Expansion team. What expansion team?
That's what the Florida Marlins had most of baseball thinking during the first half of the season. Sweeping the Pirates. Locking the Mets in the cellar. Flirting with .500. Until their seven-game slide into July, the teal men were the talk of the majors. While the hapless Colorado Rockies lost games like loose change, the Marlins rarely surrendered without a fight.
"You can't take them for granted," says USA Today baseball guru Bob Velin. "They play solid ball." Solid enough that the pundits are already talking playoffs. And not just within South Florida's salivating press corps.
"With the new expanded playoffs, people are already predicting that the Marlins could make the playoffs as soon as next year," reports Phil Wood, a radio commentator for WMET-AM, outside Washington, D.C.
The source of this optimism? Wood cites excellent scouting and solid management -- both in the front office and in the dugout.
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And one other factor: MONEY.
"People are convinced that [owner H. Wayne] Huizenga is going to spend whatever it takes to win," Woods says admiringly. "For now, he's got the novelty factor. But he realizes that over the long haul, he's going to have to be competitive to draw."
Yes, sports fans, it all hinges on the blessed dollar.
Consider Marlins bullpen ace Bryan Harvey. His $4.125-million paycheck qualifies him as one of the highest-paid National Leaguers. And he's worth every penny. At $3.4 million, fan favorite Benito Santiago is the league's richest catcher, despite his lowly .234 batting average at the All-Star break. Heck, even Junior Felix is earning more than a million bucks this year -- and isn't on the team any more.
Then there's first baseman Orestes Destrade. When Huizenga and Co. lured Destrade back from Japan with a two-million-dollar paycheck, they were hoping for another Cecil Fielder. Destrade's productivity thus far: seven homers, a .250 average, eleven errors. Too bad Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski decided not to sign Andres Galarraga, who has a house in West Palm Beach and who even asked to play for Florida. The Venezuelan first baseman is batting .390 for the expansion-rival Rockies, tops in the NL. His salary: $600,000. (To be fair, the Marlins drafted a few bargains of their own: Starter Chris Hammond ($260,000) has ten wins; second baseman Bret Barberie ($125,000) has been the team's most consistent starter.)
In case you'd like to keep score at home, we've compiled one of the more revealing stats in this inaugural campaign. With the Rockies in town for a three-game series, what better time to play the comparison game? Baseball buffs would do well, however, to hedge their predictions when it comes to expansion seasons. Who, after all, can forget the 1961 Washington Senators. With Orville "Coot" Veal at shortstop and "Diamond" Dick Donovan on the mound, they flew out to a 30-30 start, only to slump home with a 61-100 record. Their total payroll was a whopping $275,000.