Memo to Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga: Do you really want
to sell this club?
It would be one thing if you had mortgaged the ranch last winter
on a bunch of stiffs. But when your multimillionaire free agents
(righthander Alex Fernandez, third baseman Bobby Bonilla and
leftfielder Moises Alou) are putting up the kind of numbers you
paid for, and your high-priced new manager (Jim Leyland) has the
team playing baseball the way it should be played; when an
improbable, Walter Mitty-like rookie is pretending he's Pete
Rose circa 1963, and a sore-kneed veteran added last month is
legging out hits; when a homesick, overweight Cuban righthander
discovers how to say no mas at the dinner table and starts
eating up major league hitters, and an all-glove, no-stick
catcher begins crushing homers like Johnny Bench; when the team
fashions the second-best record in the National League and has
defending league champion and division-leading Atlanta sweating
a four-game series in the second week in August, aren't you
tempted to stick around and enjoy the fun? What's a little
negative cash flow when you're trying to catch the Braves?
"I'm sad Wayne Huizenga is selling the club, because he is a
good owner, and the players know it," says Leyland, the first
high-profile signee by the Marlins in their $89 million
off-season spending spree and a man who thought, after 11
seasons managing the cash-poor Pittsburgh Pirates, that he'd
found stability in the five-year, $7.5 million deal Huizenga had
given him. "But [his decision to sell] hasn't been a
distraction. I like my team very much. We'll be competitive for
a long time."
Believe it. Florida is starting to look like a club that may be
a force come October. And who better for the Marlins to test
themselves against at this stage of the season than the Braves,
who have been to the World Series in four of the last six years,
but who in head-to-head competition against the Marlins this
season before last week's series had been skewered in six of
eight games. The outcome of the four-game set at Atlanta's
sold-out Turner Field? On Monday the Braves beat the Marlins 2-1
to split the series, leaving Florida 5 1/2 games back but with a
3-game lead over the New York Mets in the wild-card race. The
Marlins and the Braves won't meet again this season unless they
face each other in the playoffs.
Not bad considering that the only offensive category besides
walks that Florida led the league in was most men left on base.
Despite the added punch that's been provided by Bonilla (.310,
33 doubles, 71 RBIs) and Alou (.296, 15 home runs, 86 RBIs), the
Marlins have struggled to score runs, thanks largely to a
drop-off in production from the man charged with driving this
train, rightfielder Gary Sheffield, who signed a six-year, $61
million contract extension in April. Bothered in recent weeks by
a strained left hamstring and a sprained left thumb, Sheffield
has seen his numbers drop dramatically from 1996. Last year he
blasted 42 homers, drove in 120 runs, had a .625 slugging
percentage and hit .333 with runners in scoring position; this
season through Sunday he had only 13 homers, 48 RBIs, a .423
slugging mark and had batted just .238 with runners in scoring
position. What's even more puzzling is that with Bonilla hitting
behind him, pitchers aren't working around Sheffield as much as
last year, when he finished second in the league in walks with
142. "I'm just not doing the job right now," says Sheffield, who
had 83 walks at week's end. "Eventually something's going to
click. What's helping me get through this is that we're winning.
That's the most important thing."
The Marlins are winning the old-fashioned way, with pitching and
defense, some of it provided by Sheffield, whose 10 assists at
week's end tied him for fourth in the National League. In last
Friday night's 6-4 win over the Braves, Sheffield helped turn
the game around in the second inning by cutting down Mark Lemke,
who was trying to score from second on a two-out single. Leyland
described Sheffield's on-the-fly BB as "one of the greatest
throws you'll ever see."
One inning later Florida nailed another Atlanta runner at the
plate, thwarting a delayed double-steal attempt by converting a
strikeout into a 2-6-4-2 double play. It wasn't particularly
wise strategy on the Braves' part, given that Marlins catcher
Charles Johnson is a two-time Gold Glove winner who has thrown
out 46% of runners in the last three years--a statistic Atlanta
manager Bobby Cox must have known. It was Cox, after all, who
named Johnson to replace New York's Todd Hundley when Hundley
pulled out of the All-Star Game with an elbow injury. "It was
very surprising to get named to the team because of my defense,"
says Johnson, who was hitting just .226 at the time. "That was a
big boost for me."
Johnson repaid Cox by belting a two-run homer on Friday to fuel
Florida's comeback win. The 26-year-old Johnson has been on a
tear since the midsummer classic, batting .376 with nine home
runs and 23 RBIs in 24 games. "He's been a different hitter
since the break," says Leyland. "I'd have to say he's been the
team's biggest surprise."
But not its only one. On July 27 Marlins general manager Dave
Dombrowski made a little-noticed deal that sent righthander Mark
Hutton to the Colorado Rockies for 26-year-old second baseman
Craig Counsell, a Notre Dame grad who'd had one career major
league at bat. The day Counsell arrived, Leyland called him into
his office and told the callow-faced Counsell that he didn't
know much about him. Counsell had been hitting .335 at Triple A
Colorado Springs, but Leyland asked the rookie what kind of
player he was.
"I told him I was a blue-collar player," recalls Counsell. "I
might not be pretty, but I'll do what it takes to win: play good
defense, move the runner over. I grew up in Milwaukee watching
guys like Paul Molitor and Robin Yount play, and I try to do the
things that they do."
So far Counsell, who is in his sixth pro season, has taken
advantage of his opportunity. He got his first big league hit in
his first Florida at bat and has not looked back, hitting .375
with a .500 on-base percentage during his brief stint and
providing solid, sometimes spectacular, defense. Through Sunday
the team was 8-2 in games he had started. "I don't know if I
feel like this is a different planet or not, but it's a lot of
fun, I'll tell you that," Counsell says of his sudden change in
Had he ever felt like giving up the quest for the majors and
converting his Notre Dame education into a more traditional job?
"I'm proud I got my degree, but I don't want to have to use it,"
Counsell says. "This is all I ever wanted to do."
The Marlins' other blue-collar addition--one who arrived with a
slightly higher price tag--is 35-year-old Darren Daulton,
acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies on July 21 for
outfielder Billy McMillon. At week's end Daulton, who has
platooned at first base with slumping Jeff Conine, was hitting
.275 since joining Florida, and he had brought the team
professionalism and experience. "I haven't talked to a manager
yet who hasn't said you guys made a hell of a deal getting
Daulton," Leyland says. "But too much is being made of what he
brings to the clubhouse. We need him to produce on the field.
Not too many leaders hit .210. He still can hit and he still can
Indeed, despite having endured eight operations on his right
knee and one on his left, Daulton, who spent most of his 12
previous seasons behind the plate, runs the bases with abandon.
His career-high seven triples through Sunday ranked him among
the league leaders in that category. "It's called a lack of
pop," he says of his abundance of three-baggers. "Balls are
hitting the wall instead of going over." Regardless, Florida was
10-3 at week's end with Daulton in the starting lineup.
The Marlins pitching staff, however, has been most responsible
for the team's success. Starters Fernandez (14-8, 3.52 ERA
through Sunday) and Kevin Brown (10-8, 3.04, 160 strikeouts)
have given Leyland quality innings. At week's end the bullpen
had a combined record of 21-11, with Robb Nen (8-2, 29 saves in
35 chances) proving to be a solid closer. But the pitcher who
has provided Florida with a second-half lift has been Cuban
defector Livan Hernandez (6-0, 2.22 ERA). Signed to a four-year,
$4.5 million contract in January 1996, the 22-year-old Hernandez
suffered from what amounted to culture shock last season. He
missed his family and his girlfriend, who had remained in Cuba;
had difficulty with the language; and consoled himself by
attacking each meal as if he would never be allowed food again.
"I ate because I liked to eat," Hernandez says. "I never had a
chance to eat like this before. All kinds of food. Sweets.
He ballooned to 243 pounds, he says, though others put the
number as high as 260. Ineffective and unhappy, Hernandez spent
almost all of 1996 in the minors, pitching only three innings
for the Marlins, in September. This season he wasn't recalled
until June 15. By that time Hernandez had discovered the salad
bar, had his weight down to 222 and had added an excellent
changeup and a hard slider to his live fastball and his big
bending curve. He won his second start, against the Montreal
Expos, then went 4-0 in July with a 1.38 ERA--numbers that
earned him honorable mention as the National League Pitcher of
the Month. Unfortunately, the league identified Livan as "Alex"
Hernandez in its Aug. 4 press release, which USA Today
subsequently altered to "Alex Fernandez." So Hernandez has
become something of a Cuban stealth bomber, chalking up wins and
stats beneath the league's radar screen. Which is just fine with
Leyland. "He's not over the hump yet," Leyland says. "Some teams
haven't seen him yet, which helps him. They'll make adjustments.
But he'll make adjustments, too. He'll figure things out. He's a
pretty cool customer. He throws strikes. He's not afraid."
Which is pretty much where the Marlins find themselves as a
team: on the brink of long-term success, certain they deserve to
be among the top teams in baseball but still trying to figure
out how to get there. How does a team do what the Braves have
done this decade? The talent, Florida knows, is there. If
Sheffield starts hitting...if Hernandez keeps pitching...if
Daulton and Counsell can keep it up....
"This team wasn't raised together, the way those good Pittsburgh
teams I managed were," says Leyland. "It takes time for everyone
to get comfortable with one another, for the personalities to
click. But the attitude in the clubhouse has gotten better all
year. We're coming."
It would be a shame, Mr. Huizenga, not to be there when the
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Bonilla, one of six free-agent signees, has been a bright spot, leading the Marlins in hitting and doubles. [Bobby Bonilla hitting in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The sore-kneed Daulton has brought his professionalism, as well as a solid bat, to the Marlins. [Darren Daulton in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES After a career year that led to a $61 million extension, Sheffield has struggled at the plate. [Gary Sheffield batting]