Florida Marlin shortstop Kurt Abbott was aglow last Saturday after his two-run triple helped Florida to a 6-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs. It was thrilling enough, he decided, just to be playing his first series at Wrigley Field, the ivy-covered relic that for him had existed only on cable television before last weekend. 'I grew up watching this place on TV," said Abbott, a 24-year-old rookie. Then surely he knew all about Waveland and Sheffield avenues, right? Well, not exactly. Sheffield Avenue? He took a look toward the locker of teammate Gary Sheffield and asked in amazement, "Did they name it after him?"
Please forgive the Marlins. They are still the new kids on the block, including the one on the north side of Chicago outside Wrigley's famous outfield wall. In their second year of existence, Florida and its expansion cousins, the Colorado Rockies, are known to act sophomoric once in a while. On balance, though, the Marlins and the Rockies have quickly established credibility around the National League, as was readily apparent on Sunday, when both teams won by shutouts.
"It's not like they're stocked with Triple A players," says San Francisco Giant manager Dusty Baker, whose club took two of three from Colorado to start last week. "They have good players. You no longer think of them as expansion teams."
At week's end four of the league's top five home run hitters played for teams that didn't exist until last year: the Marlins' Sheffield (12 homers) and the Rockies' Andres Galarraga (13), Ellis Burks (12) and Dante Bichette (11). The two teams also accounted for the league's player of the month for April (Burks), its new RBI-record holder for that month (Galarraga, who drove in 30) and two of its top five hitters (Burks, at .361, and Florida's Chuck Carr, at .341).
Moreover, the two clubs were threatening to rewrite the expansion growth chart. No terrible twos here. The 10 previous expansion teams needed an average of eight seasons before they played winning baseball. Both the Marlins and the Rockies, who won 64 and 67 games, respectively, in 1993, could get there as soon as this year, which would match the record arrival time of the '62 Los Angeles Angels.
After winning two of three from the Cubs in its weekend series, Florida was 20-17 and third in the National League East. It hadn't lost more than two straight games this year and had been at or above .500 for a club-record 15 straight days. Says the streetwise Sheffield, "Second place is a real possibility for us." Colorado, which won twice in three tries against the Astros in Houston last weekend, was 16-18 and third in the West.
The two teams have charted different routes to respectability. The Rockies have an older profile, with 12 players who are at least 29, including six of their eight regulars. (The Marlins have eight such players, including only three starters.) Colorado has had near-miraculous success rejuvenating the careers of struggling veteran hitters, who have gotten well quickly in Denver's thin mountain air. Mile High Stadium is the Lourdes of baseball.
"If you're a hitter and your career is at a standstill, the place to go is Colorado," says Giant pitcher John Burkett, who lost to the Rockies last week. "I wouldn't say pitchers want to go there, though. I wouldn't. If you do, you have to say, I'll just forget about my ERA."
Florida has done a better job developing young players, especially pitchers. At week's end its pitching staff ranked fifth in the league in ERA, had blown only two of 16 save opportunities and had gone 8-3 in one-run games and 14-0 when it had taken a lead into the seventh inning. So which is the better route? Marlins or Rockies? "The important thing is, the bottom line looks good for both teams," says Colorado shortstop Walt Weiss, the only man to have been employed by both clubs.
The Rockies' salvage operation began with the first player they signed to a major league contract. It was on the eve of the Nov. 17, 1992, expansion draft that they reached an agreement with Galarraga, a free agent who had hit a combined .230 for the Montreal Expos and the St. Louis Cardinals over the two previous seasons. Galarraga had lost so much confidence that one day during the '92 season he broke down and cried in the batting cage in front of Don Baylor, the Cardinals' hitting coach, who would become the Colorado manager. "What am I doing?" Galarraga asked. Said Baylor, "It's O.K. We'll start from scratch."