MIAMI — Perched atop the Miami Marlins' multicolored, provocative home-run sculpture is a blue marlin, poised for splashdown whenever the home team hits one out.
Call the artwork what you will — gaudy, goofy, grotesque, great — but there's no denying it's new. For the Marlins, that's what this season is all about.
Long overlooked and underfunded, they've become a big-spending, attention-grabbing team as they open the season at home Wednesday night against the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The pop-art sculpture, futuristic ballpark, brisk ticket sales, team name, uniforms, celebrity manager, All-Star shortstop, All-Star left-hander, All-Star closer and starry-eyed optimism: all new.
With the roster significantly upgraded, the Marlins predict they'll contend for the NL East title — and more.
"We expect to win," new shortstop Jose Reyes says. "The kind of club we have, we're going to compete, no doubt."
When ace Josh Johnson throws the first pitch in the new ballpark to Rafael Furcal, the Marlins will begin trying to supplant the Cardinals, who mounted an improbable late-season charge to the World Series title.
But like the Marlins, the 2012 Cardinals have a new look. Slugger Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa are gone and postseason star Chris Carpenter is hurt, so Kyle Lohse will start the opener. But right-hander Adam Wainwright is back from elbow surgery, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman remain in the heart of the order, and the addition of outfielder Carlos Beltran is cause for encouragement.
"Their lineup is still stacked," Johnson says.
Plus, only one team has a chance to repeat as the World Series champion, and baseball-crazy St. Louis is always eager for a season to start.
"There's a buzz in every home opener," rookie manager Mike Matheny says. "The buzz in our place is ridiculous."
While the Cardinals will wait until April 13 to play a home game, outfielder Jon Jay is especially excited about the road opener. The Miami native attended Marlins games as a youngster when they played in the Dolphins' stadium, so he can appreciate the new ballpark.
"To be able to play the first game there, it's something I am going to remember forever," he says. "The Dolphins' stadium wasn't really a baseball ballpark. It's going to be nice for the community to have a real baseball park."
The centerpiece is beyond the center-field wall — a 73-foot-tall kaleidoscopic sculpture that will launch into animation when the home team hits a home run. Conceived by team owner Jeffrey Loria, a New York art dealer, the work has drawn decidedly mixed reviews.
"There's a little controversy about whether people are going to like it," says slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the player most likely to put the thing in motion. "They might not want me to do it. Everyone is saying it's circusy."
New closer Heath Bell dislikes homers but loves the sculpture.
"It's colorful and shiny and awesome-looking, kind of like Miami," he says. "You definitely won't see that anywhere else. It's straight Miami. We're not dull; we're flashy, colorful, lively, exciting."
The team's new rainbow logo fits with that premise. So does the matching orange-dyed hair Reyes and third baseman Hanley Ramirez now sport.
Fans seem captivated, at least for the moment, and the Marlins anticipate sellout crowds nearly nightly this year in their cozy 36,000-seat home. Heat and rain will no longer be a deterrent, thanks to air conditioning and a retractable roof that gives the ballpark an ultramodern appearance.
"It looks like a spaceship," Matheny says.
The shiny silver roof will likely be open for only about 10 games a year, and Wednesday might be one of them. The forecast for first pitch was 81 degrees and partly cloudy.
Despite hype surrounding the opener, plenty of tickets were available Tuesday for less than $100. And once the newness surrounding the ballpark wears off, the Marlins likely must win to keep fans coming.
"You can have a beautiful house with a beautiful view," manager Ozzie Guillen says. "But if the people living in the house stink, it ain't going to be so beautiful."
The Marlins finished last in the NL East a year ago, 30 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies, but they've since added Guillen, Reyes, Bell, left-hander Mark Buehrle and right-hander Carlos Zambrano. They even tried to sign Pujols.
Holdovers include 2009 NL batting champion Ramirez, 2010 NL ERA leader Johnson and precocious slugger Stanton.
"When you go position by position, we're going to be able to compete with any team in the league," first baseman Gaby Sanchez says.
Guillen shares that optimism but is well aware of pitfalls after eight roller-coaster seasons with the Chicago White Sox, including a World Series title in 2005.
Yes, the Marlins are new. But at a team meeting Tuesday, Guillen warned his team that new doesn't necessarily mean better.
"I hope it will be my last meeting until the playoffs start," he says. "Bad teams have a lot of meetings. Good teams win games."
MIAMI — Mike Matheny is excited for his managerial debut. At least, he thinks he is.
Turns out, the St. Louis skipper may have some trouble sorting out his feelings right now.
"Maybe I'm just not smart enough to decipher between nerves and excitement," Matheny said.
The Cardinals know that's not the case. Though it will almost seem like an ancillary story Wednesday night — overshadowed by the newly renamed Miami Marlins opening their new $515 million ballpark — Matheny's time running the reigning World Series champions is finally set to begin, the next chapter of his baseball life after the former catcher appeared in 10 opening days as a player.
"Opening day, in all 30 stadiums, is going to be pretty exciting," Matheny said. "I'm a little biased to what we've seen on a consistent basis in St. Louis. Regardless if the team wins the World Series or not, opening day is pretty special. So especially after the kind of finish that this team had last year, we think it could be exceptional."
Matheny took a wide-eyed first look around Marlins Park on Tuesday — "bright and unique" was his assessment — but was otherwise all business. He held an afternoon team meeting that was short on hyperbole, the primary agenda being to announce a lineup of Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, David Freese, Yadier Molina, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso and Kyle Lohse, and go over the team's signs.
His last decision before the games count for real? He tabbed himself to throw batting practice.
"I like doing that," Matheny said. "It's a long season."
True, and it comes after an offseason full of change.
The lineup the Cardinals will use in Game 1 of this season has a couple glaring changes compared to the one used in Game 7 of last season's World Series. No Chris Carpenter on the mound, sidelined by a nerve ailment that weakened his throwing shoulder. No Albert Pujols at first base, his time with the Cardinals ending when he signed a $240 million, 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
And of course, not only is the lineup different, but so is the man behind the lineup. Tony La Russa retired after the World Series, opening the door for Matheny, a 41-year-old who looks as if he could still play.
"I'm just excited, same way we talked about spring training games," Matheny said. "I'm just excited to get going."
Lohse gets the opening-day start because Carpenter is ailing, though Lohse perhaps had the best numbers on the Cardinals' staff last season. He led St. Louis in wins (14) and topped the starters in both ERA (3.39) and batting average allowed (.249).
"I'm going out there for my teammates, like I always do," Lohse said. "You do that, you try to give it your all in every game."
The first time Matheny ever played on opening day in the major leagues, his team beat Ozzie Guillen's club, Milwaukee topping the Chicago White Sox 12-3 on April 26, 1995.
Fast forward 17 years and Matheny's opening-day managerial debut comes against one managed by Guillen, who's running the Marlins for the first time.
And Matheny has picked the brains of several other managers, saying it was important for him to learn as much as he could this spring. He declined to say who he sought out for ideas — some of them, he said, only talked to him with the strict caveat that the details of their conversation must stay private — but it's known that he and La Russa have been in fairly regular contact.
La Russa hasn't been in the public eye much at all since retiring. Matheny hopes he's around the Cardinals again soon, saying it would be "an honor" for La Russa to spend some time with the club.
For now, the 2012 Cardinals and Matheny will simply try to pick up where the 2011 Cardinals and La Russa left off.
"It's time to get out here and play the game and show our fan base that we're excited about carrying on after what happened last year," Matheny said.