These guys need a catchy name. Every boy group worth its weight in hair gel has one. It's got to be easy for the dumb kids to remember but hip enough for the cool ones. If it fits on a vanity license plate, all the better. 'N Sync. Boyz II Men. That sort of thing. Otherwise, they're set.
Dope aqua-black-and-white costumes—check.
Multicity summer stadium tour—check.
Screaming, out-of-control girlies—check.
The musical skills of a desk lamp—check.
Best of all, they've got prepackaged, deep-as-a-dime IDs. There's A.J., the tattooed tough guy. Brad, the reserved country bumpkin. Jason, the brainy, contemplative college boy. Josh, the cocky, baby-faced heartthrob. Wes, the aw-shucks cutie. Claudio, the Latin lover. Blaine, the giant, and Geoff, the happy-go-lucky one. Then there's Ryan, the leader of the bunch, the sharp-witted 23-year-old wannabe comedian who's as quick with a smile as he is with a magic trick. He's their Justin Timberlake. Their Ralph Tresvant. Their ace.
As was the case in the mid-1980s when Maurice Starr took five talent-deprived ragamuffins off the streets of Boston and transformed them into New Kids on the Block, naysayers exist. There are those who believe that the Florida Marlins and their nine hot young pitchers haven't accomplished nearly enough to evoke comparisons to the great boy groups. Only Ryan (Dempster), A.J. (Burnett), Brad (Penny) and Jason (Grilli) boast major league experience, and they've combined for a 38-39 record in 112 starts. Those are hardly Jackson 5-quality numbers. Not to mention Atlanta Braves-quality stats. Yet....
"I've been doing this for 22 years, and this is the best group of young arms that I've ever seen," says one American League scout. "These guys are as good as the Braves were when they exploded with Smoltz and Glavine and Avery. They all throw in the 90s, and they know how to pitch."
Shortly after Florida won the 1997 World Series, general manager Dave Dombrowski was ordered to slice the Marlins' $53 million payroll in half. Even though baseball's 29 other clubs knew he was dealing from a position of weakness, Dombrowski was still able to pick up top pitching prospects. Burnett, 24, slotted to be the Marlins' No. 4 starter this season, came from the New York Mets for lefthander Al Leiter. Penny, 22, No. 3 in the rotation, came from the Arizona Diamondbacks for righthander Matt Mantei. Grilli, 24, who's battling for the fifth spot in the rotation, came from the San Francisco Giants for righthander Livan Hernandez. Geoff Goetz, 21, the only lefthander in the gang, came with centerfielder Preston Wilson from the Mets in the blockbuster Mike Piazza swap. "If you wanted one of our players, fine, but you had to give us pitchers," says Dombrowski. "We were forced to make deals, but we weren't going to take just anyone. The more young arms you have, the better—that was the philosophy."
That's a line of thinking that worked to Florida's advantage even before the world championship run. On Aug. 25, 1995, Marlins scout Pablo Lantigua signed a skinny 16-year-old Dominican who lived in Santiago with his 10 brothers and sisters and knew no English; now 21, Claudio Vargas is ticketed to be one of Florida's future starters. In the '96 draft the Marlins used a fourth-round pick on Blaine Neal, a 6'5", 205-pound pitcher-first baseman with a bad elbow from Haddon Heights, N.J.; now, at 22, he's an eventual heir to closer Antonio Alfonseca. The following year Florida spent a 14th-round pick on Wes Anderson, a rail-thin schoolboy from Pine Bluff, Ark.; now 21, he could be in the starting rotation in 2002.
Then, after slashing their payroll, the Marlins went 54-108 in 1998 and got the second pick in the '99 draft. Dombrowski selected Josh Beckett, a tobacco-chewing, gunslinging, 20-year-old flamethrower from Spring, Texas, and signed him to a four-year, $7 million contract. With all its other talented young arms, Florida can afford to bring Beckett along slowly. "We're in no rush with Josh," says Dombrowski. "He has star potential, and you have to be careful with that."
Of the nine pitchers, the first to turn into a major league gem was Dempster, whom Dombrowski acquired in August 1996 from the Texas Rangers (along with starter Rick Helling) for veteran righthander John Burkett. Dempster was a so-so Class A starter, and the trade barely registered on the baseball radar. Florida still had a healthy budget for players back then and, in Leiter, Kevin Brown, Robb Nen and Pat Rapp, a stable of productive pitchers. Dempster was raised in Gibsons, B.C., a hockey-crazy town outside Vancouver. At 15, he would take a 40-minute ferry ride, followed by an hour bus ride, to practice with his club team, the North Shore Twins, because his high school didn't field a baseball team. "Every year his teacher would ask Ryan what he wanted to be when he grew up, and every year he said the same thing: a baseball player," says Ryan's father, Wally. "His last year in high school I asked him what his plans would be if baseball didn't work out. He said, 'What do you mean?' "
His fallback career might have been stand-up comedian. Upon request Dempster can run off a string of dead-on impressions, from Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy to Mike Myers in Austin Powers. Last season, he took a ride down Bernie Brewer's beer slide at Milwaukee County Stadium and, in Cincinnati, disguised himself as a member of the grounds crew and raked the infield. Later in the season during a game played in 30� weather in Denver, he roasted a hot dog on the dugout heater. As a magician he takes great pride in transforming a $100 bill into a $1 bill. "I enjoy my life because I love what I do and I love the people I'm surrounded by," he says. "I'd like to find anyone who has more fun."