MIAMI (October 3, 1997)--Say it loud, South Florida. The Marlins are going to the World Series.
Playoff veteran Bobby Bonilla blasted a three-run homer off Mark Wohlers in the seventh inning at Joe Robbie Stadium last night, breaking a 2-2 deadlock with the favored Atlanta Braves. The Marlins went on to win 7-2, took the National League Championship Series four games to one and made major-league history by earning a pennant in just their fifth season.
"They flat out-hustled us and out-hit us," Atlanta starter Tom Glavine admitted in a hushed losers' clubhouse. "We had another great year, but it's hard to believe how fast and far Florida has come in 1997."
Marlins ace Alex Fernandez went the distance and notched his fourth win of the playoffs, giving up six hits. He was named the pennant series' most valuable player. Miami-born Fernandez, of course, returned to Florida in late 1996 from the Chicago White Sox--the $35 million luxury purchase in an $89 million Marlins spending spree that brought the team six new free agents, including former Montreal center-fielder Moises Alou and ex-Baltimore Oriole Bonilla. The Marlins also got the services of longtime Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland, a man many believe has baseball's best mind.
"They bought quality, all right," disappointed Braves owner Ted Turner said. "They were so good in the series that even my wife, Jane, stayed awake for most of it."
After washing an ocean of champagne out of their white-and-teal uniforms, the ecstatic Marlins will face the winner of what is supposed to be Friday's seventh and deciding game in the bizarre American League Championship Series between the White Sox and the New York Yankees. That explosive war has seen Yankees owner George Steinbrenner barred by police from his own stadium after physically attacking two pre-teen hecklers from Moline, Illinois, and Chicago slugger Albert Belle savaged in the New York tabloids when he referred to baseball legend Babe Ruth as "a fat tub of crap who couldn't swing a bat bad as mine in a wet dream."
The Marlins-Braves epic had some drama of its own. In Game One, celebrated Atlanta starter Greg Maddux gave up eleven runs before retiring a batter in the first inning and was promptly placed under the care of a psychiatrist. After striking out in sixteen straight trips to the plate, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones abruptly retired from baseball following Game Four and took a job walking horses at nearby Hialeah Race Track. Meanwhile, Bonilla demolished the vaunted Braves pitching with a .546 series batting average, six homers and eighteen runs batted in. Stunned Braves manager Bobby Cox said of him: "What the...I don't...Who sat by the...?"
In winning the five-game NLCS, Florida outscored Atlanta 61-9.
The Marlins' dramatic 1997 turnaround has roots deep in team owner Wayne Huizenga's checkbook and in general manager Dave Dombrowski's decisive boldness. In just 21 frantic days late last year, Florida signed free agents Fernandez, Alou and Bonilla, outfielders Jim Eisenreich and John Cangelosi, and pitcher Dennis Cook to contracts worth a total of $89.275 million.
By mid-May, it was clear that all the new talent--and skipper Leyland--had made the Marlins baseball's most dramatically improved team, after four seasons of frustration and flagging attendance. In the National League East, they kept pace with the 1995 champion Braves all summer, took a three-game lead into late September and won the division by six, with a sparkling 102-59 record. They swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, after which Dodgers regulars Hideo Nomo and Eric Karros swallowed hemlock on Geraldo Rivera's television show.
In the regular season, Florida ace Fernandez put together a gaudy 23-6 record with a 2.53 ERA, the well-seasoned Bonilla hit .346 and 44 home runs, and Alou shored up what was once a chaotic Florida outfield. The diminutive, well-traveled Cangelosi, in the meantime, added timely pinch-hits and crucial spot play off the bench to complete the package.
"This year we hook a whole school of big fish," longtime Marlins fan Pedro Ferrer shouted amid the din of last night's midnight-to-dawn dancing in the streets of Little Havana. "Chinga Atlanta! And Yanquis go home!"
The World Series is scheduled to start Monday in Joe Robbie--if Yankees owner Steinbrenner does not make good on his threat to pull his players off the field in the third inning of Friday's final ALCS game and bus them to an undisclosed location in New Jersey. Addressing the first crisis since replacing Bud Selig in mid-July, on Tuesday major-league baseball commissioner Kato Kaelin threatened Steinbrenner with harsh sanctions should he follow through. "I mean, like, duuuuude--lighten up!" Kaelin said.
In a peculiar sideshow to the Marlins' moment of triumph, Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris spent the night under observation in a Miami hospital after briefly slipping into a catatonic state when Bonilla hit his seventh-inning home run. Details are sketchy, but several witnesses said McMorris, who was at the ballpark as the guest of fellow owner Huizenga, spent much of Games Four and Five in what one of them described as a "dream trance."
"He kept saying the same thing over and over," reported Harold Fanning, a Hallandale resident who was seated nearby. "'Baby haven,' he kept saying. 'Baby haven.'"
Amanda Vain-Trumpington of Palm Beach gave a slightly different account. "No, that's not precisely it. What the poor fellow appeared to be saying was 'Saberhagen, Saberhagen.' I haven't the foggiest notion what he meant. Saberhagen. Is that a fabulous new ski resort in the Rockies? In any event, the entire incident was frightful. The unfortunate man's eyes rolling back in his head like that. Wouldn't you know it? This was my very first baseball game."
McMorris's distress may be understandable. In vivid contrast to a Florida franchise that also joined the National League in the expansion of 1993, the power-hitting, no-pitching Rockies have failed crucial tests the past two seasons. Fan attendance at Denver's Mile High Stadium and Coors Field has mysteriously set major-league records, but the team itself has steadily declined since reaching the playoffs against Atlanta in 1995.
In 1996, six Rockies pitchers--notably Brett Babyhaven, who missed the entire season, and former San Francisco Giant Bill Swift--spent a total of 402 games on the disabled list. The Rox topped the National League in team batting, home runs and almost every other offensive category, but their pitchers finished dead last again, with a 5.59 ERA and a history of squandered leads that made the Japanese performance in the naval war look like child's play.
Following the 1996 season, Colorado then inexplicably traded its only reliable starter, Armando Reynoso, to the New York Mets. Those are the same Mets, Rockies fans recalled, who managed to dump the badly injured Babyhaven and his multi-million-dollar contract on Colorado two years earlier.
By the start of 1997, McMorris and Rockies GM Bob Gebhard were said to be interested in trading star outfielders Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks to the Mets in exchange for the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. "Throw in an Italian restaurant to be named later and you got yourself a deal!" Gebhard reportedly told the New York front office.
While expansion-mate Florida went power-shopping in the off-season and won a pennant, the Rockies stood pat. Another wildly schizophrenic performance in 1997 reflected that inactivity.
Two Rockies regulars, aging first baseman Andres Galarraga and left-fielder Larry Walker, who missed much of 1996 with injuries, both broke Roger Maris's 36-year-old home-run record--Galarraga with 63 dingers, Walker with 68. At home, the Rox led the league once more in wins, attendance, homers, runs scored, RBI, doubles, total bases and oxygen deprivation.
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But their awful pitching and road woes continued.
In late April, prospective staff ace Swift, citing years of wear and tear on his sore arm, signed on as a left wing with the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer. After that, the Rockies won just seven games on the road--and finished the year with a 70-92 mark. Two of the rare road victories came at Wrigley Field against bulky Chicago Cubs starter Harry Caray, who again showed a tendency to weaken in the late innings. And there was a memorable 37-36 squeaker in Pittsburgh against Florida manager Jim Leyland's old club. In contrast to Huizenga's free-spending policy in Miami, the Pirates again practiced austerity in 1997. Former Yankee great Mickey Rivers was recruited to play center field for the Bucs, and 56-year-old Steel City legend Willie Stargell also came out of retirement. While he's lost a step or two around first base, Pops hit five home runs off Rockies pitching in the 37-36 tilt, widely hailed as the most entertaining NL game of the year.
In turn, Walker and the Blake Street Bombers roughed up Pirates starter Jimmy "Pinhead" Frumble for 26 runs over seven and one-third innings. But the fifteen-year-old lefthander was undaunted. "Hey, man," he told reporters after the loss. "The Pirates're paying me $14.80 an hour, and I get the entire month of November off. That's a lot better'n I was doing answering the phone at Pizza Hut."
Frumble, who started his career as the Detroit Tigers' top pitching prospect, is now said to be negotiating with Colorado itself. "We need a solid number-three starter," Rox pitching coach Frank Funk said last week. "This could be the guy. His 31.58 ERA last season doesn't look all that great, but the kid's got great stuff. Besides, now that Mark Thompson and Bruce Ruffin have joined that monastery, we have a couple of slots open on the roster."
Meanwhile, the Marlins play in the World Series on Monday. Let's just hope Commissioner Kaelin is back from his surfing trip.