“Life is a journey, not a destination.” American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson passed away in 1882, far too soon to enjoy the 1997 Florida Marlins. Even so, his quote seems applicable here. Twenty years removed from that championship, we’ll be reliving their peaks and valleys through the team’s Five Thirty Eight Elo ratings.
You can’t win a World Series in April, but starting off slowly enough can take you out of contention right off the bat. The Marlins learned that in 1996.
Through April 11th of the previous season, Florida owned a 3-7 record and MLB-worst minus-27 run differential, and that’s before playing a single game against the defending champion Atlanta Braves. They would sink to 10 games below .500 on Cinco de Mayo, fire manager Rene Lachemann before the All-Star break and still finish with the best record in franchise history (80-82).
Fortunately, several impact players emerged from that uneven summer. Kevin Brown and Al Leiter (combined 2.23 ERA, 7 CG in 448.1 IP) were everything you could ever want at the top of the starting rotation. National League Gold Glove winner Charles Johnson was the perfect battery mate for them, a 25-year-old who was only likely to continue improving. Gary Sheffield (.314/.465/.624, 42 HR in 161 G) was baseball’s best offensive weapon this side of Barry Bonds. All of them were set to return in 1997, so expectations were understandably high.
Speaking of Bonds, the club brought in his former Pittsburgh Pirates manager, Jim Leyland, to oversee this talented core. But that alone wasn’t going to guarantee anything—there were still obvious lineup holes and a lack of depth on the pitching staff. The Marlins relied heavily on free agency to address these needs, quickly signing Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Alex Fernandez.
The investment paid off immediately. Alou homered in his Florida debut against the Chicago Cubs in front of 41,412 optimistic fans at Pro Player Stadium. Every member of the lineup reached base at least once—Kevin Brown included!—and the Cubs recorded a lone single through eight innings as the Marlins earned a 4-2 victory.
An encouraging opener, but you really knew the 1997 season could be special when plays like this began going Florida’s way:
That’s from April 5th, when second-year shortstop Edgar Renteria looped a routine fly ball to shallow right-center field. He could’ve taken his usual home run trot and still circled the bases standing up. Down by one in the bottom of the ninth, this tied the score at three in a game the Marlins eventually won in extra innings.
That marked the start of a new winning streak, which continued through April 11th, when the team met the Cincinnati Reds again—this time at Cinergy Field—and annihilated them, 10-0. With an 8-1 record, the Marlins’ Elo rating climbed to 1,520, establishing a new franchise best.
Their top individual performers up to that point included Brown (0.64 ERA in 14.0 IP), Alou (.344/.389/.563 in 36 PA), Sheffield (.273/.585/.545 in 41 PA) and Jeff Conine (.484/.568/.710 in 37 PA).