Marlins' path to Series lined with golden hints for Orioles

October 22, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

MIAMI - After watching Josh Beckett duel inning for inning until the eighth with Yankees veteran Mike Mussina in Game 3 of the World Series last night, it was easy to see how the Florida Marlins got this far in the post-season.

Beckett had a no-hitter, except for the three hits Yankees spark plug Derek Jeter rapped out, including the fateful double that finally knocked Beckett out of the game.

It wasn't a matter of solving Beckett. No other Yankee could catch up to the fastballs he blew by them. Not even the rain could dampen Beckett's heat, which accounted for 10 strikeouts before Beckett gave up that double to Jeter and had to turn the game over to Dontrelle Willis and the Marlins bullpen.

And then it was the Marlins who were all wet under the south Florida rain. Jeter tagged up and slid into third on Bernie Williams' fly to center. Then he scored on Hideki Matsui's single, giving the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Mariano Rivera took the mound. Aaron Boone took his second biggest swing as a Yankee and Bernie Williams looked like the Bernie Williams of 1996, crushing a three-run homer in the ninth to make it a 6-1 Yankees win.

Despite the loss, we've seen how the Marlins can compete on this biggest of October stages, at least until Roger Clemens makes the final start of his career tonight with the chance to leave in a big way.

There's still the eternal question: Why the Marlins?

Forget Boston and Chicago. World Series envy is not the sole domain of franchises that are cursed. What about Baltimore? Good question in a year of significant anniversaries, including the 100th of the Fall Classic.

It's been 20 years since the Orioles played in their last World Series. Good thing they won that one. It made the 1983 World Series reunion party this summer at Camden Yards between the old Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies a pleasant stroll down memory lane.

But all of a sudden, those 20 years seem a whole lot longer, and happy memories have made a U-turn to far more practical thinking, like what the heck happened to one of the more storied and winning franchises in baseball?

All this thanks to these mavericks named the Marlins.

We all know how the New York Yankees got to this October stage for the sixth time in eight years, trying to win their 27th championship. At $167 million in payroll, they own the World Series.

But the Marlins? This is only the 11th season for the expansion franchise and they've made it to the promised land twice. In fact, they have yet to lose a post-season series, a streak that will end when the juggernaut Yankees prevail in this 99th World Series - and it sure looks like the hammer's coming down. You can see it in the eyes of Jeter, Williams, Posada and Rivera - the original champs.

What hurts the die-hard fans in baseball burgs like Baltimore (and Boston and Chicago) is that the Marlins got this far this time by doing it "right."

Their payroll, at $55 million, is among the lowest in baseball. Their farm system is enviable. In fact, there's a wonderful story about how the Yankees fired three of their four scouts for Venezuela after the Marlins signed phenom Miguel Cabrera at age 16 back in 1999. If the Marlins can make the Yankees squirm, they must be doing something right.

"We also knew that starting pitching depth was most important," Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest said last night.

To prove it, the Marlins had 23-year-old Beckett starting last night. The USA Today high school player of the year in 1999 out of Texas, Beckett fashions himself a descendent of Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. He knows no fear, wants the ball and turned out to be the difference in the Marlins' NLCS win over the Cubs, coming in in relief during Game 7. His start was auspicious enough last night, striking out Alfonso Soriano and Jeter on six pitches.

In contrast, the Marlins did it "wrong" in 1997, when owner Wayne Huizenga loaded up on free agents like Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou, Darren Daulton and pitchers Kevin Brown, Livan Hernandez and Al Leiter.

Of course, that was a lot like the way the Orioles attempted to bust into the World Series in 1996 and '97. Peter Angelos spent with the best of them, collecting a star-studded cast that went to play in two consecutive American League Championship Series, only to lose both times. Unlike horseshoes, close doesn't count, which is why the 20-year World Series dry spell hangs over the Inner Harbor like lung-catching smog.

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