As a dealer in 20th century art for nearly 40 years, Marlins
owner Jeffrey Loria knows a good investment. Last January, after
nearly every major league team steered clear of injury-plagued
free agent Ivan Rodriguez, Loria boldly signed the 31-year-old
catcher, who had missed 176 games over the past three seasons
with the Rangers, to a one-year, $10 million deal. "If we had
believed he was a high-risk investment, we wouldn't have made
it," Loria says. "We viewed him as somebody who could immediately
[help] our pitchers while giving us a big bat."
Rodriguez has given Loria everything the owner had hoped for and
is a big reason Florida (64-53 through Sunday) is in playoff
contention after five straight losing seasons. Rodriguez ranked
first among National League catchers in runs (71), second in RBIs
(68) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.905), tied for second
in home runs (15) and in batting average (.312).
Since May 22--11 days after manager Jeff Torborg was fired
following a 16-22 start and replaced by Jack McKeon--the Marlins
had gone 45-24, the best in the majors over that span, and moved
into a tie with the Phillies in the NL wild-card race.
As Florida struggled during the first two months of the season,
so did Rodriguez. The 10-time All-Star and 1999 American League
MVP had trouble adjusting to National League pitching, hitting
.247 and dropping from third to as low as sixth in the order. He
snapped out of the slump by becoming more selective at the
plate--Rodriguez already had a career-high 46 walks at week's
end--and he hit .363 with nine homers and 43 RBIs over the next 2
1/2 months. "For the first time since '99, I feel 100 percent,"
Adding wind sprints to his pregame workout routine has helped
Rodriguez stay in shape--he dropped 30 pounds and now weighs 203.
"Now there's no pain anywhere," says Rodriguez. "I feel light and
Grumblings about Rodriguez skipping pregame meetings with
pitchers in Texas in recent seasons followed him into the
free-agent market. But in Florida he has handled the young,
up-and-coming pitching staff with skill. "He comes to every
meeting," says pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal. "When we were
playing the American League teams, he was the one leading
meetings because he knew the hitters."
"I heard all the rumors," says closer Braden Looper, who had 23
saves through Sunday, "but I'm having my best year, and a lot of
it has to do with him." Says 21-year-old rookie sensation
Dontrelle Willis (11-2, 2.56 ERA). "As a young pitcher I need all
the help I can get, and [Rodriguez] has been awesome."
As well as Rodriguez has fit in with his new team, he may depart
after this season, when he can become a free agent again. Neither
Rodriguez nor Loria will speculate on the catcher's future with
the team, but one thing is certain: Rodriguez, who hired agent
Scott Boras in June, will command a huge contract. "The main
thing is to finish this season healthy and help the team get to
the playoffs," says Rodriguez. "Then we'll see what happens."
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Rodriguez's steadying influence on Florida's young staff has been as important to the team as his hot bat.
COLOR PHOTO: DANNY MOLOSHOK/AP (INSET) [See caption above]
A Change for the Better
When Jack McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg as manager on May 11, the
Marlins were 16-22. Now they are fighting for the NL wild card.
Here are the skippers from the last 25 years who took over teams
during the season and compiled the best records the rest of the
Manager Team Year W-L (Pct.) Finish
Billy Martin Yankees 1985 91-54 (.628) Second in AL East
Harvey Kuenn Brewers 1982 72-43 (.626) Lost in World Series
Cito Gaston Blue Jays 1989 77-49 (.611) Lost in ALCS
Paul Owens Phillies 1983 47-30 (.610) Lost in World Series
Jack McKeon Marlins 2003 48-31 (.608)* ???
Joe Morgan Red Sox 1988 46-31 (.597) Lost in ALCS
Source: Elias Sports Bureau