When Alex Fernandez takes the mound for the Marlins, it's as if
Emeril is teaching the freshman home ec class. His audience--the
other four members of Florida's talented but raw rotation, whose
average age is 23--understands just enough about pitching to
know Fernandez is way ahead of them when it comes to roasting
batters. "The young guys watch him from the bench," says Marlins
manager John Boles. "I hear comments like, 'Wow, look at that,'
or 'Watch how he carves this guy up.'"
"My job here is to help the team win as many games as possible,"
says Fernandez, the second-oldest (30) and highest-paid ($7
million) Florida player. "If the young guys can learn something
from the way I pitch, that's a plus."
Fernandez's role as a good example to the Marlins' assembly of
young arms coincides with the end of a nearly three-year
learning curve of his own. For the first time since the end of
the 1997 season, the righthanded Fernandez--who missed all of
1998 while recovering from rotator cuff surgery and went 7-8
with a 3.38 ERA in 24 painful starts last year--finally feels
healthy enough to pitch every fifth day. He looked strong in his
two starts last week, an Opening Day win over the Giants and a
4-2 loss last Saturday in which the Rockies scored the go-ahead
run on an eighth-inning error. In both games he consistently
threw in the high 80s and topped out at 91 mph. "There were
times last year when we'd watch him warm up and say, 'This is
going to be a long night,'" says righthander Brian Edmondson,
27. "Our jaws would be on the ground when he'd get guys out
without breaking 86."
Held to strict pitch counts last season, Fernandez now is off
the leash. But the lessons he learned in trying to make his
starts last as long as possible have changed his approach. "Last
year we had to rely on Alex's off-speed pitches," says catcher
Mike Redmond. "His velocity is up now, so we can challenge
"I knew that before, but I finally made it part of my game,"
says Fernandez, who in his first two starts threw only 13.95
pitches per inning, nearly 1 1/2 fewer than he averaged last
season. "We're taught to waste a pitch here and there, but
there's no need for that. I've learned to make every pitch count."
Fernandez's presence on the mound and in the clubhouse is
important to Florida's future. "Every pitch he throws has a
purpose, and that's where I want to go," says 22-year-old
righthander Ryan Dempster. Adds righthander Brad Penny, 21, who
won his first major league start last Friday, "We try to watch
and learn. He's so relaxed, and he competes so hard."
That competitiveness raises the question of whether Fernandez
will still be around if and when Florida is ready to contend for
the National League pennant. He has two years left on a contract
that includes a list of seven teams to which he would agree to
be traded, but Fernandez, a Miami native, insists he wants to
stay in South Florida. "I've got one of these," he says, pulling
his 1997 World Series ring out of his locker. "I want to bring
another one back here."
A Sea of Empty Seats
Like temperatures below 50 and batting averages above .500, a
post-Opening Day attendance drop-off is expected in the season's
first week. Still, sparse crowds at several parks last
week--especially those in cities not affected by wintry
weather--had owners and ticket managers scratching their heads.
Four teams (the Blue Jays, Braves, Mariners and Marlins) drew
the smallest crowds in their stadiums' histories, and through
Sunday, 8 of the 19 teams that played at home had seen total
attendance decline compared with the same number of dates last
That empty feeling was particularly strong in Miami, where the
Marlins set new lows at Pro Player Stadium on two straight days,
bottoming out when only 7,741 fans showed up to see Florida beat
the Giants last Thursday afternoon. "It must have been the
weather," Marlins owner John Henry said, sarcastically referring
to a sunny day that passed without a threat of rain.
Whether precipitated by rising ticket prices (tickets to major
league games are up by 12% over last season) or by other
factors, the scourge of the empty seats wasn't limited to teams
expected to be out of the playoff race by July. The A's had a
Coliseum-record crowd of 53,498 on Opening Day but drew only
10,188 the next night. Last Thursday, Seattle beat the Red Sox
in front of 25,121, its smallest audience since Safeco Field
opened last July. During its opening four-game series against
the Royals, Toronto drew the three smallest crowds in the
SkyDome's 12-year history; the 13,514 who showed up to watch the
Blue Jays beat K.C. on April 4 was nearly 7,000 less than the
park's previous low, set last May. "There's a lot going on right
now," said righthander Roy Halladay, who pitched seven innings
and got the win. "You've got the Raptors [who drew 19,800 that
night for their game at the Air Canada Centre] and the Maple
Leafs [who had that night off]. Hopefully our time will come,
when we're in the hunt, and the fans will come out."
Even the Diamondbacks, who have been among the National League
leaders in attendance in the two seasons of their existence, saw
a turnstile downturn. They failed to sell out Opening Day
against the Phillies and drew 29,291 for their second game, the
third smallest crowd ever at Bank One Ballpark. A day later even
fewer (28,774) showed up at the BOB. "We can't do much more than
we've done," said managing general partner Jerry Colangelo. "We
had a very good spring; we're coming off a fantastic year; we've
marketed about as hard as you can market. Either they come or
they don't come."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Fernandez, pain-free for the first time since 1997, is throwing harder and a lot less often.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA
the HOT corner
Astros closer Billy Wagner expects to hear some abuse from fans
this season thanks to the shorter fence in left field at the new
open-air Enron Field. "I give up deep fly balls all the time,"
he says. "Here, they won't be deep fly balls; they'll be home
runs. The people in [the clubhouse] will understand what's going
on. The people out there won't."...
The Angels' Mo Vaughn, who didn't steal a base in 1998 and '99,
swiped two in Anaheim's first four games this year....
Frank Robinson was miffed that the Indians, whom he managed from
1975 to '77, won't observe the 25th anniversary of his debut as
baseball's first African-American manager on Cleveland's home
opener. "It's not like this is something that came out of the
blue," Robinson says. "Why be caught short on the 25th
Angels closer Troy Percival, who last season had the lowest
strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark (9.16) of his five-year career,
is trying to regain his form by studying Yankees righthander
Roger Clemens. Percival, who had averaged 11.91 strikeouts
before last season, wants to mimic the Rocket's open delivery,
in which his left leg angles toward first base as he strides.
"That's something I got away from last year," says Percival, who
scrutinized Clemens during his start in a Yankees victory
against Anaheim last week and kept a videotape for future study.
"I used the closed position because I was trying to compensate
for pain in my shoulder. I want to get back to what I'm most
Ken Griffey Jr.'s slow start--a .115 batting average and just
one home run in his first seven games as a Red--got most of the
headlines, but he wasn't the only big name trying to impress a
new set of fans in the season's opening week. Here are five
other traded players who debuted in new uniforms, with mixed
Player, Team First Week's Work* Skinny
Jeff Cirillo .167 (3 for 18), Played with strained
(left), Rockies 3 2Bs, 3 RBIs quadriceps and then sat out
last Saturday's game with
sore thumb; hits and RBIs
all came on April 4
Carl Everett, .400 (8 for 20), 2 HR, One of the few Red Sox
Red Sox .458 on-base pct. players to hit consistently
on the team's dismal 2-4
opening road trip
Juan Gonzalez, .000 (0 for 5) Played Opening Day but was
Tigers subsequently limited to
pinch-hit duty by sore
Raul Mondesi, .286 (8 for 28), Compounded his tepid
Blue Jays 1 RBI, 6 K's performance at the plate
by committing a costly
throwing error in a 9-3
loss to Royals
Fernando Vina, .379 (11 for 29), Opening Day heroics (3 for 5)
Cardinals 6 runs, 3 3Bs prompted skipper Tony La Russa
to say, "He's going to be
among the fan favorites here."
*All stats through Sunday.