The Cubs-Marlins Game 5 last Sunday was pure thumb-screws for a Cubs fan. I had a nosebleed seat in right, and around the time 23-year-old Josh Beckett was spit-shining a honey of a two-hit shutout, Marlins fans took a break from their towel-twirling and began, with blithe entitlement, to decide whether they'd rather face the Red Sox or the Yankees in the World Series. A fan hogging my right armrest was hoping for the Yankees because if the Marlins were to beat Boston, they would have crushed the postseason dreams of the Red Sox, Cubs, and, dipping back to their inhumane 1997 Series win, the Indians, three of the most desperate losers in American sports. "We'd be the most hated team in baseball," he said, even before his magic fish went to Wrigley and unspooled two grossly improbable victories over the Cubs to actually win a trip to the stupid Series.
Well, the Yankees escaped from the Red Sox last night, setting off another celebration redolent of a Death Star block party. So the Marlins have the chance not only to beat the Yanks, but to, in the process, become the most insufferable team outside of those selfsame Bronx Bombers. Revilement is one thing—now the more immediate danger for the Marlins, never having paid their dues, is coming to hate themselves. For the sake of Florida fans, this team must be stopped.
Jilted Marlins fans would argue that they indeed did pay their karmic dues for winning in 1997—namely, 1998. That year team owner Wayne Huizenga halved his payroll, citing $34 million in losses the previous year. Gone were heroes Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Rob Nenn, Gary Sheffield, et al. In their place were eight rookie pitchers who led the way to a 52-108 record, the worst in baseball, 52 games out of first place in the National League East. Matters improved slowly in recent years as General Manager Dave Dombrowski, now with Detroit, gathered young talent with high draft picks. (Beckett was the No. 2 pick in 1999, for one.) The tipping point came this year when rookie call-ups Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera caught fire. Sensing a chance at a run, the club even went back and picked up Jeff Conine, an erstwhile casualty of the 1997 purge.
Where the Cubs and Red Sox are cursed with never winning the big game, the Marlins are cursed with never losing it. In playoff series, Florida is now 5-0 all-time, and I use that term loosely, considering the franchise started playing way back in 1993. Another title would be the second in six years. They've never lost a deciding game, never watched anyone but their Scrooge ex-owner rip out their guts. These are formative experiences for any fortified fan, and their absence is the No. 2 reason, behind that nefarious fire sale, why a recent World Series champion playing in the middle of 5 million people (including almost 2 million of Hispanic origin, many of whom serenade the team with that haunting "Maaaar-leeeeen" call) drew only 16,290 fans a game this season, third-lowest in the majors. (It was, however, a 60 percent increase from 2002.) Another World Series win, and what's the lesson for Fish fans? Come back in six years to pick up another commemorative hat?
Lost in the continual cursing of Huizenga is the fact that he did, blessedly, manage to buy the Marlins a fighting chance at a World Series. And for some Florida fans, lost in the astounding turnaround of the 2003 Marlins is the prospect that this team, too, will be torn apart after the season. Aging Pudge Rodriguez, he of the 16 postseason RBI, has only a one-year contract that the once-bitten skeptics predict will be allowed to expire. Beckett's gem in Game 5 had people immediately asking how long before he outgrows the team's payroll. The only way to save the Marlins, perhaps, is for them to get clobbered this week and have the owners bring everyone back for another run next year. Doomsday would be to win the whole shebang and again kick the best players to the curb. Presumably new owner Jeffrey Loria knows this and, despite Huizenga's continued stranglehold on the team's finances (he owns Pro Player Stadium, for one, and doesn't exactly give the Marlins a break on the rent), won't repeat the mistakes of 1998.
Back in that Game 5 on Sunday, as the pregame fireworks concluded from atop the Jumbotron, a smoldering black husk of debris that appeared to be some kind of spent shell tumbled past the upper deck, down toward the fans beyond the center field wall. I was expecting to see someone get plonked something awful. Instead, the hydrant-sized chunk landed on a strip of sidewalk amid the rows of seats, where an attendant picked it up a moment later. No biggie. Nothing ever is for the Marlins, who seem to dodge everything they don't duck. They've been both lucky and good for the last five months, and if they're even luckier, the Yankees will require precisely five games to pummel them into soul-crushing, character-building disappointment, clinching the title in front of a South Florida stadium brimming with New York transplants and snowbirds in full throat. Nothing better to inspire tepid Marlins fans to vow, MacArthur-style, to return, and demand their favorite players be allowed to do the same.