Marlins' Series path a seriously painful reminder to O's

October 22, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

MIAMI - No one will deny that South Florida knows how to party. You could smell the scents of Cuba and the Dominican Republic last night at Pro Player Stadium. You could hear the melodious sounds of Haiti and Jamaica, with more than a few Noo Yawk accents wrecking the melting pot music.

The return of the World Series seemed like a pretty good excuse to party, which is one realistic way to look at things in this non-baseball region. For most of this season, the Marlins were attracting a paltry average of 16,000 "fans," and that was quite a spike from 10,000 in the previous few years.

But out of the primordial ooze, a contender arose - again.

The eternal question for this 100th anniversary of the World Series: 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.

It's been 20 years since the Orioles played in their last World Series. Good thing they won that one, courtesy of Rich Dauer, who got three hits and three RBIs in the comeback win in Game 4; Mike Boddicker; Scott McGregor; Rick Dempsey; and manager Joe Altobelli, who wasn't Earl Weaver and maybe that was all that mattered.

The Orioles' five-game Series win made the 1983 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. It's theirs to lose.

That the Yankees and Red Sox stand ahead of the Orioles in the American League East, presenting a mega-bucks fortress between Evil Empire and Red Sox Nation, presents the Orioles with undeniably difficult challenges.

But the Marlins? This is only the 11th season for the expansion franchise and it's made it to the promised land twice. In fact, the Marlins have yet to lose a postseason series, a streak that will end only if the juggernaut Yankees prevail in this 99th Fall Classic.

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

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 Josh Beckett starting in Game 3 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' NL Championship Series win over the Cubs, coming in relief during Game 7. He had two strikeouts in six pitches against Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter in the first inning - an auspicious way to begin a World Series career. Youth can prevail.

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 AL 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.

"I remember '96 with that kid up there in the stands," former Orioles hitting coach Rick Down, now with the Yankees, said last night.

Down was talking about Jeffrey Maier, that Yankees fan who grabbed a Derek Jeter fly ball that Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco was about to catch at the wall but was erroneously ruled a home run. The Yankees won that series, ending a run that Orioles returnee Eddie Murray felt for certain was going to land the Orioles back in the Series again.

In '97, the Orioles lost the ALCS in six games to the Cleveland Indians, who then went on to lose in seven to the Marlins - the strangest World Series winners ever. That's saying something, considering the '69 Mets were an eighth-season franchise out of oblivion that had set the previous mark for World Series weirdness.

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