No plans to dismantle the champs this time around

Marlins won't go belly up

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2003

MIAMI They beat Barry Bonds, then confounded the Chicago Cubs, and by the end of the World Series, the New York Yankees couldn't even score against them.

Break up the Marlins? Not this time.

The dismantling ordered by founding Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga after they won the 1997 World Series nearly doomed baseball in South Florida, and current owner Jeffrey Loria knows better than to repeat the mistake.

Keeping intact the team that finished off the Yankees in the World Series on Saturday may be impossible, but many of the Marlins' emerging stars will likely be back in 2004.

''I think Jeffrey has made a sound commitment that he wants to continue with competitive, winning ballclubs here,'' said manager Jack McKeon, who is almost certain to return for another season at age 73. ''I think we'll have a winning team here next year.''

First, the Marlins will be honored for their astounding achievement with parades Tuesday in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The celebration is expected to draw tens of thousands of revelers, a reflection of the team's accomplishments.

Momentous enough were the postseason victories over the San Francisco Giants, Cubs and Yankees. But the Marlins also revived baseball in South Florida, luring back fans long bitter about the 1997 dismantling.

Attendance totaled 520,815 for Florida's final eight home games, compared with 813,111 for all of last season.

''Sure, there has been a little bandwagon jumping, but I think that's only normal,'' All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell said. ''Hopefully there's a big carry-over effect next year. People are excited about this team, and I think we're going to have a good product beyond this year.''

The Marlins returned Sunday to South Florida and were greeted at the airport by about 7,500 people. Loria exchanged high-fives with fans and posed for pictures, while McKeon autographed newspapers, shirts and even a police helmet.

''I'll stand out here and sign all day if they want,'' McKeon said. ''They are what this thing is supposed to be about.''

Unlike 1997, there are no allegations that Florida bought its title. Outspent 3-to-1 by the Yankees, the Marlins showed as Anaheim did last year that it's possible to win with a modest payroll. The Marlins will likely remain around their current $54 million in 2004, which means some difficult decisions this offseason for general manager Larry Beinfest.

Keeping the team together would raise the payroll to more than $80 million. Instead, the Marlins may lose catcher Ivan Rodriguez, second baseman Luis Castillo and closer Ugueth Urbina, all of whom will become free agents.

A long list of players eligible for arbitration includes Lowell, first baseman Derrek Lee, right fielder Juan Encarnacion and starting pitcher Brad Penny, who won two games in the World Series. At least one or two of them might be traded.

But World Series MVP Josh Beckett will be back to anchor the rotation. Center fielder Juan Pierre, the team's regular-season MVP, is also expected to return. So are rookie standouts Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, along with 37-year-old Jeff Conine, who hit .367 during the postseason.

''There are a lot of decisions to be made, '' Lowell said. ''But our management has done everything the right way this year, and I think that will continue in the offseason.''

Beinfest will likely stick with the blueprint that succeeded in 2003: a young team with few long-term contracts.

One example of how that approach paid off is Rodriguez. Motivated by the one-year deal he settled for last winter, the 10-time All-Star got himself into excellent shape and enjoyed his best season since 1999.

Beinfest will be in the market for such veterans again.

''With the job Larry has done this year, I wouldn't put anything past him,'' said McKeon, an astute talent evaluator himself.

Just two years ago, the Marlins were candidates for contraction or relocation. Now, with their second World Series title in seven seasons, the Marlins again have an opportunity they squandered in 1997 to build a bigger fan base that would strengthen support for the publicly financed ballpark they've long sought.

The celebration Tuesday is bound to gall grieving New Yorkers and long-suffering fans in Chicago and Boston who consider Miami undeserving of a title team. Until this year, the Marlins were known mostly for rain delays, losing records and apathetic fans. They've finished above .500 only twice since their first game in 1993.

''What is Marlin tradition? It's a work in progress,'' said Conine, the only current Florida player who was with the team during the 1997 postseason. ''Two World Series in 11 years that's a pretty good way to start building it.''

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