The “Miracle” Florida Marlins will forever be remembered as one of the most incredible expansion franchises in all of sports. Without any doubt, no team in Major League Baseball history has ever had a better first ten-year stretch than when the Marlins took off from Florida and took the baseball world by storm.
This stretch finished on a memorable night on October 26th, 2003, when they beat the Yankees for their second World Series title in six years. That so happened to be the franchise’s tenth year of existence, in which they reminded the league of the Marlin Way. Florida entered the postseason as the National League’s Wildcard. Nevertheless, they won another pennant and another championship for the city of Miami.
But the word “another” is a random one. The curious case of how the new Marlins franchise became a powerhouse twice (and fell off a cliff twice) was a subject of our piece on the 2003 World Series victory. That was, by no means, a precedent to happen to the team. Just six years earlier, the MLB got a taste of what the Marlins were about.
Cinderella stories need to be told from the beginning. The 1980s were very eventful for Major League Baseball. Just the latter five years of the decade featured all-time great World Series like the Mets vs. Red Sox in 1986, Dodgers vs. A’s in 1988, Royals vs. Cardinals in 1985 (the last KC championship until 2015) and more. And the 90s started off with a bang – the league added its first-ever franchise in Florida, alongside another club, ultimately known as the Colorado Rockies. June 10th, 1991, was when MLB announced it had chosen the Wayne Huizenga-led consortium and Miami over Tampa and Orlando for the first MLB team in the state.
The on-field start for the team was as tough as every expansion franchise had previously experienced. In their inaugural year, the Marlins lost 98 games but made gradual improvement every year until 1996, when they got to 80-82. After the season, they fired manager Jon Boles and hired Jim Leyland. The front office indicated that they were going “all in” when they signed high-profile free agents such as Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, and Alex Fernandez. But were they to make the risk succeed?
The inaugural championship season went down very similarly to the second one, especially in its regular phase. The Marlins finished the year 92-70, to this day the best record in franchise history. Florida finished four games clear of the Los Angeles Dodgers to become the NL’s Wildcard entry to the 1997 postseason. And, just like in 2003, the team would’ve never reached the playoff in the American League. However, in 1997, the Marlins had more wins than two higher-ranked postseason squads – Astros (84-78) and Giants (90-72). Therefore, a postseason run was definitely in the plan.
The Marlins were one of twelve teams with a run per game figure under the average of 4.77 for 1997. When the season hit its midway point, the All-Star Game in Cleveland saw only one Marlins position player – catcher Charles Johnson. Eventually, Bonilla, Alou, and Gary Sheffield would all have solid campaigns. Bonilla batted .297 with an on-base percentage of .373, Alou drove in 117 runs, while Sheffield finished seventh in on-base rankings in the MLB with .424.
Mid-season acquisitions such as Craig Counsell, Darren Daulton, and Matt Treanor proved themselves as decent depth moves. Counsell, the current Brewers manager, even batted .299 in nearly 200 at-bats.
The team didn’t dominate opponents when it comes to scoring. However, they were efficient, reaching base at a league-high rate of 10.9 percent. Despite the Marlins being in near-average in stolen bases, the ratio between walks and attempted steals was 3.97 – the eighth-highest. Further evidence of their efficiency was the Orioles. Baltimore had a ratio of over 6.50, the fewest amount of attempted steals in the league (86). Consequently, they scored the fifth-most runs. Both teams got runners on the bases and didn’t waste them with too much base stealing. That way, thanks to their pitching staff, both teams were ultimately close to their Pythagorean W/L projections.
The difference between where Florida stood that year and the league average of 4.77 runs (a figure which the Twins tied) equals a deficit of 32 runs. With a starting rotation like theirs, this resembles a very good situation for the 1997 Marlins to be in.
As noted, most of the credit usually goes to the rotation. That’s no surprise – the group finished fourth in starters ERA (3.76). Kevin Brown was the ace of the staff, putting up a 2.69 ERA in 33 starts with 205 strikeouts and an All-Star selection. In addition, he would also pitch the club’s second no-hitter, on June 10th in San Franciso. The event coincided with the sixth anniversary of Bud Selig’s Miami expansion announcement.
The rest of the staff didn’t have much to catch up on. Al Leiter and Alex Fernandez both posted an ERA of sub-4.50 in about thirty starts. Also, the team had a terrific closer in Rob Nenn with a 3.89 ERA and nearly 10 K/9.
Florida Marlins first faced the San Francisco Giants in a best-of-five bout in the 1997 NL Divisional Series. The Giants were one of the two teams postseason teams who had a worse record than Florida and this was well on display during the three-game Marlins sweep. Moises Alou was the hero in Game Two with a walk-off single against Giants reliever Roberto Hernandez. Next up was Atlanta – the team eleven games clear of any other NL opponent.
As many would know, fans knew the Braves as “America’s Team” during the 1990s. Not just because they had every game nationally broadcasted on the WTBS Superstation but because they were damn good. Atlanta, with the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, reached a whopping five World Series and won a championship in 1995. That was just two years removed of their then-latest NLCS appearance.
The Big Three of Atlanta didn’t deliver. Maddux and Smoltz recorded losses in three of the first five games of the series. Game Six featured a long-awaited pitching clash between Glavine and Brown. Unlike in Game Two, the Marlins ran wild on Glavine and scored four in the first inning. Bown tossed a complete game and struck out eight in a 7-4 win which sent the four-year-old Marlins to the World Series.
They were set to face the Cleveland Indians, who were looking for a first banner year since 1948. They had lost their two World Series appearances in that span, in 1954 and in 1995. In addition, they had just four winning campaigns between 1969 and 1993 and never made the postseason in that span. The Indians recovered in the shortened 1994 season and made the World Series the next year. The Indians, led by all-time greats like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Omar Vizquel, were the team to beat.
That takes us to the most important night in Marlins history to this day. On October 26th, the Marlins hosted the Indians in the final Game Seven of the Fall Classic, remembered as one of the most dramatic ever. Al Leiter allowed the first runs of the game in the third when Tony Fernandez drove in Thome and Grissom. Bobby Bonilla change the course of history when he took Jaret Wright deep in the bottom of the seventh before Counsell hit a sac fly in the ninth for Alou’s game-tying run. In the 11th inning, Edgar Renteria‘s single finalized one of the biggest shockers in MLB history. Livan Hernandez, who posted two wins on the mound, won the WS MVP award.
At that point, the Marlins were the fastest team to win the World Series in their fourth year of existence. What would follow you might ask? A fall, the Diamondbacks beating that record, a new rise, a new title, and another fall, from which the Marlins are still waiting to recover. But you already read about this in the 2003 World Series piece. Now, just enjoy the moment, like the Marlins in 1997, but learn from their mistakes which followed.
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