MIAMI -- The Florida Marlins endured more than their share of criticism for having the audacity to be the first wild-card team to reach the World Series. People laughed at their funny-looking converted football stadium, poked fun at their fish-headed mascot and generally dismissed them as the product of Major League Baseball's warped imagination.
Well, guess what.
Everybody's doing the fish. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The Marlins are the champions of the world. They came from behind to defeat the Cleveland Indians, 3-2, in 11 innings before 67,204 at sold-out Pro Player Stadium, then rolled around on the infield grass like the precocious 5-year-old franchise that they are.
The television executives can complain all they want. The matchup didn't capture the national imagination. The Marlins were a store-bought team that didn't really deserve to be in the World Series. The games were too long, too ragged, too cold, too late for the kids to watch.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The Marlins are the world champions because Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez made a critical error in the 11th inning and Florida shortstop Edgar Renteria bounced a two-out single through the middle to score Craig Counsell with the biggest run in the history of baseball's youngest franchise.
The Marlins are the champions of the world because they outlasted everybody else, including the Indians, who were chilling champagne for 8 1/2 innings last night after rookie Jaret Wright pitched the game of his short life and the Indians' bullpen worked to within two outs of the club's first world title in 49 years.
Cleveland carried a two-run lead into the late innings, but former Oriole Bobby Bonilla cut it in half with a long home run in the seventh and diminutive second baseman Craig Counsell tied the game with a sacrifice fly to right in the bottom of the ninth. Indians closer Jose Mesa blew the biggest save opportunity of his life and the Indians will have to wait a little longer -- though probably not another half-century -- to end their long championship drought.
Manager Jim Leyland, who had come up on the short end of a few dramatic finishes in his career, paraded around the field with a giant flag that proclaimed the Marlins the 1997 world champions. It was mildly reminiscent of Cal Ripken's victory lap when he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record on Sept. 6, 1995, but it was just a spontaneous reaction from a manager who is known more for his lack of emotion.
"I guess every little boy dreams that this will happen to him one time," Leyland said afterward. "It's all a fantasy to me. These guys haven't quit all year, and this wasn't the night to quit."
The Indians have been waiting since 1948 for another world title. The Marlins didn't even have to win their first division title to get one. They won the wild-card berth -- finishing well behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East -- and caught fire at just the right time.
They swept the NL West champion San Francisco Giants in the Division Series, then surprised the defending NL champion Braves in the National League Championship Series. The big hero of October was Cuban defector Livan Hernandez, who dominated the Braves, then defeated the Indians twice to win World Series MVP honors and emerge as an international star in his first major-league season.
The 1997 postseason was a huge showcase for Latin players. Marlins outfielder Moises Alou hit three home runs in the World Series, including a decisive three-run shot off Orel Hershiser in Game 1 and another three-run homer off Hershiser in Game 5. He finished with nine RBIs. Indians catcher Sandy Alomar hit five home runs over the three playoff tiers and set a major-league record with 19 RBIs in a single postseason. And, finally, Renteria delivered the decisive hit that sent South Florida into seventh heaven.
"I feel so excited because the team won," said Renteria, a national hero in his native Colombia even before last night.
Still, the World Series did not play well on main street. Television ratings were among the lowest since the networks began keeping track of viewership data in 1959. The presence of a wild-card team with almost no history or tradition seemed to turn off viewers -- especially after several nationally popular teams bowed out earlier.
"I would hope people would look at this Series and realize that it doesn't have to be Los Angeles, or Baltimore or Atlanta," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove. "Those are very good teams, but the Florida Marlins are a great ballclub and the Indians are a great ballclub. It doesn't have to be the same teams every year. This was a great series."
The Marlins didn't design baseball's three-tiered playoff format, and Leyland lashed out at critics of the matchup during a news conference last week in Cleveland.
Major League Baseball wanted a format that would keep teams in contention longer, but no one expected a team like the Marlins to overstay its welcome and actually walk away with the world title.