Bringing back the Marlins
Johnson returns to lead a promising Florida team
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Charles Johnson was with the Florida Marlins when they were the best team in baseball. He was there when the Marlins crumbled, too, becoming part of the Great Purge of '98 when he was forced out to wander the American League wilderness for three long seasons.
Now, at the grizzled old age of 29, Johnson is back, the elder statesman on a team filled with prospects and promise. As young as these new Marlins are, though, as lacking in recognizable names and major-league experience as they may be, Johnson has big hopes for these Marlins.
"It's hard to put expectations on a team like this," Johnson said. "But I like this team. It's good to be on a team like this. It's good to grow with a team like this. This team is exciting.
"Exciting and young."
The 2001 Marlins are a whole different fish than the one in 1997, when they stunned everyone with a World Series win over the Cleveland Indians. The Marlins are a lot different than the more recent teams, too, starting with the '98 team that was blown up for salary reasons and lost 108 games, or the one that lost 98 games the next season.
Thanks to some important trades by general manager Dave Dombrowski that started with the Great Purge of '98, the Marlins have accumulated tons of young talent. They got outfielder Preston Wilson in a deal with the Mets for catcher Mike Piazza. They got starter Brad Penny from Arizona for reliever Matt Mantei. And they got infielder Derrek Lee from San Diego for pitcher Kevin Brown.
And so the Marlins have become everybody's darlings, the up-and-coming team to watch in baseball. They have a young pitching staff that holds as much promise as any in the game. They have a couple of good young hitters, too.
And, for old-times sake, they have Johnson.
"I think he's gonna be OK," manager John Boles deadpanned after Johnson had a single, double and a home run in three at-bats Friday in the Marlins' win over the Cleveland Indians. "A little more seasoning, and he's going to be a good player."
Make no mistake. The old guy may be the most important player on the Marlins. His hitting is one thing. He had 31 homers and 98 RBIs last season, playing for the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox. He is among the best in the game defensively, too.
But, more than that, he provides a link to the Marlins' glory days and gives the team someone in the clubhouse who can show the young Marlins how to get back to the top.
"Probably, of anybody we could have acquired, he would have been the first choice," said Boles. "It's a big deal to us, having C.J."
Even the young pitchers realize that.
"You can throw a breaking ball in the dirt with a man on third," Penny said, "and feel comfortable about it."
Johnson didn't come cheaply, though. He signed a five-year, $35 million contract in December, a contract that showed just about everyone in baseball that the Marlins are getting serious again.
The Marlins only got him because he allowed a big part of the money to be paid in the final years of the contract, when the Marlins hope to be raking in money from a new stadium. They've already approved the financing and construction of the stadium, though all is not finalized.
The investment shows that the Marlins know what they need to compete, and that they are now ready to play again with the rest of the National League East.
"People aren't laughing anymore," Boles said. "And baseball people never did laugh. Baseball people knew it would take some time to build this back up.
"The potential is definitely there. But that's a scary word. A lot of us have potential and have trouble living up to it."
Still, the Marlins are on the right track. They improved 10 games from '98 to '99, then improved 15 games from '99 to last year. A modest improvement on that could put them back in the NL East race.
Like many of the former Marlins, Johnson was devastated by the breakup of the '97 champs. But he kept an eye on what Dombrowski was doing and, when given the chance, he jumped at the chance to come back.
"It was just a very unfortunate situation," he said of the Marlins' decision back in '98 to gut the team. "As a player, you can't hold something like that against them. You have to learn to let go. And we have the rings.
"But I would have liked to have seen what would have happened in '98 with that same team."
This 2001 team won't be the same, but Johnson may yet get his chance to get another ring. If not this year, then sometime soon.
"I think we have a long way to go as far as the veteran player mentality," Johnson admits. "But, talent-wise, I think this team has a chance to be competitive at the end of the season. The talent is here."
And so, again, is Johnson.