“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 as a reminder of the triumphs and adversity that all teams experience during a long season.
Jim Leyland had a lot of friends and fans in attendance when the Marlins manager brought his team to Pittsburgh for a weekend series at Three Rivers Stadium. Leyland worked the previous 11 seasons in the Steel City, winning more games in that ballpark than any other Pirates skipper ever would, a run that included three straight NL East titles (1990-1992). If not for new ownership’s decision to slash payroll and rebuild, he would’ve spent this clear, Sunday afternoon in the home dugout.
Instead, he was focused on extending the Fish’s winning streak another day without the services of Gary Sheffield. The dominant force at the heart of the 1996 lineup had landed on the disabled list earlier in the week with a sprained left thumb. Even when active, Sheffield hadn’t been his usual self at the plate (.190/.333/.321, 3 HR since April 18). Devon White also remained out following left knee surgery, forcing Leyland to get creative with his outfield alignment.
On May 18, that meant rookie Todd Dunwoody in left field, 38-year-old Jim Eisenreich in right and Moises Alou in between, despite just 21 career starts in center field prior to the season. With young left-hander Tony Saunders on the mound, this looked like a challenging matchup against an undermanned but motivated opponent.
The Marlins got everything they could’ve hoped for through five innings. Saunders issued zero walks for the first time as a major leaguer, and an otherwise struggling Edgar Renteria doubled and scored in the third to put the visitors ahead, 2-1.
Then, taking his turn at bat during the sixth inning, Saunders grounded out, suffering what would later be diagnosed as a partially torn knee ligament. His outing was over after 88 pitches. Rick Helling relieved him for three excellent frames, but closer Robb Nen stumbled in the ninth, surrendering a game-tying home run to Pittsburgh’s Midre Cummings. Fortunately, the offense bailed him out the next inning, when RBI singles by Gregg Zaun and Kurt Abbott sealed the 5-3 victory.
These unlikely heroes improved the club’s record to 26-16, a season-best 10 games over .500. It also wrapped up a 5-0 road trip (two straight wins over the Atlanta Braves in the previous series). No Marlins team had ever completed a perfect road trip of any length until this.
All of a sudden, a division title didn’t seem totally far-fetched. The Braves threatened to run away and hide after a sizzling 20-6 start, but now the Fish had narrowed the deficit to just three games. The May 18 nail-biter aside, they had been winning by comfortable margins, improving their run differential to plus-36 (third-best in the National League). Even the absences of several significant players—Luis Castillo and Al Leiter, in addition to those already mentioned—couldn’t slow them down.
These were the MLB standings following the end of that day’s game:
American League Standings
National League Standings
Heading back to Pro Player Stadium for a matchup with the New York Mets, the Marlins had made it a quarter of the way through the season looking like a legitimate challenger to Atlanta’s NL supremacy.