Though Conine took his time, he's justified faith of Marlins

Ex-Oriole started slowly after trade, but Florida far from complaining now

League Championship Series

October 10, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - Former Orioles outfielder Jeff Conine felt like he was going home when he was traded back to the Florida Marlins on Aug. 31, but it took him a while to feel like old times.

The deal that sent Conine back to his roots was widely considered a clutch front office move at a critical time for the Marlins, who had just lost top run-producer Mike Lowell and - some thought - any realistic chance of winning the National League wild-card berth.

The Marlins needed help so badly that they gave up two good young pitching prospects and renegotiated Conine's contract to guarantee him an extra year.

Then they sat back and waited for him to fill the offensive void that was created when Lowell broke a bone in his left hand the day before the deadline for newly acquired players to be eligible for the postseason.

It didn't happen right away. Conine, playing meaningful September baseball for the first time since he helped lead the Marlins to an unlikely world title in 1997, was batting just .178 two weeks into his second term with the Marlins, and he had just one home run and four RBIs.

"It was very frustrating," he said. "I was on a team in the hunt and I wasn't helping much."

Manager Jack McKeon knew what he was getting, a guy known among his peers as one of the most professional players in the game.

The young Marlins figured to benefit from his leadership both on the field and off, but there was a point when the club had to wonder if they had made a mistake in giving up promising 20-year-old pitchers Denny Bautista and Don Levinski.

"The players who knew him realize he's a big-game player," said McKeon. "He goes out and shows you how it should be done, but when we first got him, we didn't see that."

Conine can look back now and see it all a lot more clearly. He was coming over from an Orioles team that had not had a winning record in any of the five seasons he played in Baltimore.

Who could blame him for wanting to jump into the pennant race feet first? Who could blame him for needing time to adjust to the intensity of the tight National League wild- card race.

"I wasn't swinging the bat very well when I came over here," he said. "I probably tried to do too much too soon, maybe because they were big games and they were counting on me and I wanted to impress."

It was halfway into September before he started showing what everyone knew he could do. Conine finally came to life at the plate during a crucial wild-card showdown against the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium.

He had four hits in the series and hit a three-run home run to help win the second game as the Marlins avoided what otherwise would have been a damaging, three-game sweep.

No one was questioning the wisdom of the trade after the Phillies visited Pro Player Stadium during the final week of the regular season.

Conine hit a dramatic three-run homer to bring the Marlins from behind in the opener of the series and went on to homer in three out of four games as Florida eliminated the Phillies from the wild-card race.

"We were looking for that," McKeon said. "I remember telling everyone, `We're looking for this guy to take off and be a catalyst for us.' Then he did it."

If his cumulative numbers in September (.238, five homers, 15 RBIs) weren't as impressive as Conine would have liked, the final week of the regular season and the first six games of the postseason have been everything he could have hoped for when he approved the deal to the Marlins.

He's batting .364 in the postseason, with eight hits and three RBIs. He did commit an embarrassing base-running gaffe in the Division Series - failing to run out a fly ball that was dropped by Jose Cruz in the ninth inning of Game 3 - but the Marlins rallied to win, anyway, and all was forgiven.

"Competitively, it's fun again," Conine said. "Not that I didn't have fun when I was in Baltimore, but it's fun because the end goal is always getting to the postseason. I had such a blast in September."

Conine never complained about the inability of the Orioles' organization to field a winning team while he was there.

He still says he enjoyed every minute of his Orioles career and says the team has a chance to turn things around if it goes through with its plan to add some big-ticket players this winter.

"With the young guys they've got, obviously they have a good foundation," he said. "The way that Luis [Matos], Larry Bigbie and Jay Gibbons came along this year, they've got several starters that create a foundation. It depends on what pieces they add.

"If they go out and get someone to beef up the lineup around them, I don't see any reason they can't have a lot of success."

NLCS glance

Today's game

Chicago (Wood 14-11, 3.20) at Fla. (Redman 14-9, 3.59), 8:18 p.m., chs. 45, 5 Series tied 1-1

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