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20 years later, 1997 champion Marlins share special memories


Florida 3, Cleveland 2 in 11 innings marked the end of a tense Game 7 befitting a back-and-forth World Series in 1997, providing the Marlins a swift kick in the backside toward growing up as a franchise long before anyone had a right to expect.

We might remember that what is now called Hard Rock Stadium was jammed with raucous fans. Or chain-smoking manager Jim Leyland smiling the smile of a man who finally won the big one as he jogged the warning track, combing the seats for his family. And we remember Craig Counsell launching the party by floating down onto home plate with the championship run.

But few — perhaps only those in sweaty jerseys that night — remember that long after everyone else had gone home, the Marlins spontaneously crammed into the trainer’s room for the real party. The dread of the impending team fire sale be damned, they were going to swap stories nearly until the sun came up, high on a mix of cigars and champagne and beer.

When he came over from Cuba, pitcher Livan Hernandez, the Series MVP, said he didn’t know anything about this World Series stuff, but he caught on quickly. Nothing was going to wreck his evening. Not even something that would make many men cry.

A month earlier, Hernandez had spoiled himself with a $130,000 new Mercedes-Benz. But as Hernandez approached it in the players’ parking lot, he discovered its mirrors torn off, the front bumper dislodged and the hood had been trampled upon, all in the delirium.

“And I had to sell the car two days later,” he says.

In the next breath, believe it or not, Hernandez says, “It’s a great moment.”

Maybe the 20 years since have tempered whatever anger he felt at that moment. Or maybe he cared as little then as he does now, a testament to the power of the World Series if there ever was one.

Bringing a city together

The Marlins plan a season-long celebration in honor of their first championship team? What do they think the guys who played on that team have been doing for two decades?

“It was a great feeling for me, being a hometown guy in this area and going to school at the University of Miami and having an opportunity to win a World Series — that, there, was absolutely amazing for me,” catcher Charles Johnson says.

Never before had an expansion team won a World Series as quickly as the 5-year-old Marlins. When Johnson was walking the halls at Fort Pierce-Westwood High, the ballclub didn’t even exist. Time flew as they grew up to become champions, just as time has flown since.

“It’s kind of crazy, right?” Johnson says. “Twenty years. I mean, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since Edgar had that big hit up the middle.”

Edgar Renteria’s shot glanced off the glove of pitcher Charles Nagy and dribbled into center field to score Counsell. By the time Renteria reached first base, he’d flung his batting helmet and braced himself for onrushing teammates.

It was a dramatic end to a classic World Series. The Marlins won the first game 7-4, but all that did was launch a sequence in which no team won two straight and nobody could hold serve at home. The Indians earned a split in Florida before heading back to Cleveland for the middle three games, but the Marlins went 2-1 there, including losing a Game 4 played in 35 degrees and featuring batting practice in the snow. Returning home with a chance to clinch, the Marlins instead lost 4-1, setting up a Game 7 that chased the Dolphins out of their own stadium.

The deciding game was set for prime time on Sunday, Oct. 26 — the same day the Dolphins were supposed to play the Chicago Bears. Instead, the NFL game was shifted to Monday night and aired only in Chicago and Miami because the regularly scheduled Monday night game, Green Bay vs. New England, was a Super Bowl rematch the rest of the country wanted to see.

Strange as that felt, things were only starting to get weird. Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga kicked off his payroll-slashing fire sale only five days after the clincher. Unloaded were Moises Alou and Al Leiter, who played important roles in that historic Game 7, and just about every other fan favorite. The suddenly unrecognizable Marlins plummeted to 54-108 the next season.

But that so-sweet 1997 …

“You know, ’97 was an incredible year,” Johnson says. “You’re talking about a bunch of all-star players who came together and accomplished something that is very difficult to do.”

Past meets present

Before the Marlins had Jose Fernandez, before Dontrelle Willis, there was Hernandez filling the role of fuzzy-cheeked ace who bubbled with enthusiasm each time he took the mound.

“In ’98, I wake and decided, ‘Wow, we won last year,’ ” Hernandez says. “I know now how the World Series means to a guy who comes from Cuba and he doesn’t know anything about professional baseball.”

Hernandez is speaking during the Marlins’ 2017 home opener, an evening that included a moment of silence in honor of the late Fernandez. Hernandez points out that he’s from Villa Clara in Central Cuba, the same province that produced Fernandez.

“A lot of people say there’s a lot of good players that come out from there,” Hernandez says.

Whether Hernandez realizes it or not, his description of Fernandez matches what many would say about him: “He’s young, very exciting on the mound, he’s very hyper and he loves the game so much. To see one pitcher like that, you have to watch every game he pitches because something new is coming every game.”

Hernandez started twice in the World Series, winning both matchups against Orel Hershiser no less, lasting 13 2/3 innings with a 3.18 earned-run average. This, on top of a 15-strikeout performance against Atlanta that set a National League Championship Series record.

What Johnson remembers was Hernandez “coming to our team at the right time, and bringing that — just that thrill of pitching, that excitement on the mound. And the way he pitched and the way he went after hitters — he was that big-game pitcher.”

But no one in a Marlins uniform has ever had a hit bigger than Renteria’s championship swing.

“I’m in the bullpen that night, I see Renteria hit the base hit up the middle, it’s like God let that ball pass because it hit that glove,” Hernandez says. “You don’t see a line drive, not too hard, hit the glove and pass to center field. It’s like we’re supposed to win the World Series.”

Somebody asks Hernandez if he feels for Cleveland, which just lost another World Series, this time to the Chicago Cubs, under similar crushing circumstances.

“I feel bad for that team,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Wow, again?’ ”

With the Cubs ending their Series curse, the Indians are left searching for their first championship since 1948. Contrast their disappointment in 1997 to the exuberant Hernandez bellowing, “I love you, Miami!” A catchphrase was born.

“You guys know I said that because I want to cut the interview that night,” Hernandez tells reporters, laughing. “We cut the interview right away and continued to party that night.”

That they did.

“Just about the whole team gathered in the training room and we all had a chance to really express how we felt about that season,” Johnson says. “Had a chance to really let everybody know how we enjoyed the season.

“That was one of my special moments.”



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