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Blockbuster Season

Gizney World

By Eduardo Perez-giz

Every year in mid-October something indescribible occurs that seems to captivate the population of the United States for about a week-and-a-half. The changing colors of the leaves peak in beauty, the air becomes especially crisp, and the temperature redefines balmy.

The nation is in the midst of autumn, and it is time once again for the Fall Classic.

Something is different this year, however. For the first time in the history of America's Pastime, the World Series will debut in a place where the climate is far too temperate for autumn to take place.

Baseball's premier event in 1997 will head to South Florida, a region which quickly and quietly slips from summer into spring at some point between November and February. But the folks in the Miami area are far from baseball novices, and they will be rockin' on Saturday to celebrate the accomplishments of a team that has shocked the Major Leagues.

The Florida Marlins have come a long way since their inaugural season in 1993. In the five years since Charlie Hough threw out the team's first pitch at a blazing 65 miles per hour, the Marlins have rocketed into the World Series faster than any baseball team ever has.

The Miracle Mets of '69 made it and won it in their eighth year. Well, folks, say hello to the Miracle Marlins of '97.

Many purists of the game are no doubt upset that an expansion ballclub, let alone a wildcard team, has actually made it this far in the playoffs. My dear traditionalists, the '69 Mets were also an expansion team (just as many other World Series participants and champions have been), and the wildcard format only meant that the Marlins had to win more games to earn their World Series berth than teams in the past.

But I don't want to engage in a debate about the morality of the Marlins' success, nor do I want to discuss their off-season spending spree to acquire the players they needed to become championship contenders. We are in an era of free agency, after all, and it isn't as if these players (and manager) were signed to short contracts.

Instead I want to get a little regional, if the non-Floridians will bear with me. After all, going to school 1,500 miles from my home town, I don't have this opportunity often.

What the Marlins have done is great for South Florida and great for the game of baseball. An entire market of die-hard fans, previously untapped, has a team for which to cheer and a reason to love baseball. Everyone involved with the sport, in fact, can find a story to appreciate on this team.

How about the tale of rookie pitcher and Cuban defector, Livan Hernandez. This 22-year-old who fled his homeland just over one year ago finally achieved his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues, and then turned that dream into a fantasy. He started the season 9-0 as a starter and then set a National League Championship Series record for most strikeouts in a game with 15 Ks in Game 5.

Perhaps you prefer the heartbreak of Alex Fernandez's story. A Miami product, Fernandez finally got the chance to play in front of his family and friends this season when the Marlins signed him last winter.

After a fantastic season and a phenomenal performance in the first round of the playoffs against the Giants, Fernandez tore the rotator cuff in his pitching arm. Although he is done for the year and his career is in jeopardy, he continues to be his teammates' primary cheerleader on the bench.

Consider the veteran players on the squad. Jim Eisenreich, who suffers from Tourrette's syndrome, is one of baseball's premier hitters and works with many children around the nation who are also afflicted with Tourrette's. Darren Daulton, a 13-year veteran of the Philadelphia Phillies, was acquired in mid-season to add some punch from the left side of the plate to a lineup lacking in left-handed hitters. Both of these players now have the opportunity to win their first championship.

What about some of the youngsters who have been shining brilliantly all season long. All-star catcher Charles Johnson is without a doubt the best defensive catcher in the Major Leagues, and he even started swinging a hot bat in the second half of the season. Shortstop Edgar Renteria is a wall defensively and emerging as an excellent number two hitter.

And we certainly can't forget the only two current Marlins who were on the original squad in 1993, Jeff Conine and utility infielder Alex Arias. Conine has shined defensively after permanently moving to first base, and Arias has emerged as one of the premier pinch-hitters in the National League.

But the man that has all of baseball smiling and feeling warm at heart is Jim Leyland. One of the game's best managers and beloved by nearly every player he has coached, Leyland will be making his first trip to the World Series in his 34 years in baseball.

Leyland managed one of the best team's in baseball in the early 1990s, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In three consecutive trips to the NLCS between 1990 and 1992, Leyland was denied first by the Cincinnati Reds and then twice by the Atlanta Braves (surprise, surprise).

This year, however, Leyland would not be denied. Reunited with Bobby Bonilla, his right fielder with those Pirate teams, Leyland returned to the city where he suffered tremendous heartbreak just five years earlier. And behind Bonilla's three-RBI game, he finally earned the one trip which has eluded him for so long.

The Florida Marlins are an easy team to like. They have quietly made history without arrogance or brash statements about their abilities. They are bringing the glory of the World Series to a city and a state which have never had the honor of experiencing its incomparable energy. But they have a chance to do something even greater for the city of Miami.

Miami, and the entire South Florida area, currently has the longest drought of professional sports championships in the country. Not since the Miami Dolphins won their second consecutive Super Bowl in 1973 has the city had cause to celebrate a title in any of the four major pro sports.

In fairness, South Florida only had the Dolphins until the NBA's Miami Heat was born in 1989. Baseball and hockey would follow in 1993 and 1994, respectively, making Miami the Mecca of league expansion. In that short time, these teams have returned the city to athletic prominence but have been unable to capture the ultimate prize.

The Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago before the Colorado Avalanche made quick work of them in a sweep (ironically, ending Denver's drought of pro sports titles which had been the nation's longest). Last season, the Heat emerged from virtual anonymity under Pat Riley and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals where it ran into a juggernaut known as the Chicago Bulls.

But baseball is different. In baseball anything can happen, and it usually does in the World Series. The Marlins, then, represent South Florida's best hopes for a championship since the days of the No-Name Defense and the Perfect Season.

Regardless of the outcome, the team has already excited an entire state that has never had reason to cheer quite like it is doing now. But if the Marlins can somehow emerge victorious in the Fall Classic, it will mark the crowning achievement in what has become a South Florida sports renaissance over the past three years.

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