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Miami Hooked Again on Marlins

Blase about baseball a month ago, Floridians flock to celebrate their World Series champs.

October 29, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — In truth, they were not really the heroes of South Florida's long, sweltering summer, and as recently as last month, were managing to draw barely 10,000 fans a game.

But from the avenues of downtown Miami to the canals of Fort Lauderdale, Floridians turned out by the tens of thousands on a warm, muggy Tuesday to honor their new idols, who rallied from last place in the National League East Division to vanquish the heavily favored New York Yankees in the World Series.

"Let me tell you something, that Babe Ruth may have built the Yankee dynasty, but the magical Marlins are the champions of the world," Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas told a joyous bilingual rally in the champions' honor at Bayfront Park.

Players and coaches of the Florida Marlins, who two years ago seemed doomed by poor attendance and Major League Baseball's plan to liquidate two franchises, were paraded in convertibles down Flagler Street through Miami's heart. Fans, many wearing their team's hues of teal, black and white, lined the downtown artery and screamed and applauded. From the rooftops, people scattered two tons of shredded paper furnished by the city to approximate old-fashioned ticker tape.

"We shocked the world, baby! We did it!" center fielder Juan Pierre told one local television reporter from his perch on the back seat of a Chrysler Sebring.

It was a rare moment of shared communal joy in a metropolis where bad news has seemed in recent decades to overwhelm good, and because of language differences, many people literally can't communicate with one another. Significantly, there were three separate victory processions for the Marlins on Tuesday: one in Miami's downtown; a second through Little Havana, the historic Cuban neighborhood; and a third on a small flotilla of boats in the more white city of Fort Lauderdale to the north.

The downtown celebration brought together Venezuelan transplants hailing Marlins rookie outfielder Miguel Cabrera, perspiring lawyers in three-piece suits who'd skipped out from the federal courthouse for the morning, and at least one woman hollering, in perfectly understandable Spanglish, "We're numero uno!"

"The city of Miami, as cities go, is very new, without a long sense of history," said Abraham Lavender, professor of sociology and culture at Florida International University here. "If suffers from an underdog syndrome, being known for its high rate of poverty, corruption, and bad drivers -- we've been voted the rudest drivers in the nation two years in a row. So much attention has been paid to our bad points."

But, Miamians might remark to Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox fans, you don't need history if you have enough talent and luck. The Marlins baseball franchise, only 11 years old, has had just two seasons with more wins than losses -- and the Fish, as they are popularly known, have gone on to win the World Series both times.

But the first championship in 1997 was quickly followed by heartbreak as then-owner H. Wayne Huizenga sold or traded most of his star players. The next season, the Marlins plunged into last place -- losing 108 games and finishing 52 games behind the division winner -- and attendance went into a tailspin.

"This is not 1997. This is 2003," current owner Jeffrey Loria, a New York art dealer, told the Miami rally, in remarks guaranteed to make Marlins fans rejoice. "We are not dismantling."

More welcome news from the Marlins owner was that cigar-chomping Jack McKeon will be back as manager. In the spring, it probably seemed likelier to more Miamians that their city would be struck by a Force 5 hurricane than feting the winners of the World Series one day in late October. But the 72-year-old McKeon took command of the Marlins when Manager Jeff Torborg was fired in May, and piloted the club to the best record in baseball in the final four months of the season.

"Thank you for showing the world what Miami is all about, our strength of character, our diversity, our resilience, our ability to come together as one, look adversity in the eye, and beat what some may have thought were insurmountable odds," Miami Mayor Manny Diaz told the team Tuesday. Diaz confided that he was impatient to collect on a World Series bet with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg: pastrami sandwiches, Peking duck, lobster, roast pork and a cheesecake baked in Brooklyn.

Exactly where the Marlins will be playing in the future, and how many paying spectators will turn up to watch them, is the subject of tough negotiations that should intensify in the coming months.

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