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Marlins FanFest previews excitement to come

Marlins FanFest previews excitement to come

Marlins FanFest previews excitement to come
MIAMI -- Momentum keeps building and interest continues to grow for the Miami Marlins.

More evidence came on Saturday, as an estimated 40,000 fans attended the first Jiffy Lube Marlins FanFest at Marlins Park.

Big crowds, long lines and energized fans filtered through the retractable-roof ballpark for more than six hours.

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Marlins president David Samson emphatically states that the days of sparse crowds while playing baseball in a stadium designed for football are over.

Individual game tickets, except for Opening Night, went on sale at the box offices and on www.marlins.com at 10 a.m. ET. The Marlins sold over 130,000 tickets during the day.

The Marlins have also sold 15,000 season tickets, a dramatic increase from the past. The team measures a season ticket as any combination of plans that total 81 games.

"It's not the same this year," Samson says of the renewed enthusiasm surrounding the ballclub. "[Marlins Park] is a much smaller ballpark. There is much greater interest and we're a much better team. It's just a whole different vibe, with all the attention we're getting."

The Marlins are the focus of Showtime's reality series, "The Franchise." The team is the cover story on Sports Illustrated, and this week, it was featured in USA Today.

"It really is Mar-lin-sanity right now," Samson said.

At FanFest, fans got a taste of what's to come at Marlins Park.

The event officially started at 11 a.m., but fans -- many wearing the team's new gear -- were filing into the building around 9 a.m.

After 19 years as the Florida Marlins, playing in a spacious football stadium, the new Marlins home was everything as advertised. With a capacity of 37,000, it is intimate. The concourses and concession stands were packed. Fans were able to walk around the new building, exploring sections as well as season-ticket options.

The merchandise stores and vending areas were packed.

The building attracted a wide range of people. People of all ages were wearing the new gear, and there was a smaller segment with their own Florida Marlins attire.

There was some star power during the day, as Desmond Howard, the former Heisman Trophy winner and current college football analyst, was given a tour. Howard said he was a talented center fielder in high school.

Every player on the Marlins' 40-man roster was on hand, signing autographs, taking pictures and interacting with the public.

Addressing the crowd during a town hall-style meeting, Samson said: "This is all for you. Come April 4, you will see a new team."

In 32 days, the Marlins will play the St. Louis Cardinals in the game that will launch MLB's 2012 season.

The best way to secure a seat for Opening Night is to purchase a season plan. The club set aside a few thousand seats for the opener and will distribute those through a lottery system. More than 90,000 registered for the lottery.

The Marlins have put together what they believe is a playoff-caliber club.

"Hopefully we will make it happen in 2012," new manager Ozzie Guillen told the fans.

Jose Feliciano will sing the Star-Spangled Banner on April 4. But the team has yet to say who will throw out the first pitch. Samson did say who wouldn't -- Jeff Conine, a.k.a. Mr. Marlin.

"It's a surprise," Samson said. "It's not Conine."

For all the high-profile players brought into the organization, the biggest hit on Saturday was the new ballpark.

Fans roamed the West Plaza, the outdoor area that is covered when the roof is open. The plaza featured a number of activities like Wiffle ball and bounce houses. Inside, fans walked the concourses.

The two aquariums, literally built into the wall behind home plate, now have fish that are protected by shatterproof glass.

Samson hinted to look for the aquariums to be featured as part of a reality TV show, which is not "The Franchise."

The colorful Home Run Feature in left field will be operational for the first time on April 1, when the Marlins face the New York Yankees in the first of two exhibition games at Marlins Park.

In speaking directly to the fans, Guillen gave some clarity to the rotation. As expected, the new manager declared Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle as his Nos. 1 and 2 starters, respectively. He is tentatively going with Ricky Nolasco in the No. 3 spot.

The fourth and fifth slots are expected to be between Carlos Zambrano and Anibal Sanchez, who won't pitch in a scrimmage on Sunday due to soreness behind his right shoulder. The ailment is not considered serious.

The public also got to meet Jose Reyes, who was asked about the transition of going from the Mets to the Marlins.

"I don't worry about the New York Mets right now," Reyes said to the cheers of the fans. "I am excited about this new family."

Another fan asked about Chris Coghlan, and if the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year will make the club.

"We will have to wait and see how the team shapes up," Guillen said. "The opportunity is going to be here."

A number of questions during a town hall-style meeting were for Giancarlo Stanton, who prefers his birth given name instead of Mike.

One fan asked if Stanton would sign her arm and follow her on Twitter. The 22-year-old slugger said yes to both.

Who is faster, Reyes or Emilio Bonifacio? Reyes raised his hand and pointed to Bonifacio, then took the microphone and said, "Bonifacio." But the center fielder responded, "Reyes."

New closer Heath Bell made it clear what he hopes his legacy is with the ballclub.

"I want to be the best Marlins closer this franchise has ever seen," Bell said.

From the looks of FanFest, there promises to be unprecedented interest in the Marlins.

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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