Memo to Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga: Do you really want to sell this club?
It would be one thing if you had mortgaged the ranch last winter on a bunch of stiffs. But when your multimillionaire free agents (righthander Alex Fernandez, third baseman Bobby Bonilla and leftfielder Moises Alou) are putting up the kind of numbers you paid for, and your high-priced new manager ( Jim Leyland) has the team playing baseball the way it should be played; when an improbable, Walter Mitty—like rookie is pretending he's Pete Rose circa 1963, and a sore-kneed veteran added last month is legging out hits; when a homesick, overweight Cuban righthander discovers how to say no m�s at the dinner table and starts eating up major league hitters, and an all-glove, no-stick catcher begins crushing homers like Johnny Bench; when the team fashions the second-best record in the National League and has defending league champion and division-leading Atlanta sweating a four-game series in the second week in August, aren't you tempted to stick around and enjoy the fun? What's a little negative cash flow when you're trying to catch the Braves?
"I'm sad Wayne Huizenga is selling the club, because he is a good owner, and the players know it," says Leyland, the first high-profile signee by the Marlins in their $89 million off-season spending spree and a man who thought, after 11 seasons managing the cash-poor Pittsburgh Pirates, that he'd found stability in the five-year, $7.5 million deal Huizenga had given him. "But [his decision to sell] hasn't been a distraction. I like my team very much. We'll be competitive for a long time."
Believe it. Florida is starting to look like a club that may be a force come October. And who better for the Marlins to test themselves against at this stage of the season than the Braves, who have been to the World Series in four of the last six years, but who in head-to-head competition against the Marlins this season before last week's series had been skewered in six of eight games. The outcome of the four-game set at Atlanta's sold-out Turner Field? On Monday the Braves beat the Marlins 2-1 to split the series, leaving Florida 5� games back but with a 3-game lead over the New York Mets in the wild-card race. The Marlins and the Braves won't meet again this season unless they face each other in the playoffs.
Not bad considering that the only offensive category besides walks that Florida led the league in was most men left on base. Despite the added punch that's been provided by Bonilla (.310, 33 doubles, 71 RBIs) and Alou (.296, 15 home runs, 86 RBIs), the Marlins have struggled to score runs, thanks largely to a drop-off in production from the man charged with driving this train, rightfielder Gary Sheffield, who signed a six-year, $61 million contract extension in April. Bothered in recent weeks by a strained left hamstring and a sprained left thumb, Sheffield has seen his numbers drop dramatically from 1996. Last year he blasted 42 homers, drove in 120 runs, had a .625 slugging percentage and hit .333 with runners in scoring position; this season through Sunday he had only 13 homers, 48 RBIs, a .423 slugging mark and had batted just .238 with runners in scoring position. What's even more puzzling is that with Bonilla hitting behind him, pitchers aren't working around Sheffield as much as last year, when he finished second in the league in walks with 142. "I'm just not doing the job right now," says Sheffield, who had 83 walks at week's end. "Eventually something's going to click. What's helping me get through this is that we're winning. That's the most important thing."
The Marlins are winning the old-fashioned way, with pitching and defense, some of it provided by Sheffield, whose 10 assists at week's end tied him for fourth in the National League. In last Friday night's 6-4 win over the Braves, Sheffield helped turn the game around in the second inning by cutting down Mark Lemke, who was trying to score from second on a two-out single. Leyland described Sheffield's on-the-fly BB as "one of the greatest throws you'll ever see."
One inning later Florida nailed another Atlanta runner at the plate, thwarting a delayed double-steal attempt by converting a strikeout into a 2-6-4-2 double play. It wasn't particularly wise strategy on the Braves' part, given that Marlins catcher Charles Johnson is a two-time Gold Glove winner who has thrown out 46% of runners in the last three years—a statistic Atlanta manager Bobby Cox must have known. It was Cox, after all, who named Johnson to replace New York's Todd Hundley when Hundley pulled out of the All-Star Game with an elbow injury. "It was very surprising to get named to the team because of my defense," says Johnson, who was hitting just .226 at the time. "That was a big boost for me."
Johnson repaid Cox by belting a two-run homer on Friday to fuel Florida's comeback win. The 26-year-old Johnson has been on a tear since the midsummer classic, batting .376 with nine home runs and 23 RBIs in 24 games. "He's been a different hitter since the break," says Leyland. "I'd have to say he's been the team's biggest surprise."
But not its only one. On July 27 Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski made a little-noticed deal that sent righthander Mark Hutton to the Colorado Rockies for 26-year-old second baseman Craig Counsell, a Notre Dame grad who'd had one career major league at bat. The day Counsell arrived, Leyland called him into his office and told the callow-faced Counsell that he didn't know much about him. Counsell had been hitting .335 at Triple A Colorado Springs, but Leyland asked the rookie what kind of player he was.
"I told him I was a blue-collar player," recalls Counsell. "I might not be pretty, but I'll do what it takes to win: play good defense, move the runner over. I grew up in Milwaukee watching guys like Paul Molitor and Robin Yount play, and I try to do the things that they do."