These guys need a catchy name. Every boy group worth its weight in
hair gel has one. It's got to be easy for the dumb kids to
remember but hip enough for the cool ones. If it fits on a vanity
license plate, all the better. 'N Sync. Boyz II Men. That sort of
thing. Otherwise, they're set.
Dope aqua-black-and-white costumes--check.
Multicity summer stadium tour--check.
Screaming, out-of-control girlies--check.
The musical skills of a desk lamp--check.
Best of all, they've got prepackaged, deep-as-a-dime IDs.
There's A.J., the tattooed tough guy. Brad, the reserved country
bumpkin. Jason, the brainy, contemplative college boy. Josh, the
cocky, baby-faced heartthrob. Wes, the aw-shucks cutie. Claudio,
the Latin lover. Blaine, the giant, and Geoff, the
happy-go-lucky one. Then there's Ryan, the leader of the bunch,
the sharp-witted 23-year-old wannabe comedian who's as quick
with a smile as he is with a magic trick. He's their Justin
Timberlake. Their Ralph Tresvant. Their ace.
As was the case in the mid-1980s when Maurice Starr took five
talent-deprived ragamuffins off the streets of Boston and
transformed them into New Kids on the Block, naysayers exist.
There are those who believe that the Florida Marlins and their
nine hot young pitchers haven't accomplished nearly enough to
evoke comparisons to the great boy groups. Only Ryan (Dempster),
A.J. (Burnett), Brad (Penny) and Jason (Grilli) boast major
league experience, and they've combined for a 38-39 record in 112
starts. Those are hardly Jackson 5-quality numbers. Not to
mention Atlanta Braves-quality stats. Yet...
"I've been doing this for 22 years, and this is the best group of
young arms that I've ever seen," says one American League scout.
"These guys are as good as the Braves were when they exploded
with Smoltz and Glavine and Avery. They all throw in the 90s, and
they know how to pitch."
Shortly after Florida won the 1997 World Series, general manager
Dave Dombrowski was ordered to slice the Marlins' $53 million
payroll in half. Even though baseball's 29 other clubs knew he
was dealing from a position of weakness, Dombrowski was still
able to pick up top pitching prospects. Burnett, 24, slotted to
be the Marlins' No. 4 starter this season, came from the New
York Mets for lefthander Al Leiter. Penny, 22, No. 3 in the
rotation, came from the Arizona Diamondbacks for righthander
Matt Mantei. Grilli, 24, who's battling for the fifth spot in
the rotation, came from the San Francisco Giants for righthander
Livan Hernandez. Geoff Goetz, 21, the only lefthander in the
gang, came with centerfielder Preston Wilson from the Mets in
the blockbuster Mike Piazza swap. "If you wanted one of our
players, fine, but you had to give us pitchers," says
Dombrowski. "We were forced to make deals, but we weren't going
to take just anyone. The more young arms you have, the
better--that was the philosophy."
That's a line of thinking that worked to Florida's advantage even
before the world championship run. On Aug. 25, 1995, Marlins
scout Pablo Lantigua signed a skinny 16-year-old Dominican who
lived in Santiago with his 10 brothers and sisters and knew no
English; now 21, Claudio Vargas is ticketed to be one of
Florida's future starters. In the '96 draft the Marlins used a
fourth-round pick on Blaine Neal, a 6'5", 205-pound pitcher-first
baseman with a bad elbow from Haddon Heights, N.J.; now, at 22,
he's an eventual heir to closer Antonio Alfonseca. The following
year Florida spent a 14th-round pick on Wes Anderson, a rail-thin
schoolboy from Pine Bluff, Ark.; now 21, he could be in the
starting rotation in 2002.
Then, after slashing their payroll, the Marlins went 54-108 in
1998 and got the second pick in the '99 draft. Dombrowski
selected Josh Beckett, a tobacco-chewing, gunslinging,
20-year-old flamethrower from Spring, Texas, and signed him to a
four-year, $7 million contract. With all its other talented young
arms, Florida can afford to bring Beckett along slowly. "We're in
no rush with Josh," says Dombrowski. "He has star potential, and
you have to be careful with that."
Of the nine pitchers, the first to turn into a major league gem
was Dempster, whom Dombrowski acquired in August 1996 from the
Texas Rangers (along with starter Rick Helling) for veteran
righthander John Burkett. Dempster was a so-so Class A starter,
and the trade barely registered on the baseball radar. Florida
still had a healthy budget for players back then and, in Leiter,
Kevin Brown, Robb Nen and Pat Rapp, a stable of productive
pitchers. Dempster was raised in Gibsons, B.C., a hockey-crazy
town outside Vancouver. At 15, he would take a 40-minute ferry
ride, followed by an hour bus ride, to practice with his club
team, the North Shore Twins, because his high school didn't field
a baseball team. "Every year his teacher would ask Ryan what he
wanted to be when he grew up, and every year he said the same
thing: a baseball player," says Ryan's father, Wally. "His last
year in high school I asked him what his plans would be if
baseball didn't work out. He said, 'What do you mean?'"
His fallback career might have been stand-up comedian. Upon
request Dempster can run off a string of dead-on impressions,
from Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy to Mike Myers in Austin Powers.
Last season, he took a ride down Bernie Brewer's beer slide at
Milwaukee County Stadium and, in Cincinnati, disguised himself
as a member of the grounds crew and raked the infield. Later in
the season during a game played in 30[Degrees] weather in
Denver, he roasted a hot dog on the dugout heater. As a magician
he takes great pride in transforming a $100 bill into a $1 bill.
"I enjoy my life because I love what I do and I love the people
I'm surrounded by," he says. "I'd like to find anyone who has
When he was called up to the Marlins from the Double A Portland
Sea Dogs three seasons ago, Dempster got rocked, going 1-5 with
a 7.08 ERA in 14 appearances, but Florida manager John Boles,
then the VP of player development, was impressed by his mental
toughness and unyielding intensity, not to mention a mid-90s
fastball and a snaking slider. Last season, with veteran
righthander Alex Fernandez out for all but eight starts with an
injured shoulder (though still on the payroll, Fernandez isn't
in Florida's immediate plans), Dempster emerged as the Marlins'
ace (14-10, 3.66 ERA, 209 strikeouts in 226 1/3 innings) and the
leader of their young staff. Throughout spring training Dempster
has been taking 7 a.m. jogs with Beckett, the phenom who went
2-3 with a 2.12 ERA in 13 games for the Class A Kane County
(Ill.) Cougars before missing most of the season with shoulder
tendinitis. "Josh has a good head on his shoulders," says
Dempster. "You just hope that the $7 million he got doesn't take
away from his motivation."
Penny went 8-7 with a 4.81 ERA for Florida in 2000, while Burnett
was 3-7 with a 4.79 ERA in an injury-shortened run. They also
throw in the mid-90s. Penny, a hunter and fisherman from Broken
Arrow, Okla., has become one of Boles's projects. Last season,
Boles says, Penny turned after every pitch he threw in Pro Player
Stadium and looked toward one of the scoreboards where the
velocity of his pitch would be posted. Soon teammates started
yelling the number before Penny could sneak a peak. "He can be
great, but he has to stop thinking so much about how hard he
throws," says Boles. "You learn in this game that location is
much more important than heat."
Burnett would just like to stay healthy. He probably has the most
ability of the youngsters--his fastball reaches 96 mph, and his
knuckle-curve drops like Clinton's approval rating--but he misses
lots of games because of injuries. In 1998 Burnett was out for
six weeks with a broken right hand. Last year he missed three and
a half months with a ruptured ligament in his right thumb. This
spring Burnett suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. He's
expected to miss one month. "I don't want to be known as
injury-prone," he says, "because most of the time my injuries
have been freak events. I just wish they'd stop." Like Dempster,
Burnett is a character. He has four tattoos ("I'll probably get
more," he says), including his wife's initials between his
shoulder blades. His nipples are pierced, he occasionally dyes
his sandy brown hair jet black, and he has named his bats after
Marilyn Manson and Ozzy Osbourne.
Grilli, a star at Seton Hall and the son of former Detroit Tigers
and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Steve Grilli, has performed well
this spring and could fill in as the fifth starter until Burnett
returns to action in mid-April. That means Florida will start the
season with a rotation of Dempster, 31-year-old righthander Chuck
Smith (6-6, 3.23 in 2000), Penny, 26-year-old lefthander Jesus
Sanchez (9-12, 5.34) and Grilli or one of three veterans vying
for the final spot. Anderson, Goetz, Neal and Vargas should all
begin the year at Portland, with call-ups possible. Beckett will
start with the Class A Brevard County (Fla.) Manatees, but the
Marlins expect him to perform well enough to earn a promotion to
Portland during the season.
While growing up in Tampa, one of Goetz's next-door neighbors was
a quiet blond kid. "Nick didn't hang out much, but I remember his
telling me and my buddies, 'I'm going to be an actor,'" says
Goetz. "We were, like, 'Yeah, whatever.'"
What are the odds? Nick Carter, member of the Backstreet Boys,
living next to Geoff Goetz, member of the newest dreamy boy
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON FISH WITH HOOKS The Marlins dumped veterans and netted a bevy of young arms, including (from left) Burnett, Dempster and Penny.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON QUICK STUDY At 23, Dempster, pitching in spring training last week, is already Florida's ace and staff leader.
"The best group of young arms I've ever seen," says a scout. "As
good as Smoltz, Glavine and Avery."