Every young player dreams of being compared to one of the alltime greats, to the Mick, the Rocket, maybe even the Babe. But to the Bard? "They were calling me Shakespeare for a while," says a sheepish Kevin Millar, the Marlins' rookie first baseman, reflecting on the hazing he took from his teammates in the days after he was called up from the Triple A Calgary Cannons in May. "You know, for all my big quotes."
The quotes for which Millar was famous weren't poetic, but they did have a certain Macbethian hubris. After hitting a game-winning homer for Calgary on May 3, an exuberant Millar popped off. "We're challenging the Marlins to a seven-game series, and the winner stays [in the majors]," Millar was quoted as saying in the Calgary Herald. "We'd beat them in six games."
Getting bad-mouthed was nothing new for Florida, which has been ripped since dismantling its 1997 World Series championship team, but Millar's comments made sports pages all over North America. "It bummed me out, because that was just joking around among teammates," he says. "It looked like a big cocky statement, and that wasn't it at all. I'd never challenge the organization in that way"
Whether Millar was serious or not, the Marlins' chances in that hypothetical series are boosted now that he's on their side. Called up barely two weeks after his outburst, Millar had hit .314 with seven home runs and 51 RBIs through Sunday, and was second in the National League with a .410 average with runners in scoring position. Also, he had just three errors in 66 games at first. Though still 23� games behind the National League East-leading Braves and Mets, Florida, which got off to a 12-29 start, had gone 36-41 since Millar's arrival.
The 27-year-old Millar's breakthrough was unexpected after a meandering minor league career. He went undrafted out of Lamar, in 1993, and spent that summer with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. Despite hitting an ordinary .260, he caught the Marlins' attention and signed with them that September. He spent the next four seasons in Florida's farm system, steadily increasing his production until he led the Double A Eastern League in average (.342) and RBIs (131) in '97 Last year he was called up by the Marlins eight days into the season but had just two at bats before breaking his left wrist fouling off a pitch.
This spring Millar was a late cut from the Marlins' roster; in 35 games with Calgary he hit .303 with seven home runs, a performance that would have caught the big club's eye even if he hadn't opened his mouth. "He called and apologized right away," says Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski. "I've known Kevin a long time, so I would assume that what he said was taken out of context."
After his call-up Millar apologized to his new teammates, then ensured that he would remain in their good graces by hitting safely in 10 of his first 12 games. Millar has made Marlins fans forget Derrek Lee, Florida's supposed first baseman of the future, who started what was to be his second full season by hitting .190 and was banished to the minors eight days after Millar's arrival. "If he keeps playing the way he's playing," Dombrowski says of Millar, "nobody's going to knock him out of a spot."
To Millar, that's poetic justice.