Marlins owner sees season turn into lose-win situation $89M for free agents put club $30M in red, but may bring title

October 26, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- It happened so fast that even the players had to do a double take. The Florida Marlins were born just five years ago, but they grew quickly into a contending team and -- in record time -- a National League champion.

"When Mr. Huizenga puts his mind to something," original Marlin Jeff Conine said, "I think he goes all out, and he definitely did that last off-season."

That would be something of an understatement. Owner H. Wayne Huizenga committed $89 million to sign free-agent players last winter, another $61 million to extend the contract of outfielder Gary Sheffield and another $17.5 million to extend the contract of relief ace Robb Nen. South Florida was rewarded with an instant winner, from wild card to NL pennant to the brink of a world champion.

Conine remembers when the Marlins moved into a spring-training complex that was still under construction. He remembers the early growing pains of an expansion team that no one knew would grow up so fast. He also remembers his reaction last winter when Huizenga went on a spending spree that dramatically upgraded the club.

"I sat back and was at my computer all the time looking at all the moves he made and reading the papers," Conine said, "and I had nothing but a big smile on my face, because I knew it was going to give up an excellent chance to make it into the postseason."

And now, the question lingers: How long will the party last?

The economic results were quite not so promising, and Huizenga announced during the season that the high cost of maintaining a competitive team had convinced him to put the club up for sale. He has waffled since then. There has been talk that he may change his mind now, but even if he doesn't sell the club to a group headed by Marlins president Don Smiley, he is expected to decrease the payroll.

Manager Jim Leyland acknowledged yesterday that there is some uncertainty about the direction the club will take this winter, but he seems confident that he can continue to put a competitive club on the field for the remainder of his five-year contract.

"That depends on who buys the club and what they do with it," Leyland said. "I think this is going to be a good solid club for the next five years. We have good players. I don't think that -- we're not out looking to get rid of players. I think most of that will depend on the financial situation of the new owners that come in and purchase the club. So I guess it's kind of wait and see."

The Marlins may have to play most of next year without $7 million a year pitcher Alex Fernandez -- who will be recovering from extensive shoulder surgery -- but Leyland said yesterday that the future of youngsters such as rookie pitcher Livan Hernandez and the improving depth of the Marlins minor-league system enhances the possibility that the club can weather a financial cutback.

"We had several young players [at the major-league level] and we got pretty good reviews in the minor leagues," he said, " so the combination of what we have here and some of those guys ready to step in, in the not-too-distant future, this organization looks real healthy to me for a few years."

Conine is just happy for the one opportunity to play in the World Series. He said last night that he is too busy trying to win his first world title to worry about the possibility of the next one.

"I don't care if you keep this team together or you disband this team totally," he said. "Everyone in here, it could be our last chance. There are no guarantees that just because this team stays together for the next year that we're going to go back to the postseason, you can't think that way because you never know.

"Bobby Bonilla has been a part of some tremendous baseball teams, and he's never been there. I think everyone in [the Marlins' clubhouse] looks at it like let's win this one, and anything else that comes on top of this is gravy."

Funny how things turn out. Conine wasn't thrilled when the Marlins selected him off the Kansas City Royals roster five years ago, but the move allowed him to establish himself as a solid major-league player and -- now -- play in the World Series.

"Obviously, I didn't particularly think of it as a good thing," he said. "It's almost like being traded, you're going from one organization to another, but at that time it was even worse to me, because they had no team so I didn't know who to expect to play with or who was going to be my teammates. And, obviously, after I thought about it and realized it was going to give me a chance to play in the big leagues full-time, I embraced the change."

Now, he and his teammates are waiting for the baseball world to embrace the Marlins, who have spent October forced to justify their presence in the postseason. Leyland finally erupted before Game 5 and blasted critics who have challenged the credibility of this World Series matchup.

Conine said all will be forgotten if the Marlins win the World Series.

"I don't think anyone will go back and research the off-season moves or realize how much money we spent," he said. "I think that's not relevant. This team has played well together as a team and we've played with a lot of guts and drive this last month and a half, and I think that will be remembered over anything."

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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