The story begins in 1993. The city is Miami, and the game is baseball. Major League baseball had long been absent from the state until Wayne Huizenga, CEO of the then thriving Blockbuster Video chain, was awarded an expansion franchise for the National League. To help guide this new team in its inaugural years, the Marlins recruited the young, ambitious GM of the Montreal Expos, Dave Dombrowski, to be their first General Manager. The stage was set for the sunshine state to join the Major Leagues, and no one could have guessed what followed.
As the 1997 season began, it was clear that the road to the National League Pennant ran through Atlanta. The Braves had represented the senior circuit in four of the last five World Series contests, and even the one they didn’t make saw them atop their division at the end of the regular season. The lowly Marlins had yet failed to produce a winning season, but hopes were high, thanks to a fresh infusion of name brand talent to go with a talented farm system. Overnight, the new kid on the block had names like Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, and Moisés Alou in their lineup. Their pitching rotation was built for success, with Kevin Brown leading the way, and Alex Fernandez and a young star named Liván Hernández giving great seasons. Looking around the National League, the Marlins had suddenly put together a roster that seemed like it could make a run at Atlanta’s reign.
The regular season would shake out with the fish posting a solid 92–70 record; good enough to grab a berth in the postseason as a ‘Wild Card’ team. They would make quick work of the San Francisco Giants, sweeping them straight out of the divisional series, and would face off against the aforementioned Atlanta Braves for a shot at the National League Pennant.
NLCS: ‘The Zone’
The Marlins played Atlanta tougher than many expected, and took an even series into the fifth game, to be played on their home field. This was where the series took a turn in the fish’s favor, in the form of home plate umpire Eric Gregg.
Gregg provided a notoriously generous strike zone to Liván Hernández, which led to the Cuban punching out 15 batters and silencing the Braves bats to a 2–1 victory. Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs wrote a well-thought-out argument that the severity of Gregg’s performance was a little overblown. Nonetheless, it was enough to derail Atlanta and give Florida just the momentum they needed to find themselves in the Fall Classic.
The World Series: From Out of Nowhere
The Marlins would face off against the Cleveland Indians, who were appearing in their second World Series in three seasons and looking to avenge their 1995 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Tribe had a formidable lineup, including Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and David Justice, with Sandy Alomar leading the way. On paper, many would argue that the Marlins seemed overmatched at the plate, with the experienced vets from Ohio the favorites. But yet again, the Marlins played the Indians much more toughly than expected, and the series resembled an epic heavyweight bout, with both teams trading wins until the culminating seventh game.
Game Seven would see the Indians take a two run lead in the third inning, thanks to a single from Tony Fernández (who hit the walk-off home run against the Orioles in the deciding game of the ALCS . . . more on him later) which drove in Jim Thome and Marquis Grissom. Jaret Wright was on the mound and seemed to have the game firmly under control, allowing just a single run on two hits spread out over six innings, and striking out seven Marlins along the way. He was cruising—until Bobby Bonilla gave him a rude awakening as the bottom of the seventh inning began:
Just like that, the momentum changed. Pro Player Stadium was jolted back to life, and the score was 2–1. Bonilla strutted around the bases, knowing that he had recaptured the fighting spirit of his team, and even though the Marlins still trailed, it seemed possible . . . they could do this.
Cleveland would turn the game over to their bullpen, and the combination of Pal Assenmacher, Michael Jackson, and Brian Anderson seemed to quell the uprising from Bonilla’s blast in the seventh. They entered the ninth still holding to a one run lead, and they called upon closer Jose Mésa to fillet the fish and mercifully end Cleveland’s baseball title drought (their last win came in 1948). Instead, Moisés Alou would reach on a single. He would take third on another single from Charles Johnson. Craig Counsell would rope a hard fly ball to right field and score Alou from third. Tie. Game.
The game would stay that way into the 11th inning, when it seemed as though the ghost of Bill Buckner exacted his revenge on Cleveland second baseman Tony Fernández (remember when I said more on him later?).
Fernández, an otherwise sure-handed second baseman (a 14.9 dWAR player and four time Gold Glover) took his eye off a routine ground ball that squirted past baserunner Bobby Bonilla. It almost tauntingly rolled into right field. Bonilla would lumber into third base, curled over it in a state of both confusion and exhaustion as Fernández paced, shell-shocked, around the infield, cursing himself with what little breath he could muster. The hero who had given the Indians the lead had now just given life back to the enemy.
After an intentional walk, and a groundout to stop Bonilla from scoring, Édgar Rentería came to the plate. The young shortstop was signed as an amateur free agent in February of 1992, the first free egent in franchise history. Now he had the chance to bring the team, just four seasons since its first game, a World title.
The ball was hit hard, right back to the pitcher. Charles Nagy shot his glove to the sky, hoping to save his team from the agony of defeat. But he was just a split second late, and the ball bounced through the center of the infield, past the outstretched arms of the now infamous Tony Fernández. And Craig Counsell sprinted home, launching himself off the plate as the decisive spikes ended the baseball season.
The Marlins were outscored 44–37, outhit 72 to 68, and committed more errors (eight to five) than the Indians, but they had done it. The scrappy team that was never really supposed to be there not only got there, but won.
The rest, as they say . . . is history.