December 9, 2022

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A look back on Marlins' '97 WS season

6 min read
In just their fifth season, the Fish were on top of the world
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This story was recently featured in Christina De Nicola’s Marlins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Those two words served as the rallying cry for the 1997 Florida Marlins, a team of veterans and young stars alike that reached the pinnacle of the baseball world in just their fifth season of existence.

Though much is said about the Marlins buying their first World Series title, the foundation had been laid before their first game. The franchise picked University of Miami catcher Charles Johnson with its first selection of the 1992 MLB Draft. During its inaugural 1993 season, Florida dealt for All-Star outfielder Gary Sheffield and eventual closer Robb Nen. Prior to the 1996 campaign, the Marlins signed starters Al Leiter and Kevin Brown to front their rotation. All of that, plus a promising third-place finish by going 31-24 over the final two months of ’96, led then-owner Wayne Huizenga to ask general manager Dave Dombrowski the following:

“Okay, let’s try to win. What do you think it would take?”

Before going on a spending spree, the Marlins hired Jim Leyland, whose decade-long tenure with the Pirates came up short of reaching the World Series three times with NLCS losses. Then came time to upgrade the roster, with the intention of overthrowing the perennial-contending Braves and their future Hall of Fame staff of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. The Marlins signed Bobby Bonilla, John Cangelosi, Jim Eisenreich, Alex Fernandez, Dennis Cook and Moises Alou before the calendar turned to 1997. The club acquired Cliff Floyd from the Expos toward the end of Spring Training to cap a string of preseason moves.

“We thought we had a good team, felt very good about it, thought we had a chance to win,” Dombrowski recently told MLB.com. “And really, to borrow one of Jim Leyland’s lines, but I had felt the same way, ‘You say pressure?’ Well, there were expectations, but it was a good pressure, because we knew we had a good team. Now how good, only time tells. And of course, we made some adjustments. Trading Deadline time I think really did make a significant difference for us. But we knew we had a good ballclub, but we were also playing against a team that was really good in our division, the Braves. And so, no guarantees by any means. But we felt we could compete with clubs.”

That became apparent early on as the Marlins boasted a 26-5 Spring Training record. There wasn’t much of a drop-off once the games began to count, as they went 48-32 through the first three months. In July, however, they seemed to be sliding. That’s when Dombrowski brought in reinforcements, acquiring veteran first baseman Darren Daulton from the Phillies and rookie second baseman Craig Counsell from the Rockies. Daulton filled the left-handed-hitting void in the lineup, while Counsell settled into the infield as 21-year-old Luis Castillo showed growing pains.

Respected around the league, the late Daulton didn’t wait long to call a meeting to discuss how he felt about his new team. He believed it didn’t play with enough intensity. The Marlins heeded Daulton’s words, and they found their groove.

As the postseason drew closer, the Marlins’ confidence continued to grow. They went 32-22 in one-run games and 12-3 in Interleague Play. They recorded 16 walk-off wins, including one by reliever Cook on Aug. 1. And yet they still finished nine games behind the NL East champion Braves in the standings and spent their last day atop the division on April 13. The Marlins (92-70) settled for the NL Wild Card, closing out the regular season 12-15 in September.

The playoffs marked a fresh start, and the Marlins disposed of the Giants in three games in the NLDS. In doing so, the club became the third franchise in MLB history to sweep its first-ever playoff series. Brown, who tossed a no-hitter against San Francisco on June 10, found himself entrenched in a 2-1 pitchers’ duel in Game 1. After battling injuries and inconsistency during much of 1997, outfielder Devon White knocked the go-ahead grand slam in the sixth inning of Game 3 that catapulted the Marlins into the next round.

From there, things got more difficult as the Marlins squared off against the division rival Braves in the NLCS and lost Fernandez to a torn rotator cuff in Game 2. But Atlanta didn’t intimidate Florida, which had taken eight of the 12 regular-season matchups. The NLCS was knotted at two games apiece until the Marlins broke things open to win the final two contests. Two days after securing a Game 3 victory with 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief, Livan Hernandez outdueled Maddux with a complete-game three-hitter, setting an NLCS record with 15 strikeouts in the process. The Marlins would close out the series by jumping on Glavine with a four-run first, while Brown notched a complete game.

“If you look at it all year long, we handled the Braves pretty good,” Leyland recently told MLB.com. “I think that was a big step for us because they were the team, and they were the team that everybody looked at. And rightfully so. They’ve been a great team or a really good team. But we handled them pretty well during the season. That gave us confidence going into the postseason. We’d played them really well all year. That gave us a little bit of an air of confidence going in, and I think the Braves respected us. They knew we were for real. They knew we had a really good team, and I think that we earned their respect. That was probably the biggest thing during the course of the season.”

The final obstacle in the way of Florida capturing the World Series was a loaded Cleveland squad that hadn’t won a title since 1948. A united Marlins front sketched 32 onto its caps to honor Fernandez, who could only watch from the dugout. Hernandez continued where he left off with Games 1 and 5 wins over veteran Orel Hershiser. Chad Ogea, in turn, beat Brown in both of their contests. Sheffield stole the show in Florida’s 14-11 Game 3 victory in Cleveland by going 3-for-5 with five RBIs and robbing future Hall of Famer Jim Thome of extra bases in a tie ballgame.

The clubs traded wins in an evenly contested Fall Classic, setting up one of the most dramatic Game 7 finishes of all time. The Marlins had gone 52-29 at home during the regular season, and 5-3 in the playoffs entering the finale. The atmosphere at Pro Player Stadium was electric on a late October night with 67,204 fans. Years earlier, the late Huizenga had brought baseball to South Florida because he believed it could thrive. Here was proof.

Leiter, who struggled in Game 3, bounced back to give Florida six innings of two-run ball. But the Marlins trailed, 2-0, until Bonilla’s leadoff homer against Jaret Wright in the seventh. Rookies Antonio Alfonseca and Felix Heredia played important roles in the bullpen, bridging the gap to late-inning arms Nen and Jay Powell. With two outs to spare, Counsell sent a game-tying sacrifice fly to right field.

A Marlins rally then evolved in the 11th: a leadoff single, a bunt popout, an error, an intentional walk and a fielder’s choice groundout. Up came Edgar Renteria, who had provided the winning hit in the ninth or an extra inning five times in the 1997 season. His two-out walk-off single against San Francisco in NLDS Game 1 helped set the tone for Florida’s playoff run.

Renteria said later, “I felt very comfortable. I had been in that position before.”

It sure looked that way. At the stroke of midnight, the Marlins were crowned champions after Renteria’s single deflected off right-hander Charles Nagy’s glove and into center field for the game-winning hit. Counsell leapt into the air with both arms held high after crossing home plate. It sent the ballpark into a frenzy, as Ace of Base’s dance hit “Beautiful Life” blared.

If that Hollywood ending wasn’t enough, the Cuban-born Hernandez cemented himself in Miami sports folklore with his declaration after being crowned the World Series MVP.

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