MIAMI — When the Miami Marlins' new ballpark stirs to life Friday, 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 Friday 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, who generate the revenue that is going to keep the team operating."
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," team president David Samson said. "And it's time to heal."
A few victories might help, even in Guillen's absence. He returns to the dugout Tuesday.
"The best thing he's doing is he's owning up to what he did," Marlins closer Heath Bell said. "He feels really bad. He and his family have to deal through this tough time and move on, and we're going to go play baseball."
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. "He had the humility to recognize and ask the Cuban community for forgiveness."
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. The Cuban American Bar Association said it would skip an annual lawyer appreciation event Tuesday at the ballpark.
Empty seats would be nothing new for the Marlins. They perennially finish last in the National League in attendance but began a new era with the move to Little Havana, a neighborhood heavily populated with immigrants from baseball-crazy Cuba.
The expectation of big crowds in the new ballpark inspired an offseason spending binge that transformed the team into a playoff contender. The charismatic Guillen was brought aboard to lead the way and sell some tickets.
Guillen was beloved in Chicago, where he helped the White Sox win the World Series in 2005, but the hiring was considered risky because he has a history of flippant remarks that later require him to backpedal.
He lasted only five games with the Marlins before being suspended. The Venezuelan told Time magazine he loves Castro and respects the retired Cuban leader for staying in power so long.
News of the political tempest even reached Cuba.
"Politics and sports should not mix," said Roberto Delgado, a baseball fan in Havana — but not a Marlins fan. "My favorite U.S. team is the Yankees, not that little team in Florida."
Many fans stateside regard the Marlins the same way, but for the perennially overshadowed team, this season was supposed to be different.
After hiring Guillen last fall, the Marlins added All-Stars Bell, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano. Thanks to the team's widely praised new 36,000-seat home, which includes a retractable roof and air conditioning, fans no longer must endure South Florida's sweltering weather, and the team expected sellout crowds nightly.
The Marlins played their season opener at home April 4, then went on the road for eight days so ballpark workers had time to work out any kinks.
Then came the story about Guillen's comments regarding Castro — a kink in the Marlins' season that may take a long time to repair.
Associated Press writers Christine Amario in Miami and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.