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."
The Big Cat had become the Big Catastrophe, but Rocky general manager Bob Gebhard saw him as a risk worth taking. For one thing, Galarraga did hit .301 over his final 45 games with St. Louis. And even if he didn't approach that average again, Galarraga would provide Colorado with solid defense at first base and leadership in the clubhouse.
The next morning, before the draft convened, Gebhard resumed shopping at baseball's garage sale. He ran into Milwaukee Brewer general manager Sal Bando at a bank of elevators in the hotel where the draft was being held and quickly struck a deal: Colorado would draft Kevin Reimer, a lefthanded DH from the Texas Rangers, and trade him to Milwaukee for Bichette, an outfielder who had shown he could hit for average and with decent power—but never in the same season. Within 24 hours Gebhard had bagged two hitters for the middle of his lineup.
Baylor knew Galarraga was a tireless worker who needed to reengineer his hitting mechanics. He suggested in spring training last year that Galarraga hit out of an open stance so grossly exaggerated that his belt buckle faced the pitcher. The idea was to give Galarraga a better look at the ball and to encourage him to hit to the opposite field, and the results were dramatic: Galarraga won the National League batting title last year with a .370 average. While he's off to a solid start this year, he has his eye on a different title. "I'd love to be the RBI champion," he said. "If I do that, I'm helping my team even more than by winning the batting title."
Baylor knew that Bichette, whom he had tutored as a coach with the Brewers in 1991, needed to work more on his approach to the game than on his mechanics. Bichette had never batted more than 445 times in a season, partly because he enjoyed keeping late hours. "I told him he had to quit messing around at night and get some rest," Baylor says. "Lots of guys want to play every day, but they have to have a commitment to play every day. Dante was like Sheffield; they had terrible stats in day games. I knew this, though: Dante bought every book on hitting that he could. He wanted to learn."
With 538 at bats last year, Bichette hit .310, finished fourth in the league in extra-base hits, with 69, and scored an expansion-record 93 runs. He has continued to hit for a high average this year (.308 through Sunday) while adding more power. His 11 home runs through Sunday put him on track to surpass the career-high 21 he hit last year. "The difference with Colorado is that I have two things I never had before," he says. "One, I have the chance to play every day. And two, I have a manager who has confidence in me."
One other thing: He's mixing in a little shut-eye now too. Last week in San Francisco, Bichette showed Baylor a package of Rocky statistics with the eagerness of a child bringing home a favorable report card. The page marked VS. ALL TEAMS, DAY GAMES revealed that Bichette was hitting .339.
With the money generated by the Rockies' major-league-record turnstile count in 1993 (4,485,350) burning a hole in his pocket, Gebhard continued to search for veterans last winter. "We felt like we owed it to our fans after the support they gave us," he says. Gebhard wanted a pitcher to bolster what continues to be an abysmal staff, but he struck out in his bid to sign Mark Portugal. The high altitude of Denver is proving to be a hindrance to attracting pitchers. "All it takes is for one pitcher to have success with us, and others will come," Gebhard says.
When he couldn't land a quality starter, Gebhard snapped up free-agent position players Burks, Weiss and Howard Johnson, all of whom had been hobbled by injuries in recent years. Burks and Weiss, like Galarraga and Bichette, also had Baylor connections: They were his teammates when he played with the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics, respectively.
The signings of Burks and Weiss cost the Rockies two high picks in the upcoming June amateur draft, a penalty the Marlins—who worship player development and have the fifth pick next month—wouldn't dare consider. Colorado did improve itself immediately, even if Johnson has been a bust so far. Burks and Weiss have lent juice to the batting order and, more important, upgraded a Rocky defense that was the league's worst in '93.
Burks is playing a fine centerfield while hitting with the same pop he showed with the Red Sox before a bulging disk sidelined him for most of 1992. "So far this league's been wonderful for me," he says. "I know it won't last like this, but I'll ride it as long as I can."
Says Sheffield, "I look at Galarraga being surrounded in that lineup, and I don't get jealous, I get irritated. We have the money. Why can't we do it?"
Colorado's shopping spree last winter didn't play well in Miami, where the Marlins' biggest off-season move was the signing of utilityman Jerry Browne. "Let's just say we got more abuse than applause," Florida general manager David Dombrowski says. "People need to be patient."
Fact is, the fans of South Florida have shown themselves to be a tough crowd. Pitcher Dave Weathers, despite winning five of his first six decisions, was booed during a rough outing last week. And while still averaging 33,806 this season, the Marlins' attendance was down 150,177 through their first 20 dates, the biggest drop-off in baseball. Florida is on pace to draw 2.7 million fans—a good turnout, but well short of the three million club president Don Smiley had expected after last year's total of 3.06 million. "The honeymoon is over," Smiley says, "and that has translated to fewer tickets sold than at this time last year. Now we're a four-sport town." Ah, yes. With the Florida Panthers around, you can't get a captive audience in the land of palm trees until the hockey season ends.
The Marlins are actually a more entertaining club this season than last. Unlike Colorado, Florida has some pitchers who have prospered. Starters Weathers, Chris Hammond—who on Sunday extended his scoreless-inning streak to 22—and Pat Rapp were a combined 12-6 at week's end. The bullpen has survived an elbow injury to closer Bryan Harvey with the emergence of Jeremy Hernandez, who gained his eighth save on Sunday in what was his seventh straight appearance without giving up a hit. Also, this year the Marlins have Sheffield, whom they acquired in a trade last June, for a full season (though he is currently on the disabled list with a bruised shoulder and will remain there for another week); improved power from Jeff Conine, who as of Sunday had eight homers after hitting 12 all of last year; and a fast start from their customized Carr, baseball's grand style master, who may be the most irritating player in the game.
"I have ongoing conversations with players who, when they get on base, ask me, 'How can you stand that guy?' " Marlin third baseman Dave Magadan says.
The switch-hitting Carr has an oddly flamboyant act for someone who, at 25, is already playing for his fifth organization. When he steps into the box, he wears a diamond-encrusted 21 in his left ear, a thick gold necklace that dangles outside his shirt, one black batting glove and one white, two thick wristbands and rolled-up shirtsleeves that bare his biceps. Batting righthanded, he imitates the fierce bat waggling of his friend Sheffield, though at 5'10" and with four career home runs, Carr presents a somewhat less menacing image for pitchers. In the field he wears wraparound, mirrored sunglasses on his cap rather than over his eyes, where they might actually do some good.
"My job is to disturb the other team," says Carr. "If I can do that, then I've taken them out of their game plan." The Human Diversion is succeeding often, as evidenced by his 15 steals at week's end (he had yet to be caught) and his hefty batting average. Carr had back-to-back three-hit games against the Cubs last Saturday and Sunday. "I can't count the number of times I've seen a pitcher hang a breaking ball or throw a belt-high fastball down the middle to him because they get so tense trying to get him out," Magadan says. "They want to get him out so badly that it works against them."
While in Chicago, Carr passed on an opportunity to watch the Bulls host the New York Knicks in Game 3 of their NBA playoff. "I hate sports," he says. Sheffield, along with several of his teammates, did use tickets provided by the Bulls. And how far above the court was the cornerstone player of a second-year franchise seated? "I've been up there before," Sheffield says, "but I was right behind one of the baskets this time." The Marlins, it seems, are gaining respect in any league.