MIAMI – When the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark stirs to life today, concession-stand workers will prepare such Cuban fare as fresh ceviche, roasted pork sandwiches and plantain chips with garlic sauce.
Then they’ll wait to see if South Florida’s Cuban Americans still have an appetite for baseball.
The Marlins hired Ozzie Guillen as manager to raise their profile, and he has done just that. By praising former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Guillen made national headlines, earned a five-game suspension and antagonized a large percentage of the franchise’s fan base.
Now the Marlins return home for the first time since the furor began. When they open a six-game homestand today against Houston, the focus will be not on the Marlins’ talented team or futuristic ballpark in Little Havana, but on the possible fan boycotts and protests.
“This is the Marlins’ core clientele,” said Francis Suarez, chairman of the Miami city commission. “So they have to figure out how they are going to win back the hearts and minds of those people who are their fans.”
Marlins officials worked behind the scenes this week with various local groups attempting to mitigate the public-relations disaster, but no special promotions or marketing campaigns are planned for the homestand. The Marlins believe the best thing the team can do is simply take the field.
“We represent this community and this community was very hurt,” said team president David Samson. “And it’s time to heal.”
A few victories might help, even in Guillen’s absence. He returns to the dugout Tuesday.
When the Marlins opened the ballpark last week, the animated home-run sculpture beyond the center-field wall was the team’s most controversial topic. Then came Guillen’s political commentary.
Escalating anger over the remarks prompted him to return from a trip with the team and hold an extraordinary news conference at the ballpark. He apologized repeatedly, and his contrition placated some.
“His declarations seemed sincere,” said Vicente Rodriguez, editor of “La Voz de la Calle (The Voice of the Street),” a newspaper circulated in Little Havana.
It was unclear whether the small group of protesters at Guillen’s news conference might demonstrate this weekend. On talk radio and Twitter, some fans with season tickets said they would stay away from games. And the Cuban American Bar Association said it would skip an annual lawyer appreciation event Tuesday at the ballpark.