfortunate as it is palpable. Marlins Park is “All about Miami” on a superficial design level, and that does deserve credit, but it has no tangible contextual connection to the area.
Great ballparks represent their cities, and Marlins Park does that to a degree, but definitely not to one that the ambitious architects would like. The best ballparks represent their cities through integrated contextual aesthetics. I get more into this later.
Overall though, the architecture and aesthetics are fairly strong for a retractable roof ballpark.
What is perhaps more interesting are the surprisingly mediocre amenities. With the opening of SunTrust Park, there’s this meme going around that new parks will continue to accelerate because there is an arms race in amenities, with every single new ballpark having better concessions, bars, restaurants, clubs, and entertainment options than the previous one. Marlins Park shows this is not necessarily the case.
I’ll be the first to admit the cumulative metrics of “amenities,” “functionality,” etc. can be nebulous and perhaps incompletely defined for these purposes. When aggregating many factors you’re naturally going to want to group them, however imperfectly. I note this specifically with Marlins Park because there are multiple elements that don’t fit neatly into one category.
The Clevelander is, shall we say, unusual. It’s technically premium seating/clubs, but I could see it going in accessible restaurants/bars/etc. because it eventually opens to all fans, or even entertainment because of the pool and music element. While “historical references” is explicitly defined to include artistic references, Marlins Park’s fantastic art isn’t properly recognized in that section. You need to separate the lack of Marlins history from the art and features such as the bobblehead museum. So, the cumulative amenities score may not capture everything, and that’s why we have a higher bonus score.
Regardless, Marlins Park still has a number of odd oversights in its amenities compared to other post-1991 ballparks. Perhaps the most peculiar of which is the complete lack of restaurants, social spaces, and sit-down areas on the ballpark’s accessible levels.
Sit-down social spaces have become increasingly popular and expansive across the country’s ballparks, with many older parks adding them. These usually feature numerous lounge areas anchored by a large bar. Marlins Park lacks this. The outfield Budweiser Bar functions more as a large alcoholic concession stand, so that doesn’t really qualify.
Miami’s ballpark is the only modern day stadium I can remember without any sort of sit-down areas throughout the concourses. All parks have something somewhere– maybe a set of picnic tables, a sit down bar, or some sort of watering hole. Not here. If you’re not in a club seating area and you buy food, the only place to eat is at your seat. Weird. While critics don’t notice this, it is something quite consequential, even for the hardcore fan who usually disdains more elaborate amenities.
To hammer the main point home, Marlins Park is only the second ballpark (Busch Stadium, although definitions can be fuzzy here) built since 1991 to lack an accessible sit down restaurant, full-service or otherwise, although I do understand the trend is to move away from these. Marlins Park is also only the second ballpark (Target Field) built since 1991 to lack a kids’ entertainment area. These obviously aren’t the most consequential things, but they do matter, which I’ll get to in those respective sections. The cumulative effect of all of this is damning.
It also has to be noted that the poor crowd sizes are having a larger impact on Marlins Park than anywhere else. It’s not only about the empty seats. It’s about how the ballpark operations respond to the empty seats. Marlins Park completely shuts down at an unprecedented level.
The upper deck closes entirely, certain food items are phased out, concessions are shut down in the corners of the legends club level, and so on. Other parks don’t do this to the same degree when faced with attendance issues. It’s hard for Marlins Park to fulfill its potential when it’s literally operating at half capacity.
While these deficits don’t define the ballpark, they do enough cumulatively to prevent Marlins Park from reaching the next tier of near great ballparks. As you’ll see in the architecture and aesthetics section, I’m quite charitable regarding common subjects of ridicule, like the color scheme or the home run sculpture. While more minor, it’s harder to be charitable about these aspects.
Marlins Park does plenty right. I probably bash it too much here, which is more my response to its total immunity from any criticism whatsoever just because it’s “not retro” and “modern.” Much of this introduction was crafted in response to initial 2012 positive reviews without any criticism. Despite a poor contextual design, Miami’s park is admirably “All about Miami”, from the contemporary exterior aesthetic and the bold color palette, to the art in the park and the local concessions.
Finally, I should probably disclose that I’ve been to this park more times than any other park besides Turner Field (Atlanta) during the 2010s. It’s a place I’ve grown to call my second ballpark home (or maybe third or fourth, given my various ties).
While I like it architecturally, Marlins Park falls short by failing some of the central tenets of ballpark interior design and integrated urban aesthetics, while also lacking some of the amenities of other new parks. Marlins Park’s designation as a “contemporary ballpark” that is indisputably “modern” doesn’t necessarily translate to an all-around great ballpark experience. At the same time, we desperately needed something new to a formulaic ballpark scene, and Marlins Park certainly brought that originality.NEXT - Setting