Where Are You From How a Baseball Team Helped Me Make Peace with My Home State
People will tell you the Marlins suck, that no one likes the Marlins. “Marlins fans?” they’ll joke, because everyone knows that Marlins fans don’t exist. Except they do, we do.
In baseball, home is where you begin, and then spend the rest of the game trying to return. Home plate is shaped like a little house, and when you slide in before the tag, you’re “safe at home.” This desire to run home has always been the only part of the game I could never fully understand; I’d spent my entire life trying to escape my own.
Where I’m from, all the houses look the same: white, peach, and beige stucco with Spanish-style clay tile on their roofs. A place where the flatness and asphalt stretch on for miles in every direction, punctuated by strip malls at every corner. A place where everything is manufactured, from the filled in land created when the Everglades were drained to the planned housing developments centered on man-made canals and dubbed “water view.” I’m from a place where the radio advertises liposuction and breast augmentations so the people become as manufactured as the landscape. If you squint hard enough, you can see where the fillers meet the natural parts.
In 1991, Cooper City, Florida, was dubbed “Tree City of the Year.” Signs proclaiming the honor still dot the medians, but most of those trees have been leveled by hurricanes—first Andrew, then Erin, then Wilma, and most recently, Irma. The Public Works Department can’t replace them fast enough before the next storm comes. The vista is transformed each time I go back home.
Cooper City is a suburb that sprawls west of Hollywood in Broward County. It sprung up out of nowhere in 1959. Everyone who lives there has parents who came from somewhere else, drawn south by the promise of good weather, a lie they cling to while drenched in sweat from a walk from their air-conditioned home to their air-conditioned car. “Good weather” is the mirage created in the heat that can choke you, the mosquitos that consume you, the suffocating and oppressive air that obscures the reality of the place. It’s cliché to talk about the heat when you write about Florida, but there’s no way to escape it. It is the mosquito netting that smothers the entire place.
The first white Americans to spend time in South Florida were the US Army men who tried to decimate the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War in the 1830s. In their letters , they describe the place as a “God-abandoned,” “hideous,” “diabolical,” “loathsome” mosquito refuge. One officer described it as “repulsive in all its features.”
The Miami Marlins, South Florida’s first Major League Baseball team, didn’t exist until 1993. In theory, South Florida was the perfect place for a baseball team thanks to the constantly-warm weather. Many MLB teams had spent their springs in the area before moving north to Central Florida or west to Arizona. The large Cuban population in Miami seemed like a built-in market for the sport. So it seemed like a sure bet when Blockbuster Video CEO Wayne Huizenga decided he wanted to bring baseball to South Florida.
But he didn’t build these new Marlins a stadium. Games were played in an arena meant for football. It was a terrible place to watch games—much too big, lacking the intimacy of ballparks like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, and much too unremarkable, without the views of the arch that bless Busch Stadium in St. Louis or the backdrop of the bay like Oracle Park in San Francisco.
Designed to be a football stadium, all the seats were directed towards the fifty-yard line, which was essentially center field in a ballpark. This was a problem, since most of the action during a baseball game happens at home plate. More than that, the heat and the rain kept people away from the seats. The Florida summer is too hot and wet for even a sport meant for the season.
Despite a World Series Championship in just their fourth year of the Marlins’ existence, fans didn’t exactly flock to the ballpark. The sure bet looked more like a losing gamble. The Marlins are hard to love, which is fitting, because so is South Florida. This unlikability is through no fault of their own; each has developers to blame, people who destroyed perfectly good things with their greed and bad decisions.
From the time I was small, South Florida never felt like a fit for me. The rest of my family thrived in the hot, sticky climate. At night, I’d sit on the couch with my dad, who ran a tennis academy, undeterred by the punishing Florida sun. He always had baseball playing on the TV, and the evenings I spent watching the game with my dad planted the seeds for a lifelong love of the sport.
My brother played outdoor sports, like baseball and tennis and golf, following in my father’s footsteps. I couldn’t take the heat, instead choosing sports that allowed me to practice in air-conditioned facilities. It was my first attempt to hide from the reality of the place I lived. Hours spent training in the gym were hours I didn’t have to spend outside.
I was a gymnast and a competitive cheerleader. Some bodies are built for strength and speed. Others, like mine, are long and lean, flexible. I could contort myself into any position I wanted. I could put my leg next to my head and make it look easy, because, for me, it was.
I could bend the truth just as effortlessly. Whoever I thought you wanted me to be, I could become. I spent years spinning elaborate stories about my life, weaving tales that would make me funnier, more interesting, more worldly. In elementary school, I told my classmates I had been a Gerber baby despite having been born nine weeks premature and looking like E.T. for most of my infancy. In high school, I made up a boyfriend that didn’t exist and had a falling out with my friends after I couldn’t produce evidence of him beyond a photo clipped out of a magazine. (“He is a model,” I told them, baffled that they didn’t believe my story.)
If there’s anything the glut of makeover TV shows has taught us, it’s that fixing your outsides will fix your insides.
What I wouldn’t understand until much later was that this storytelling was partially in response to the fact that something felt absent from my life. I was surrounded by a culture devoid of any substance and that hollowness was echoed in my chest. When I was twelve, I told my mother I felt like “my soul was dying.” That was also the time I started to daydream about moving somewhere else. I imagined moving to Boston, going to a big city and reinventing myself. I would pretend I was walking on the cobblestone streets, surrounded by the history of a place that had seen things.
Florida, I was convinced, had no history. Everything there was new. I wanted to feel grounded, like I walked among ghosts, like everywhere I went had a story. To me, that was Boston. The heat and culture of South Florida were smothering me in every way.
If there’s anything the glut of makeover TV shows has taught us, it’s that fixing your outsides will fix your insides. And so the new Marlins Park was built in 2012 with a kind of “if they build it, they will come” attitude, as if fans would be attracted to that gaudy coliseum, a towering piece of concrete meant to allure Floridians like magic.
They added all the things that had been missing from the original stadium: a nightclub called “The Clevelander” where bikini-clad go-go dancers writhe next to saltwater fish tanks, a retractable roof for climate-controlled games during the sweltering summer heat, someone called ‘Marlins Man’ who sat behind home plate with a gaggle of women who look like they walked off a Playboy spread, and a home run sculpture that was as tacky as the city itself, complete with rotating marlins, flashing neon lights, and water spraying up like a celebratory geyser.
They built it, but nobody came. Virtually the only people the new stadium lured in were the Marlins on the field. At a day game on May 31, 2017, just 1,590 fans showed up to the park that holds more than 36,000 people, setting a record low attendance for MLB that season. In fact, excluding a game between the White Sox and the Orioles that was closed to the public due to an uprising following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore police, it was the lowest attended MLB game since 1989.
The Marlins have struggled with fan attendance almost since their inception. Though the team has two World Series titles—in 1997 and 2003—ownership completely dismantled those championship teams the following years. In moves reflective of the culture of disposability that permeates South Florida, the Marlins executives decided that tearing down something good to build something new would be the way to go.
Like the Marlins, I set out to change my circumstances, too. I would come to learn that in Alcoholics Anonymous, they call it a “geographic cure”—the hope that changing your external circumstances will change your internal ones, which often manifests in a move to a new location.
I left South Florida when I was eighteen years old, said goodbye to the oppressive heat, the plastic bodies, and the very bad baseball team. I graduated high school with honors, a member of the cheerleading team. On the outside, everything looked great; keeping up appearances was important to me. But I’d never been able to shake the feeling that something was wrong. Having to look inward at myself seemed like too much work, so I blamed the obvious: the problem wasn’t me, it was Florida. Like the Marlins had done when they moved and rebuilt their stadium, I set out to make myself over in a new image.
I got an academic scholarship to attend school in Boston, and considered getting the lyrics to the Augustana song named after the city tattooed on my body. My first semester at school, I nearly lost that scholarship when I drank too much to ever make it to class.
Ironically, that first semester was spent watching baseball, during a 2003 postseason in which my new home team, the Red Sox, would lose in devastating and dramatic fashion and the Marlins, who represented everything I hated about my first home, would win the World Series. I felt no pride in the Marlins victory, and instead wallowed in the Red Sox’s defeat, along with the rest of the city. I was a Bostonian now.
The problem, it turned out, was not Florida. The problem was me. Despite living in a new state and being surrounded by new people, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on the outside of a fishbowl looking in. I always felt detached, lost, and like a perpetual outsider. The only time the self-doubt quieted was after I’d had a couple of drinks. I spiraled into alcoholism. My world, and the city I claimed to love so much, got really, really small. I frequented the same few dive bars and woke up in places I didn’t recognize with people I didn’t know. My soul still felt like it was dying, but I no longer had Florida to blame.
When it got bad enough, I went to rehab and got sober. I began to see Boston with new eyes, to really put down roots there. I bought a house, got married. I discovered the beauty of the city I knew had been there all along, but that I had been too drunk and depressed to see. Those new eyes did not cast themselves upon Florida, however. If anything, my hatred only grew. I blamed the place for fucking me up, for instilling in me the lack of values and the misery that eventually blossomed into full-blown addiction.
The longer I stayed away from South Florida, the more alien it felt whenever I returned. Trips back to the tip of the peninsula brought nothing but disdain. I looked down my nose at the people who lived there. I’d learned a New England sensibility—intellectual curiosity, conservationism, frugality. It seemed completely at odds with what existed down south. All I could see were the ways in which being raised in the bubble of my suburban town had stifled me and imbued me with values I now detested. All I could see were the ways in which I was nothing like the people I grew up around. All I could see was how grateful I was that I’d gotten out.
In 2017, the Marlins had their eighth consecutive losing season. The franchise, its fans, and players were reeling from the tragic death of pitcher Josė Fernandez the season before. Fernandez was the future of the organization, a Cuban-born player who the large Cuban and Cuban-American population in Miami felt an affinity for. His smile came easy and often and he lit up the mound when he was on it.
Though he played only three-and-a-half seasons, Fernandez was a two-time All-Star. Miami’s hope for a dominant team and a dedicated fan base were pinned to the back of Fernandez’s number 16 jersey. When he drove his boat into a jetty while intoxicated, killing himself and two friends, the baseball world was stunned. Miami was in mourning.
The team began the year with a number 16 patch on the front of their jerseys and I decided, for the first time in my life, that I was going to truly follow my hometown team. I was six years sober, living in Boston, and surrounded by Red Sox Nation. I still cheered for my adopted home team, but I added the Marlins to my rotation. My husband liked to insult Florida and I found myself defensive; it was okay when I did it, but not when someone else did. But I couldn’t offer a counter to his barbs. I thought that if I was going to find a way to appreciate where I was from, it would start with baseball.
I expected to see a failing, flailing team. Instead, I was shocked to find the best outfield in the game—Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton—tearing up the grass in front of the larger-than-life home run sculpture. I watched Dee Gordon, who is joy personified on a baseball diamond, put up career-defining numbers. I marveled at catcher J.T. Realmuto’s skill behind-the-plate and speed on the base paths. And I danced along with first baseman Justin Bour when he boogied to Selena Gomez during pre-game warm-ups. Edinson Volquez, an unremarkable pitcher, even threw an inexplicable no-hitter—the only one in MLB that season.
Is anyone else watching this team? I kept wondering. Why isn’t anyone talking about how good they are? How fun they are? I can’t be the only one seeing this, can I? I began openly identifying myself as a Marlins fan first, a Red Sox fan second. For the first time in my life, I felt pride in being from South Florida.
In falling for the Marlins, I decided to take another look at South Florida itself. It’s flawed; it always has been. But maybe those imperfections might also be the things that make it great. I decided to pretend that I was introducing someone to where I was from; I became a tourist in my hometown, visiting all the places I’d been too busy living a life to seek out before. I was committed to finding all the things there were to love about the region.
Like those Everglades, a sticky, swampy marriage of sawgrass, mangrove trees, and alligators, an environment completely indigenous to that southeastern tip of Florida. The habitat referred to as “hideous” and “God-abandoned” by those first white settlers is actually a revelation. Or the Keys, tiny dots of land at the end of the earth where the ocean is so blue, so bright, it could blind you, where a community of hardy misfits has made their home, their skin almost charred from the sun. And the art deco buildings in Miami, the Cuban food that’s better than anywhere else in the country, and those cumulus clouds that pile so high into the sky that maybe your dreams sit on top of them.
When I no longer hated myself, it allowed me to cast new eyes on where I came from, too.
By discovering the beauty of the place I’d always despised, I again had to look inward. The problem had never been Florida. My ability to see only the negatives about my home was a symptom of the negativity I felt about myself. When I no longer hated myself, it allowed me to cast new eyes on where I came from, too. They say that perception is reality, and that was true for me. A shift in the way I perceived the Sunshine State resulted in an affinity for a place I’d previously hated.
It was in trying to find my way home that I ended up standing in the monstrosity that is Marlins Park with my dad. It was during the off-season. We didn’t even have the benefit of getting to see a game while we were there. But I had just finished falling for this team and I wanted to see the ballpark they play in, so we went on a tour. There were only two other people on the tour with us: a mother and her adult son. It turns out it’s not just the games that no one wants to attend.
My dad and I listened to the tour guide sell us on the highlights of the ballpark, which cost $616 million of mostly taxpayer money and is largely considered, by people who know about these things, to be the worst stadium deal in baseball history. Before we left, I bought my first Marlins hat and wore it home.
People will tell you the Marlins suck, that no one likes the Marlins. “Marlins fans?” they’ll joke, because everyone knows that Marlins fans don’t exist. Except they do, we do. And my descent into Marlins fandom is inextricably tied to the home I worked so hard to flee. It was the Marlins that brought me back to it, like the runner in scoring position who says to the batter as he steps up to the plate: “Bring me home.”