“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.
If you take two out of three games from the San Francisco Giants, but only 31,074 total fans are there to witness it, does it still count in the standings?
Apparently so. That sparsely attended yet successful series at Candlestick Park allowed the Marlins to seize control of the National League’s second-best record. It wrapped up their longest road trip of the season to date, and they returned home to a slightly different atmosphere.
This image was actually taken on Opening Day of the 1997 season, when there were 41,412 folks in attendance. With some help from the defending world-champion New York Yankees and the novelty of what would be the very first interleague series in franchise history, Pro Player Stadium squeezed even more butts in the seats for each game of this mid-June matchup.
The Yankees arrived in South Florida as the American League’s second-highest scoring club. Immediately, though, the Fish gave them a rude welcome to Senior Circuit rules. Lacking some lineup depth without the designated hitter that they had grown so accustomed to, the visitors couldn’t break through against Al Leiter on June 13 (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 8 K). He and six relievers held New York to a 1-for-13 performance with runners in scoring position. The Marlins wriggled out of enough jams to force extra innings, eventually sealing the 2-1 victory on Charles Johnson’s bases-loaded walk in the 12th.
Just as it seemed this team was equipped to handle any opponent, Mother Nature decided to remind everyone who’s really in charge. The middle game of the series was washed out, setting up a June 15 double-header (despite more rain in the forecast).
It would be remembered as a “distressing” Sunday by curmudgeons like Murray Chass of The New York Times. A long day of labor for media members was drawn out even further by weather delays. But the baseball itself was undeniably compelling.
In Game 1, the Marlins comfortably led 5-2 entering the eighth inning. The club’s two best setup men—Jay Powell and Dennis Cook—were called upon to seal the win. They entered with impressive season earned run averages of 1.98 and 1.08, respectively. Perhaps both were overdue for some regression; too bad it struck at the exact same time. The Yankees scored six unanswered runs (five charged to Powell and Cook in their 1 2⁄3 innings), and closer Mariano Rivera made the 8-5 score hold up.
Against well-rounded opponents, you need to seize even the most subtle advantages to hang with them. In this case, the Fish made Rivera throw 23 pitches in the bottom of the ninth. So when The Sandman entered to protect a one-run lead in Game 2, they sensed an opportunity.
For just the second time in his past 15 appearances, Rivera failed to record a strikeout, and the Marlins were able to capitalize. Shortstop Edgar Renteria started the rally with a one-out, infield single, his sixth time reaching base that day. Cliff Floyd followed with a bloop double, forcing the Yankees to intentionally walk Gary Sheffield and set up a potential series-ending double play. The series ended right there, but not in the way anyone envisioned. Second baseman Pat Kelly whiffed on Moises Alou’s ground ball, allowing Renteria and Floyd to score, reversing the assumed outcome in dramatic fashion.
Pennants aren’t solely determined by extended winning streaks. It’s equally important to know how to adjust after the most painful moments. In splitting the double-header, the Marlins continued a month-long trend of avoiding consecutive losses.
As you can see, that consistency kept them perched near top of the NL standings:
American League Standings (June 15, 1997)
National League Standings (June 15, 1997)