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Rabbit Season! Mighty Ducks Season!
2003-10-27 13:27
by Mike Carminati

See her picture in a thousand places
'cause she's this year's girl.
You think you all own little pieces
of this year's girl.
Forget your fancy manners,
forget your English grammar,
'cause you don't really give a damn
about this year's girl.

—Elvis Costello, This year's Girl

It's appropriate that in October hockey season is just getting underway. In October baseball the playoffs have now turned into a crapshoot reminiscent of the annual hard-fought struggle for Lord Stanley's cup, in which fourth-place teams often have vied for conference finals.

All of which brings me to the Marlins, who beat the Yankees 2-0 behind the brilliant pitching of Josh Beckett to snare the World Series title in six mostly anticlimactic games. This is the third in a string of meaningless teams winning meaningless titles. In 2001, the Diamondbacks rode the arms of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to win the Series in just their fourth year. The team was in third place in 2000 and has since been overhauled. In 2002, the Anaheim Rally Monkeys started the season 6-14 and then went on to win 99 en route to the wild card and then the World Series. In the process David Eckstein became everyone's favorite player and then was quickly forgotten, Gene Autry was eulogized ad nauseam, and the Anaheim fans were called the greatest in the world. Prior to 2001, the team had been playing out a streak of mediocre seasons that culminated with a 12-games-below-.500 2000 season. This season, the Angels returned to the obscurity from whence they sprang, finishing third, 19 games out, and 8 games under .500.

And then here come the Florida Marlins. The Marlins have no history: They do have the blight that was the 1997-98 World Champions cum 108-game losers team. Since then they have been a mediocre team at best.

They have no fan base. Last year they drew the second worst in the majors, barely above 10,000 fannies per home game and only slightly above (13 fans per game) the nearly contracted Montreal Expos. The only reason that they even finished ahead of Montreal was that a benefactor purchased a block of 15,000 tickets in the final weekend of the season to ensure that they would. Besides they have an owner who ran his previous team in the ground and was rewarded with a new franchise in Bud Selig's orchestrated ring-a-round-the-roses shuffling of the Red Sox, Marlins, and Expos ownership groups.

And the Marlins may not have a future with potential free agents Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo, Ugueth Urbina, etc. The management may not have the money to hold the team together, and even if they could they could return to mediocrity next season.

The young pitching staff is highly touted but has not really produced for a full season. World Series MVP Josh Beckett was just 9-8 this season in about two-thirds of a season, though with a 3.04 ERA. He is a hard thrower how may be the next Roger Clemens or the next Bobby Witt. Dontrelle Willis had an ERA close to 5.00 in the second half and pitched poorly in the postseason. Beckett, Mark Redman, Willis, and Brad Penny may be the next Smoltz, Avery, and Glavine or they might be the next Pat Combs, Tommy Greene, and Jason Grimsley.

Pudge Rodriguez is a great player but he had had three injury-plagued seasons before 2003. That's why he couldn't land a better deal than the one-year contract he signed with Florida.

Alex Gonzalez has had a rollercoaster career and he is only 26. After an encouraging rookie season (.277 BA, 14 HR, 59 RBI), he had a miserable sophomore year (.200 BA, .548 OPS, 7 HR, 42 RBI in 385 ABs). It took him two more seasons to return to health and productivity. This year he hit 18 homers and had 77 runs batted in.

Juan Pierre may be a budding Willie Wilson or he may be a one-year wonder like Alan Wiggins. He is impatient at the plate. He seemed to learn how to take a walk at least once or twice a week this year (55 in total), but will that last? He has no power and he is caught stealing a large percentage of the time (65 stolen bases and 20 caught stealing for a 76% success rate, good but not great, in 2003). In his favor are the speed and the ability to make contact (only 35 K's in 2003). However, if he doesn’t keep his average over .300 and his on-base percentage over .350, he's a liability to the offense. He proved that in Colorado last year. That's why the Rockies were willing to trade centerfield problemw with the Marlins with Colorado receiving Preston Wilson.

The same can be said of Luis Castillo (.300 BA and .350 OBP). Encarnacion is at best an average player in right. Lee and Lowell are solid but one or both are likely gone. Cabrera looks like a budding star, but it's way too early to tell. Besides he doesn't seem to have a position except left field and he has a lot to learn about playing the outfield. They have a poor bullpen—their 4.31 bullpen ERA was tenth in the NL—with two closers, neither of which is an enviable option.

Indeed, their present belies the World Series victory. They are a good team, however little credit I give them, but not a truly great one. They have no glaring holes—other than left-handed relief, which the Yankees miraculously managed to avoid exposing in the Series. As I said before, Florida is one of only 8 teams to win 91 games or fewer and win the World Series. They are also one of 13 teams to have a losing record one season and win the Series in the next—the Marlins were 79-83 last year. Here they are with their records in the season the won the World Series (WS Yr), the year prior to the World Series win (Yr 1), and the year after (Yr 3):

1914Boston Braves9459.6146982.4578369.546
1924Washington Senators9262.5977578.4909655.636
1933New York Giants9161.5997282.4689360.608
1954New York Giants9757.6307084.4558074.519
1959Los Angeles Dodgers8868.5647183.4618272.532
1965Los Angeles Dodgers9765.5998082.4949567.586
1969New York Mets10062.6177389.4518379.512
1987Minnesota Twins8577.5257191.4389171.562
1988Los Angeles Dodgers9467.5847389.4517783.481
1990Cincinnati Reds9171.5627587.4637488.457
1991Minnesota Twins9567.5867488.4579072.556
1997Florida Marlins9270.5688082.49454108.333

Note that those teams returned on average to mediocrity. They were about ten games better, but a .526 winning percentage was basically where the Phils, Jays, Dodgers, and White Sox were this year, OK but not great. Only three of the twelve improved the next season but then again only three returned to sub-.500 in the third year, including the Marlins 1997-98 cautionary tale of a team. Given that the average year-after World Series champ has a record of 89-64 for .579 winning percentage, which was only reached by three teams on the list, that's not very encouraging. It's no wonder that the two "Miracle" teams ('14 Braves and '69 Mets) appear on the list.

The Marlins will be in a competitive division next year with maybe four of the five teams vying for the title. They may be able to remain mediocre—say, win 90 games—and win the division next year. However, with four fifths of their infield perhaps in free agency flux and a bunch of young players who have yet to produce for an entire season, mediocrity may be tough to achieve.

However, the Marlins did win the World Series. The Yankees have to go home licking their wounds with the knowledge that they had a winnable title in their grasps and let it slip away, or to be fair, let the Marlins take it away. And this year they can't blame the pitching. They registered a 2.13 team ERA in the Series, the lowest ever for a losing team. Even in a game in which they were dominated by Josh Beckett, the opportunities were there for the Yankees. They just did not execute.

In game six, the Yankees had the leadoff man on base in the third, fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. In only two of those instances did the Yankees successfully move the runner into scoring position, and both times cost them an out (Jeter's grounder to the right side in the third and Boone's bunt in the fifth). In the seventh Jason Giambi was unable to pull the ball to advance Jorge Posada, who had led off with a double. He grounded to third. In the eighth, Soriano led off with a poke single to left. Derek Jeter had a 2-0 count, Wayne Rosenthal visited the mound, and Dontrelle Willis was up in the pen. If Jeter reached base, Beckett was likely down for the night. After going up 3-1, Jeter flied out mildly to Pierre. In two instances the Yankees grounded into a doubleplay to erase the leadoff baserunner.

One note on Jeter, just as he was being prepared for canonization for his heroics against Beckett in game 3, which enabled the Yankees to go up two games to one, his Series hit some major bumps in the road. He abruptly set the tone for game 4 after he failed to run out an arching liner to second that turned into an inning-killing doubleplay. The play itself was bad, but even worse may have been that he had a 3-0 count to start the at-bat and failed so badly. He hit into a doubleplay again in the fifth inning, after Roger Clemens collected a single on an 0-2 count, and in the process he almost got Clemens decapitated on the relay from second.

In game 5, he went 3-for-4 with two runs scored and a run batted in. He made a key mis(non)play in the fifth. With the Yankees trailing, 4-1, and Pudge Rodriguez on second with one out, Aaron Boone snared a hard grounder by Jeff Conine and seemed to pick Gonzalez off of second. He relayed to Enrique Wilson, but Wilson quickly threw the ball to an empty third base and what ended up being the winning runs eventually scored. So how can I blame Jeter? Jeter should have been at third. The play enfolded before him. Boone threw to Wilson and rotated out expecting someone to replace him in the rundown just as the practice it. Jeter should have been that man. Wilson's throw was ill-advised and much too quick, but Jeter made no effort to get to third.

Jeter, who went 3-for-4 against Beckett in game 3 with two doubles, the second of which ushered Beckett out of the game, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in game 6. His best at-bat was the productive out in the third. He struck out on three pitches to lead off the game and on five in the fifth. In the sixth, Jeter's error on a Jeff Conine ball allowed the Marlins to score their second run, a huge mistake with the way that Beckett was pitching.

Maybe George was right, Jeter had been partying too much. Maybe he started sniffing the champagne a bit too early.

In addition to the Jeter misplay, a throw to the left side of the plate by Karim Garcia would have had Gonzalez at the plate easily. Andy Pettitte pitched a great game and deserved better.

So we baseball fans are left with the another Mighty Ducks of a world champion. I feel bad for teams like the A's, Red Sox, and Mariners, who have been building competitive teams for years and have nothing to show for it. The Marlins catch lightning in a bottle and like a fourth-place Smyth Division qualifier eke out series win after series win.

Well, the Marlins were the best team in baseball since May 23, you say. Joe Buck has been repeating it on a regular basis since the playoffs started (he also keeps saying that Karim Garcia started the season in Triple-A Buffalo, a patented ridiculous statement given the fact that Garcia was Cleveland's starting right fielder coming out of camp after hitting .299 with 16 home runs in 202 at-bats last year and the fact that Garcia only played in Buffalo for two weeks in June during a rehab stint). The Marlins were in fifth place in the NL East with a 19-29 record (.396 wining percentage) after losing six straight. The Marlins were never 10 games within first-place Atlanta from that point on.

This is not a team for which the wild card was originally proposed. It was meant as a refuge for those teams that vied for a division title all year but failed to garner one. The 2003 Marlins were never in any sort of division title hunt. They were barely in a wild card race until the Phillies floundered in the second half. Their admittance to the postseason was the hanging chad of the season.

I know that all of that, to quote Nigel Tufnel, "Is nitpicking, isn't it?" However, I argue that we deserve better as fans. After a great postseason, the World Series showed great promise but ultimately fizzled and we awake to the vision of the Marlins as champs, whose flaws will become clearer next season as the World Series beer goggles wear off. But by then we will have next year's one-year wonder to gawk at as it cantors through a World Series title.

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