With little to lose, Marlins win big

Free of expectations, team rolls to improbable title

October 27, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The Florida Marlins tiptoed over the empty champagne bottles that littered the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, still light on their feet after defeating the mighty New York Yankees in six games in the 99th World Series.

That's how they did it, with the incredible lightness of always being the other team.

They went from playoff series to playoff series, unburdened by the expectations that followed the National League West champion San Francisco Giants into the Division Series, the ghosts that haunted the Chicago Cubs in the League Championship Series and the intense pressure that attends the Yankees in every circumstance.

The Marlins were an unwelcome guest at a fancy party, but they ended up going home wearing the diamond rings that had been fitted long ago for the well-heeled Yankees.

"My first speech with them, I told them, `Let's have fun. Do the best you can, relax and have fun,'" manager Jack McKeon said after Saturday night's 2-0 victory. "Pressure is on everybody else, because we are not supposed to win. Let's show we can fool the baseball world and show them that we are a hell of a lot better than everyone else predicted us to be."

McKeon was well aware a lot of people snickered when he was hired to replace Jeff Torborg in early May. Then 72, he was too old. The team was below .500. He was just hired as a caretaker until the front office broke up the club at midseason to save on salaries. So they thought.

Things didn't turn around right away, but they turned around in time to persuade owner Jeffrey Loria and general manager Larry Beinfest to keep power-hitting third baseman Mike Lowell and beef up the roster with reliever Ugueth Urbina and former Orioles outfielder Jeff Conine.

"Got to give Larry Beinfest and the ownership of the Marlins credit for putting the team together," McKeon said. "I just took over what they gave me and tried to make it work and do the things that are necessary to pull a club together. Basically, the players deserve the credit. And the organization - Larry Beinfest did a tremendous job as general manager assembling this club in the winter."

People laughed then, too, wondering what the Marlins were doing when Loria approved a one-year, $10 million deal for Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez. What were they doing signing expensive free agents when they didn't really have a chance to reach the playoffs? Sure, there was potential in that pitching staff, but who knew? Josh Beckett had been hurt too much to assume anything. There was solid depth with Brad Penny, Mark Redman and Carl Pavano, but none of them was a superstar, and everyone had heard the whispers that Rodriguez didn't really handle pitchers well.

But something clicked early in the summer, and the Marlins played as well as anyone down the stretch. They emerged from the crowded NL wild-card race on a roll and rode their devil-may-care attitude right over the Giants and Cubs.

"It was kind of a gradual thing," said World Series MVP Beckett. "As a team, we knew we needed to get our stuff together. We were better than that, and that's a tribute to my teammates for knowing that they are better than that ... and we just stuck it out.

"Nobody thought we could beat San Fran, nobody thought we could beat the Cubs and nobody definitely thought we could beat the Yankees, and here we are."

The Giants didn't see it coming. The Cubs did, which may have been the problem. They were waiting for something bad to happen - even when they were up three games to one - and the Marlins were happy to oblige.

The Yankees were a different animal. They're always so confident, so sure that they'll find a way to win, which is probably what did in the beleaguered Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Manager Joe Torre had to know that wouldn't get them through the World Series. He had seen this movie before. The Yankees lost the 2001 World Series to the fledgling Arizona Diamondbacks, and then missed the Fall Classic in 2002 for only the second time in seven years.

Teams such as the Marlins and Diamondbacks are more dangerous because they have so much to gain and so little to lose.

"They don't know what intimidation is, not that anyone was trying to intimidate them," Torre said. "You just go out there and play as hard as you can and hope when you look up, you have more runs than the other team.

"You saw what they did with San Francisco, a club that was in the World Series last year. And the Cubs, who had everything going their way with a 3-1 advantage, going home with a 3-2 advantage with their two best pitchers. They certainly have been tested all the way to the World Series, and they didn't flinch."

There always is pressure when you wear pinstripes, but it was heightened early in spring training, when volatile owner George Steinbrenner - still smarting from the early playoff exit the year before - singled out superstar Derek Jeter and criticized him for spending too much time out on the town.

Then came the whispers about Torre, which may have been generated by the Boss or may have just come out of the mist. That can happen in a town with dueling tabloids.

True or not, it just added to the pressure - the weight the Yankees felt during the World Series and the Marlins did not. But Torre refused to use that as an excuse after Beckett dominated his team on Saturday night. He has always been a class act, and - though he came to it late in life - a truly great Yankee.

"This kind of pressure is good," he said. "Even though it is a lot to ask, the rewards are so great that you never question that or feel sorry for yourself."

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