They waited their entire lives for this game, dreaming one day of actually being here, honoring their heritage, with all of South Florida celebrating this splendid moment with them.
“Words can’t even explain what it’s going to be like,’’ Oakland Athletics first baseman Yonder Alonso tells USA TODAY Sports. “All I know is that it will be very emotional. Maybe the most emotional day of my career.
“I still have trouble believing it.’’
Alonso will not only be representing the Athletics, but every baseball player who grew up in the Miami area, primarily the strong and prideful legion of players with Latino roots.
“We grew up here with the mentality, ‘Us against the world,’’ says Alonso, whose family defected from Cuba when he was 8. “That was tattooed in our minds from Day 1.
“This is the way it was going to have to be if we’re going to make it. It was the way we were raised, knowing the odds are stacked against us. If you didn’t out-work everyone else, you were going to be eaten up alive.
“Well, I made it. Really, we all did.’’
Alonso is one of the original members of the 305 Boys, the nickname bestowed by the godfather of the group, Chicago Cubs outfielder Jon Jay. These are the professional players who grew up in Miami, many who went to the University of Miami, who live in Miami in the off-season, and who will always call Miami home.
“Yonder represents all of us,’’ Washington Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez says. “We’re all realizing our dreams through him. We’re the 305 kids, as Jon Jay calls us. We are literally a group of brothers that are so proud of each other, pushing each other to succeed. The relationship we have, the bond we have, is so strong.’’
They watch out for another, and check to see how everyone performed that day by the time they go to bed. Jay puts together the text strand, and there’s never a day that goes by when they don’t talk, text, or FaceTime one another.
Jay, 31, is the one who reaches out when times are rough, unafraid to give tough love, and almost caring more about everyone else’s success than his own.
“We’re all so close,’’ says Jay, who organizes their off-season workouts and get-togethers. “Coming from Latin cultures, we have a lot of pride in our city, where we were raised, and our love for baseball. People like to joke that Miami isn’t part of the U.S, but to us, it’s like our own little country where we all came together.
“And we stay together.’’
Says Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado: “We’re not just baseball players that grew up together. We’re family.’’
In some cases, in the literal sense.
Machado is married to Yainee, Alonso’s sister.
Alonso, who had never been selected to an All-Star Game in his eight-year-career, was the lone 305 club member to make it this year. Yet, judging by their reaction, you would have thought they all did. If anyone was going to make it, they were thrilled it was Alonso, who had never hit more than nine home runs in a season, was nearly non-tendered during the winter, and now has 19 homers.
“We were all working our tails off to be at the All-Star Game,’’ Gonzalez says, “because we wanted to represent our city, our culture, everything in our hometown. You’ve got to understand, what we had to accomplish just to get here, this game is bigger than anyone can imagine.
“This is the All-Star Game we all wanted to make. If we were going to only make one All-Star Game our entire careers, this is the one we wanted.
“It’s going to be emotional not for just Yonder, but for all of us, to be represented us in our own hometown All-Star Game. I think we’ll all have tears in our eyes.’’
There have been 87 All-Star Games in baseball history, but on Tuesday night (8 p.m., Fox), this will be the first played in South Florida, at Marlins Park. It was a game that originally was supposed to be played here in 2000, at their old baseball stadium, only to be stripped away when former owner Wayne Huizenga angered the Commissioner’s office by ordering a franchise sale just months after winning the 1997 World Series.
“People still remember that here, the All-Star Game being taken away,’’ Marlins president David Samson says. “That’s why this is so important to the community.”
This game will resonate with the entire South Florida community, from Calle Ocho in Little Havana to Hialeah to the waters separating Miami from Cuba. This is where you’ll find 90 year-old men and women listening to baseball on their transistor radios, groups of men gathering around the TV set in their neighborhood, with everyone talking baseball.
”Baseball is really, really important to this community,’’ former New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s part of the DNA. In many ways, it’s an extension to Latin America. You look at the Boys and Girls Club on 32nd Avenue and US (Route) 1, and we’ve had over 20 Major League Baseball players come out of one unit. That has be a record. I never heard of anything close to that.
“The reason is we’ve been playing under the hot lights since we were 9 years old and the community comes to watch Little League Baseball at a young age. I remember being 10, 11, 12 years old, playing in front of hundreds of people, and under the lights. There was a great deal of pressure.
“But it gets you prepared.’’
And the faces stay familiar as they ascend the baseball ladder.
“It’s crazy because a lot of the top guys you played with growing up, you’re playing against them now in the big leagues,” says Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, the 2016 All-Star MVP who grew up in nearby Cooper City and whose mother, Ileana, was born in Cuba and escaped at age 7.
“The level of talent that comes from there prepares you. What makes it so cool is that a lot of us took the same path to get here.’’
Machado, a three-time All-Star, remembers growing up in Hialeah with posters of A-Rod plastered on his bedroom walls. Gonzalez, to this day, can recite the starting rotation of the 1997 and 2003 Marlins’ World Series teams. Jay’s idol was Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell.
It is a franchise often mocked for its ownership changes, build-ups and tear-downs and now, another impending ownership change amid baseball’s jewel event.
But the 305 Boys grew up loving the Marlins.
“You’re talking about guys who were my childhood heroes,’’ Gonzalez said. “I was the biggest fan ever of Livan Hernandez and Alex Fernandez. And Dontrelle Willis, I was wearing his shoes in 2012. The only shoe I ever wanted to wear was Dontrelle Willis’ shoes. You grow up there, you’re not only emotionally attached to the team, but to the players.’’
Even when A-Rod was ensnared in the Biogensis scandal, and suspended the entire 2014 season for using performance-enhancing drugs, his image barely was bruised among those who grew up idolizing the man.
“A-Rod was our guy, we all looked up to him, and wanted to be like him,’’ Alonso says. “He was always there for you. When he would go over and take ground balls at the University of Miami, and I tried to get as close to him as I could, just to try to talk to him.
“I watched every All-Star Game he was in.”
The indelible memory from this year’s All-Star Game was supposed to be the national unveiling of Jose Fernandez’s stardom. Nearly 10 months after Fernandez’s death in a boating accident his ashes are at his mother’s house in South Florida. His locker still is intact, protected by glass, inside the Marlins’ clubhouse. The entrance in front of Marlins Park is adorned with his name and uniform number on a wall, where fans sign and leave messages nearly every day.
In the community, a pall remains. His mother can’t bear to watch the Marlins. Locally, the the All-Star Game still has tickets available, with prices down by nearly 40% on the secondary market.
“Missing Jose hurts a lot,’’ says Marlins special assistant Juan Pierre, a catalyst on the Marlins’ 2003 World Series championship team. “The place just fed off his energy. He was Cuban. He was the city. He belonged to them. He invoked Miami when he was out there by his mannerisms, his actions, his personality.
“Everyone gravitated to him.’’
The Marlins, who have invited Fernandez’s mother to the game, plan to show a video of Fernandez, along with their former All-Stars on the scoreboard. Marlins All-Stars Giancarlo Stanton and J.T. Realmuto will be asked, over and over, to reminisce about Fernandez. He may not be here, but his memory will reverberate.
“He didn’t grow up here, but it was like he was one of us, he overcame all of the odds,’’ Alonso says. “We rooted for him every time he pitched, and we always wanted to see that team do well.”
Alonso said Miami was electric during the Marlins’ World Series, and the magic could return, at least for a night, on Tuesday. This is a big event town, and this will be the biggest baseball event in this city since the 2003 World Series. If anyone had any doubts whether this city loves their baseball, all you had to do was watch the World Baseball Classic at Marlins Park, with the atmosphere at the Dominican Republic-USA game rivaling any World Series.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life,’’ Yelich says. “We always talk about what it would like it to play in an environment like that in Miami.’’
Maybe one day, the 305 Boys say, the Marlins could be that franchise, the destination where every free agent wants to play. The city is gorgeous. The nightlife is spectacular. And there are no state taxes.
It just needs a winning baseball team, not one that’s had a losing season seven consecutive years, a franchise $500 million in debt, a team that’s expected to sell within a week after the All-Star break, and embarking on their fourth fire sale in 25 years.
“I love that city, it’s such a special place,’’ says Milwaukee Brewer outfielder Ryan Braun, who attended the University of Miami. “There are very few places I’ve ever been on the planet that compares to the level of joy most people in that city has.
“If that team ever started winning. …’’
Maybe one day the Marlins will be a vibrant franchise again, but for now, the All-Star Game belongs to them.
“Baseball is part of the fabric what Miami is all about,’’ Rodriguez said. “The University of Miami was basically like our New York Yankees for so long. It’s great to have the game celebrated in place where Major League Baseball is so important to them.
“It’s going to special for a lot of people there.’’
Especially for the 305 Boys.