Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Marlins are big-game now

The following post is a piece I wrote for the forum "Fans on Base" on
The Marlins are in the thick of the Wild Card picture, and that is one of the best stories of this season. Just one short year ago, they were considered a laughingstock.

It was easy to mock owner Jeffrey Loria and his front office for failing to produce programs for the 2002 season, running out of hot dogs on Opening Day, and trading away what seemed to be key elements of the team

Lost in the last year and a half is the fact that the Marlins have kept a lot of promises they have made to a public weary of previously broken ones. David Samson, the club's President, went on a "listening tour", a la Hillary Clinton when she was considering her run for the Senate. He explained that the first of order business was to evaluate, not to act.

When asked about the need for a new stadium, he correctly pointed out that public statements about a stadium would be counterproductive in the environment of that time. He stated that previous ownership (John Henry, now owner of the Red Sox) had done quite a good job convincing fans that Pro Player Stadium was a lousy place to watch a game. The problem is that he did it too well and fans stayed away in droves. Samson's approach is to build the team back to competitiveness, stadium or no stadium.

And build he has. At times it has been addition by subtraction. With the aid of General Manager Larry Beinfest, the team has completed some excellent transactions. Last season, the Marlins traded closer Antonio Alfonseca (the 12-fingered one known as El Pulpo -- the Octopus) and starter Matt Clement to the Cubs for a little-known minor leaguer named Dontrelle Willis. The team traded Ryan Dempster, once projected to be the anchor of Florida's staff, to Cincinnati for right fielder Juan Encarnacion.

The Marlins also unloaded some onerous contracts for players who were underperforming, such as catcher Charles Johnson and center fielder Preston Wilson. Although Wilson is having by far his best year with the Rockies, his replacement on the Marlins, Juan Pierre, has been a catalyst at the top of the lineup. The Marlins agreed to pay a portion of Mike Hampton's contract to pull off the three-team deal with Colorado and Atlanta -- and were roundly and unfairly criticized for that. The net effect of the transaction was a positive one as they ended up saving a substantial sum.

The signing of Ivan Rodriguez to a one-year contract also was subject to criticism. Skeptics said catcher was not an area of need for the Marlins and that an aging Pudge is now injury-prone. When Rodriguez went into a funk during the first half, the critics began beating their chests. But Ivan has since become the Marlins hottest hitter and currently is hitting well above .300, typical of him. We have seen the mea culpas in the South Florida media in the last month.

From high-profile players to no-profile players, the Florida club has seen most of its moves pay off. The acquisition of left-hander Mark Redman was largely seen as adding filler to the rotation, but Redman and Willis have proven to be the Marlins' best starters.

Sure, the Marlins have made their mistakes. Had they kept left fielder Kevin Millar, they would not have been looking for one before the trading deadline. But, hey, no team bats 1.000 in the transactions category.

Speaking of stats, the Marlins were supposed to be short on power but their team slugging percentage was fourth in the National League as of this writing and a good indication that Florida is not just a "punch-and-Judy" club playing "small ball".

How about Jack McKeon? The firing of Jeff Torborg and the hiring of McKeon (for which the Marlins reportedly were fined for not interviewing minority candidates) has paid off. The Marlins have been perhaps the best team in the Majors, at least the NL, over the last two months.

The addition of Ugueth Urbina and the announcement that Mike Lowell will not be traded this season have signaled to the fans that their worst fears are not true. This ownership is not ambivalent about winning. And the fans responded with more than 80,000 enjoying their 10th-anniversary programs and hot dogs during a recent three-game set against the Cubs.

It appears that the Florida Marlins are well on their way to only their second winning season, if not also the playoffs. And it appears that Loria, Samson and Beinfest deserve our respect for an unenviable job well done.

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