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Some strange similarities exist between Miami's Pro Player Stadium and Boston's Fenway Park. Both venues have hosted a professional football team. Both ballparks' unique proportions include a left field wall over 30 feet. And both stadiums were home to World Series champions in their respective teams' fifth year there. Marlins fans hope, however, that the 75-plus year drought of World Champions at Fenway never occurs at Pro Player.
Though the chance is small that the Marlins would endure such a wait before their next World Series title, their long-term prospects seemed bleak after winning the World Series in 1997. The club had improved their winning percentage and their NL East Division standing in each of their first five years of existence, progressing from sixth place in 1993, fifth in 1994, fourth in 1995, third in 1996, and to second place, a wild-card berth in the playoffs, and a championship in 1997.
But to the fans' dismay, owner H. Wayne Huizenga immediately pared the payroll by purging the team of its veterans within weeks of the World Series, hoping to cut costs (he claimed the club had lost $34 million in their World Championship year) and make the team more attractive to prospective buyers. Such actions dampened fans' euphoria and dimmed the long-term prospects of South Florida's first major league baseball team.
Aside from the clubs that visited South Florida for spring training before the turn of the century, the region had been home to year-round professional baseball since 1912, when the Miami Magicians started play in the Class D East Florida State League. As more minor league teams sprang up in the area, a new 9,000-seat ballpark (Miami Stadium) was built and opened in 1949. Seven years later, it became home to the first edition of the Marlins, a Triple-A club which moved south from Syracuse, New York. Bill Veeck's efforts to promote the franchise included signing Satchel Paige as the star attraction and staging the first baseball game in the Orange Bowl, but the team moved to Puerto Rico before the 1961 season. With the exception of a brief appearance by the Triple-A Miami Amigos in 1979, the Miami area saw no professional summer baseball above Class A until the big-league Marlins were born in 1993.
The path towards a major-league team in South Florida started in 1985, when the National League was permitted to expand by two teams by Major League Baseball's new basic agreement. Wayne Huizenga's group representing South Florida was picked as one of six candidates for expansion in December 1990, and along with Denver, South Florida was officially selected by the NL Expansion Committee in June 1991. The Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins were unanimously approved by the major-league owners the following month.
That September, the Marlins began to build their club. Dave Dombrowski, who was instrumental in building the Montreal Expos' famed talent pool (which had produced Delino DeShields, Larry Walker, and Randy Johnson, amond others) was hired away to be the Marlins' first GM. Three months later the team's first player, Clemente Nunez, was signed to a minor-league contract. Nunez never played with the team.
The club began to flesh out in October 1992 when Rene Lachemann was named manager and his brother Marcel appointed as the pitching coach. The following month, the Marlins acquired 39 players through the expansion draft and three ensuing trades, with outfielder Nigel Wilson being the team's first selection. Florida then signed its first two free agents -- infielder Dave Magadan and pitcher Charlie Hough -- in December.
However, the original architect of the Marlins franchise never saw his handiwork take the field. One day after Magadan and Hough signed with the club, and four months before Opening Day, team president Carl Barger died at the owners' meetings in Kentucky after suffering a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
The Marlins won their regular season debut 6-3 over the visiting Dodgers on April 5, 1993. Bryan Harvey saved the win for Charlie Hough, while Bret Barberie (first hit), Walt Weiss (first RBI), and Jeff Conine (first stolen base) recorded other franchise firsts in the Opening Day victory. A week later, Benito Santiago belted the Marlins' first home run in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. Reliever Bryan Harvey and third baseman Gary Sheffield were named as the Marlins' first All-Star Game representatives in July. Sheffield (acquired in a trade from San Diego) teamed with Orestes Destrade to pace the offense, Chuck Carr topped the NL with 58 stolen bases, and Harvey went on to save 45 of the team's 64 wins. Over three million fans flocked to Pro Player Stadium (then known as Joe Robbie Stadium) to see the Marlins avoid last place in the NL East in their first year.
The following three years saw steady improvement in the team's winning percentage, with some highlights along the way. Jeff Conine homered in his first All-Star Game at-bat in the 1995 Midsummer Classic, becoming the tenth player to do so. His solo shot won the game for the NL and earned him All-Star Game MVP honors. Second baseman Quilvio Veras led the league with 56 stolen bases in 1995. The following year, Gary Sheffield's offensive exploits (.314, 42 homers, and 120 RBIs) earned him Florida's second Silver Slugger award. Al Leiter no-hit Colorado on May 11, 1996 and Kevin Brown baffled the National League all season long on the way to 17 wins, a 1.89 ERA, and 2nd place in the 1996 Cy Young Award balloting. Charles Johnson established himself as one of the finest defensive catchers in years.
A slew of personnel changes preceded the 1997 season, as the Marlins splurged on free agents Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, and Alex Fernandez. The most notable new face, though, was Jim Leyland, who was named Florida's third manager on October 4, 1996. (John Boles finished the 1996 season when Rene Lachemann was fired in July.)
Kevin Brown authored a no-hitter in San Francisco on June 10, a hit batter being the only baserunner. With Brown at the top of a formidable starting rotation, Leyland led Florida to their best record ever: 92-70, good for second place in the NL East behind the Braves. The Marlins then surged through the postseason as a wild-card entry, sweeping the Giants in three games and downing Atlanta in six to get to the World Series. Even though key starter Alex Fernandez was lost for the final showdown against Mike Hargrove's AL Champion Indians after tearing his rotator cuff against the Braves, Florida outlasted Cleveland to win the World Championship. In a classic Game Seven, Edgar Renteria and Craig Counsell ensured their places in Marlins lore when Renteria's two-out single plated Counsell with the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Despite the addition of Alou, Bonilla, Counsell, and Darren Daulton, it was the pitching that carried Florida to the postseason in 1997. The team ranked third in hits allowed per nine innings, and the team ERA was good for 4th in the league, behind Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Houston -- the latter two playing in extremely pitcher-friendly parks. The offense, however, was decidedly mediocre; although the team's on-base percentage ranked second in the NL, the team was 8th in runs scored and 12th in slugging percentage.
Throughout the team's short history, the Marlins rose to success due to continual upgrades of their starting rotation. Before 1997, the Marlins almost exclusively relied on experienced starting pitchers; out of the 21 Florida hurlers to start 10 or more games in a season between 1993 and 1996, only rookie Pat Rapp (1993) and converted reliever Dave Weathers (1994) did not start over 10 games in the previous season. By 1997, however, the farm system was advanced enough to send two contributing rookie pitchers to the majors -- Livan Hernandez,who had 9 wins and a 3.18 ERA after being recalled in June, and Tony Saunders, who beat the powerful Braves three times in four tries with a 1.65 ERA. Combined with veterans Kevin Brown (16-8, 2.69 ERA), Alex Fernandez (17-12, 3.59 ERA), and Al Leiter (6-2, 2.28 ERA at home, 11-9 overall), the 1997 rotation was a far cry from their forgettable first-year counterparts: Charlie Hough, Jack Armstrong, Pat Rapp, Chris Hammond, Ryan Bowen, and Luis Aquino.
The Marlins were also able to ensure steady improvement by quickly jettisoning the incompatible players on their first-year roster, players who were (for the most part) unwanted by their former teams and soon by the Marlins as well. Of the 39 players that started the 1993 season in a Marlins uniform, 25 were gone by 1995. Out of the 18 players who spent only that inaugural year in Florida, six never saw the major leagues again.
One who remained, and who would play a key role in the Marlins 1997 season, was Jeff Conine. A trade which sent Rapp to the Giants in July 1997 left Conine and reserves Alex Arias and Bob Natal as the only Marlins left over from the 1992 expansion draft, and Conine, Florida's eleventh selection in that draft, could easily be considered the Marlins' first franchise player on the basis of his offensive exploits. In his five years with the club, "The Barbarian" blasted 98 homers and drove in 433 runs, including a career-high 105 in 1995. Over his most productive three years (1994-1996), he averaged 23 homers and 94 RBIs.
By July 1997, Conine had been reduced to part-time duty after the acquisition of Darren Daulton from the Phillies. Less than a month after the team won the World Series, he was sent to Kansas City for minor-league pitcher Blaine Mull as part of Wayne Huizenga's off-season payroll purges. The team had already shipped rightfielder Moises Alou to Houston, centerfielder Devon White to Arizona, and closer Robb Nen to San Francisco. Kevin Brown would soon be dealt, as would Al Leiter. Dennis Cook and Ed Vosberg, both key relievers, were also traded. The team tried unsuccessfully to find a taker for high-priced Gary Sheffield. As a result, the defending champs started 1998 with an emaciated lineup and a rotation that included no returning starters.
Florida spent the rest of the year rebuilding around the bevy of prospects acquired in salary dump deals. On May 15, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, and Jim Eisenreich were dealt to Los Angeles for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Within a week, Piazza was sent to the New York Mets for minor leaguers Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz; Zeile was traded to Texas in July.
After 108 losses and a last-place finish, Jim Leyland left to become the manager of the Colorado Rockies. John Boles took over in 1999 with a mandate to develop the team's young talent, but the Marlins continued to deal away emerging stars such as shortstop Edgar Renteria and closer Matt Mantei. (AT/JGR)