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Playing the Waiting Game

As Archie Bunker once said, "patience is a virgin."

Sage advice for Marlin fans. This is, after all, only the team's second year. It is still a virgin franchise, quietly building for the future by stashing prospects in the minor leagues. Yet fans in South Florida were dumping on general manager Dave Dombrowski for not signing free agents in the off-season. "Fans have the mistaken perception that championship clubs are built through buying free agents," he says. "They're built through player development and scouting."

The Marlins, who were 64-98 last year, enter this season with only three big pluses: the speed and defense of Chuck Carr in centerfield; the bat of Gary Sheffield, who's now in rightfield (a new position for him, but he can't play it any worse than he did third base): and the brilliance of closer Bryan Harvey. Other than Carr, who led the National League with 58 stolen bases last year, there's no speed and little defense. After Sheffield, there is no feared hitter in the lineup. Besides Harvey (45 saves), the Staff is shaky. Charlie Hough, 46, is the ace until Dave Weathers, Ryan Bowen or Pat Rapp develops behind him. I hope they're in front of me," says Hough.

For the sake of argument, let's say the Marlins had signed free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and pitcher Dennis Martinez in the off-season. Sure, they would have been fan favorites—especially in this heavily Hispanic region—and they would have upgraded the play of the team, but Florida still would have finished fourth in the NL East. What's more, those two players would have added about $40 million to the club's long-term payroll, and they would have cost the Marlins two high-round draft choices in 1994. It would have been a dumb move for a building team.

"We tried to get guys in the off-season; we were on the phone all winter," says Florida manager Rene Lachemann. "But there were a lot of guys out there that I wasn't interested in. We're not going to give up draft choices. When you do that, you start bleeding. People have to realize that last year Toronto [which entered the American League in '77] went over .500 as a franchise for the first time in its history."

It's hard to fault Marlin fans for getting overexcited about last year's club. On June 13 the team was 30-31 and in fourth place. "But," says one Marlin, "it wasn't that we were good, it was that everyone else was bad. We caught the Braves when they were going bad. That happened with a few teams." Eleven days later the Marlins heisted Sheffield—their first true star—from the Padres, giving the franchise new credibility. But Hough, for one, noticed a change in the offense.

"You know how the Rangers used to play when Nolan Ryan pitched? We'd stand around and watch," he said, referring to the time when he was Ryan's teammate in Texas. "Same thing here. Before we got Gary we would scratch for runs, moving a guy along, doing what it took to score. But when we got Gary, we stood and watched him because he's such a great hitter. When he made an out with runners on base, it was like. What do we do now?"

What the Marlins do now is wait. They wait to see how good bright young shortstop Kurt Abbott will be. They wait until outfielders Carl Everett and Nigel Wilson are ready. They wait for catcher Charles Johnson's arrival next year. They wait on the pitching prospects. It promises to be worth the wait.

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PHOTO

RONALD C. MODRA

With the patient Marlins, young Abbott has time on his side.