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Ninety-Great: How Marlins’ Disastrous 1998 season Led to Their Second World Championship

While 1997 was a year marred by surprise and wonder, 1998 was anything but. Five years later, the franchise’s worst season would make for their best moment yet.

BBN-MARLINS-CARDINALS-LEYLAND Photo credit should read PETER NEWCOMB/AFP via Getty Images

When the then-Florida Marlins—then just a fifth-year expansion team—won the World Series in 1997, the joy that comes to the respective fanbase was short-lived.

Owner Wayne Huizenga had quickly given up on the concept of Miami being able to sustain a profitable major league franchise, claiming a loss of $34 million following the series win over the Cleveland Indians.

What followed were a slew of trades that would see the feel-good ‘97 team slowly dismantled.

Kevin Brown, the undisputed ace of the staff over the past two seasons, would find himself traded to San Diego Padres on December 15th of that year. Among the players in that haul, a young first basemen out of Sacramento, Derrek Lee, would be a integral part of their 2003 Championship team.

The pitching would only grow thinner at season’s end. Liván Hernández, the 1997 World Series MVP who was then just 23 years old, would be traded to the San Francisco Giants after the 1998 season, where he would help lead them to an NL Pennant of their own in 2002.

The team’s starting center fielder, Devon White, would depart for the newly established Arizona Diamondbacks via trade on November 18th, a mere 23 days after winning the World Series.

Two days later, first baseman Jeff Conine, the only original member of the inaugural ‘93 team, would be shipped back to Kansas City.

Right fielder Gary Sheffield, then the crown jewel of the franchise, would, along with starting catcher Charles Johnson and third baseman Bobby Bonilla, leave in a blockbuster swap for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile on May 14th. By then, the Fish were 14-28 and already cellar-dwellers in the NL East.

Mike Piazza #31

8 days and a mere 6 games later, Piazza would find himself on the move again, this time to the New York Mets where he would forever be embraced by an entire fanbase.

When all was said and done, the 1998 Marlins finished with a dismal 54-108 win-loss record, the worst such mark in franchise history.

However, silver linings were aplenty in what would normally be seen as a disastrous season. 1998 saw the debuts of shortstop Álex González, second baseman Luis Castillo, and backup catcher Mike Redmond. All three would be members of the next Marlins’ Championship squad.

But of all the positive that be drawn from an otherwise depressing display of baseball, the team’s performance in 1998 would net them the second overall pick in the following year’s first-year player draft.

After the Tampa Bay Rays selected outfielder Josh Hamilton as the first overall pick in the 1999 June Amateur Draft, the Marlins would select another Josh, this one, a pitcher out of Spring, Texas. His name was Josh Beckett.

Florida Marlins Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

A hard-throwing right-hander, Beckett, who earned the nickname “Kid Heat” by scouts and teammates, had a fastball that routinely touched the high-90s, topping out at 99 in his senior year.

“Good size, an overpowering fastball. His [mental] makeup is good. He’s a bulldog on the mound. We saw a lot of things we liked in him,” said then-General Manager Al Avila.

Following an arduous negotiation process, Beckett would sign with the team on August 28th and thus begin his journey to the big leagues.

After overpowering hitters in 2001 to the tune of a 14-1 record and a 1.54 ERA, the call to the show came on September 4, 2001, when he allowed one hit over six shutout innings versus the Chicago Cubs. In 24 innings in 2001, the 21-year old Beckett pitched to a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings. The future looked bright as Beckett was named the Marlins Minor League Player of the Year.

Hindered by blister issues in 2002, Beckett struggled in his first full-season, finishing the year with a 4.10 ERA over 107 23 innings. And while Beckett’s dealings with adversities sure didn’t help the team that season, the pieces were further falling into place for what would be an improbable season to come.

Third baseman Mike Lowell, who was acquired from the Yankees in February 1999, drove in 92 runs and hit 24 home runs en route to his first of four all-star appearances, following up a 2001 where he drove in 100 an posted hit 37 doubles.

2002 also saw A.J. Burnett post a 4 WAR season, finishing the year with 18 wins, 203 strikeouts and a solid 121 ERA+ (3.30 ERA). The team would finish 79-83 under manager Jeff Torborg, their best such mark since that fabled 1997 season, and possible signs of a brighter tomorrow after years of being viewed as a second-rate franchise.

That brighter tomorrow would fully-realize itself the following season.

After starting the 2003 season 16-22, Torborg was fired and replaced by Jack McKeon, a man with five decades of experience in professional baseball, 12 of which saw him managing at the major league level. Under McKeon, the team would catch fire, finishing the season 75-49, earning themselves a place against the defending NL Champion San Francisco Giants.

2003 would also see the arrival and culmination of some of the franchises’ most well-renowned names.

A 20-year old phenom, third baseman/outfielder Miguel Cabrera, would debut on June 20th and hit a walk-off home run in his first game.

Alex Gonzalez celebrates his home run Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Pitcher Dontrelle Willis arrived on May 9th, and walk away the winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award following a 14-6 W-L record, 127 ERA+ and 142 strikeouts over 160 23 innings pitched.

Fellow starter Mark Redman would turn in his best effort in 2003, finishing with a 3.59 ERA over 29 starts, winning 14 games in the process.

Center fielder Juan Pierre would play his first of four seasons with the Marlins in 2003, leading the NL in stolen bases (65), caught stealing (20), at bats (668), plate appearances (747), all while appearing in all 162 games played, a mark he would keep up for five consecutive years. Pierre, along with second baseman Luis Castillo—the owner of a .381 on-base percentage in ‘03—would form a manic 1-2 small-ball punch in the batting order.

Pierre hits Photo By Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

The previously mentioned Derrek Lee would turn in his best season to that point, as the first baseman finished 2003 with a slash line of .271/.379/.508/.888 and a then-career best 131 OPS+. Lee would also hit a then-career best 31 home runs and drive in 92.

The team also hit in free agency, bringing aboard arguably the game’s best backstop at the time, Ivan Rodriguez. The man affectionately known as “Pudge”—an ode to fellow Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk—would proceed to hit .297, and post a .369 on-base (120 OPS+).

But the impetus for the Marlins’ second inevitable run as well as the basis for this story, is that right-handed fire-baller out of Spring, Texas.

The opening day starter in 2003, Beckett found himself on the disabled list in mid-May with a sprained right elbow. Returning July 1st, Beckett would finish 2003 with a 9-8 record and solid 3.04 ERA. Come the postseason though, the 23-year old would forever etch his name in the hearts and minds of Marlins fans.

In the 2003 postseason, Beckett was stellar, limiting opponents to a .145 batting average, all while pitching to a 2.11 ERA. In Game 1 of the 2003 NLDS on September 30th, Beckett authored 7 innings of 1 run ball, striking out 9, though the team would lose 2-0.

Rebounding from a difficult Game 1 of the NLCS against the heavily favored Chicago Cubs where he gave up 6 runs in 6 13 innings, Beckett pitched a 4-0 shutout in Game 5 on October 12th, only to come back on two days rest and pitch four innings of 1-run ball in the pennant clinching Game 7.

Next up were the New York Yankees, a team who would playing in their sixth World Series since 1996. Beckett wouldn’t appear until Game 3, losing a hard-fought matchup versus future hall of famer Mike Mussina. The Marlins’ ace allowed 2 runs over 7 innings, striking out 10 in a 6-0 loss.

With their backs now against the wall trailing the Yankees 2-1 in the series, it was up to the other names to keep the Marlins from giving New York its fifth title in 7 years.

A wild Game 4 was highlighted by the 20-year old Cabrera taking Roger Clemens—then in what appeared to be the final game of his career—deep in the same at-bat after the 5x Cy Young Award winner threw at the rookie’s head in the first inning, and a walk-off home run by shortstop Álex González. in the 12th inning.

After a gutsy performance by Brad Penny in Game 5, McKeon was tasked with calling upon a starter for the possible Game 6-clincher in Yankee Stadium. Starter Carl Pavano had pitched 8 innings in Game 4, thus making him theoretically unavailable, and the aforementioned Willis was relegated to bullpen duties for the series, leaving McKeon with only one real name to turn to; Josh Beckett, this time, on three days’ rest.

Fellow starter Andy Pettitte would match Beckett nearly pitch for pitch, but after 7 innings, the Louisiana-left hander had allowed 2 runs, albeit only 1 earned.

Florida Marlins’ Josh Beckett tags New York Yankees’ catcher Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

As for ‘JB,’ his performance in Game 6 stands as the most important in franchise history. Not only would Beckett deliver in what would be the most important game of his life to that point, but he went above-and-beyond expectations, authoring his second shutout of the postseason, blanking the Bronx Bombers 2-0 and securing the franchises’ second World Series championship.

October 25, 2003 was the culmination of five years of wallowing in the wake of a World Series win that no one at the outset of the 1997 season had foreseen.

Losing 100-plus games over the course of a season is disheartening, but, especially today, when many front offices across the sport are emphasizing a tanking strategy to build up the necessary prospect capital to compete, the 2003 Marlins are one of the earliest versions of this modern-brand of baseball.

Were it not for owner Wayne Huizenga’s qualms about baseball in Miami and the eventual fire sale that ensued, Josh Beckett may’ve never donned a Marlins uniform. Were it not for trading former number one overall pick Adrián González for Ugueth Urbina, the team wouldn’t have had the reliever who saved 4 of their 11 wins in the postseason, and pitched to a 1.41 ERA in 33 regular season games.

The point here stands as such; in order for one to achieve success in this game, particularly from a front office standpoint, sacrifices must be made to ensure at least a competitive chance at winning baseball’s most heralded award.

Love or hate the Marlins for the slew of talent that has come and gone faster than you or I can blink, one can argue neither of us would trade any of those moves for what 2003 brought us. That makes all of those frustrations entirely worth it.

Florida Marlins’ manager Jack McKeon gets a big hug after th Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images