Marlins' journey began 30 years ago
Club celebrates anniversary by hosting expansion partner Rockies
MIAMI -- June 10, 2021, isn't the typical Thursday on the calendar.
Thirty years ago to the day, then-MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent announced Denver and South Florida as the two areas chosen by the expansion committee to receive franchises. By happenstance, the Rockies and Marlins marked the anniversary by playing each other at loanDepot park.
“Looking back now, 30 years later, it was fun,” said Fredi González, who would become the first Minor League manager in franchise history. “To be able to have your fingerprint, probably more David [Dombrowski] and the guys in the front office, on an organization, you can't be any more bare bones than that. 'Here, you start an organization; go do it.' That's got to be fun."
From 1985-89, progress was made for the National League to expand by two teams. Like the rest of the industry, Dombrowski, then GM of the Expos, was aware of the potential expansion. The establishment of new franchises hadn't happened since '77, when Seattle and Toronto began play in the American League.
"At that time, there were individuals who had been involved in the previous expansion -- people like Pat Gillick [with the Blue Jays], John Schuerholz [with the Royals in 1969] -- that you got a pulse of how exciting it was even for myself," Dombrowski said. “But I think there was a lot of curiosity because not many of us had been exposed to expansion."
In mid-1990, Dean Jordan, who was VP of broadcasting and advertising sales for the Pirates, was told by the late Carl Barger that his friend, Wayne Huizenga, would be pursuing a bid. Barger, who was the Bucs' president and a top attorney, had represented the late Huizenga in a number of businesses, including Blockbuster Video and Waste Management, Inc. Having bought 15% of the NFL's Miami Dolphins and 50% of the stake in Joe Robbie Stadium, Huizenga realized he needed more events there.
That March, Huizenga stated his intention to pursue an expansion franchise. By December, the NL had unveiled a list of six possible sites. South Florida was included, along with Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Denver, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. From the South Florida interests, Huizenga's group was chosen.
"Carl kind of painted a roadmap for it. 'This is what you've got to do, there's competition. Here's what I suggest,' so on and so forth,” Jordan said. “You pretty much knew Florida was going to get a team. It was just a matter of, where's it going to go? Tampa, Orlando or South Florida? And of all those entities, Wayne was the only one who could write the check by himself and was willing to write a check by himself, and that's real attractive. Plus, Wayne owned at least half the stadium at the time, and they all knew he would own the rest of it eventually. He had a plan for how he was going to retrofit it and how you could make Joe Robbie look like a ballpark. By that point in time, it was really Wayne's to lose."
Barger left the Bucs on July 8, and after the Pirates lost to Atlanta that October, Jordan joined the Marlins as senior VP of communications.
During that first year on the job, Jordan had his fingerprints on everything from ticket packages to the hiring of a PR staff. Since the Marlins didn't have offices at Joe Robbie Stadium, they set up shop on the third floor of the Comerica Bank Building on Third Avenue in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
"With Wayne, everything was so ceremonial -- first of this, first of that,” Jordan said. "Retrofitting the stadium, it was constant go, go, go. It was awesome. It was the best time of my life."
Dombrowski, named executive VP and GM of the Marlins on Sept. 18, knew Barger through Jim Leyland, who overlapped with Dombrowski's tenure with the White Sox and was the then-manager of the Pirates. Leyland later became the Marlins' skipper in 1997 and won the World Series.
Barger asked Dombrowski for possible GM candidates and remained in touch during the search. Dombrowski got the sense the Marlins were interested in him taking it. He eventually did.
"When I looked at reasons why I thought you could be successful there, first of all, you had a commitment of ownership," said Dombrowski, who is currently the president of baseball operations for the Phillies. "Unfortunately, Carl passed away very quickly [in 1992], but [he was] a very committed club president who wanted to win, who's involved in baseball. We have a new franchise, you have a warm-weather franchise, there's a lot of players from South Florida themselves -- you'd think they would want to play with the Florida club. You had the diversity of the population there -- maybe not as diverse as it is now -- but when you looked at Miami, [it was] a very appealing situation in many of those areas.
"[There’s] a lot of Spanish spoken, [so it could be] very appealing for individuals from, say, Latin America, if they decided to come. We're very close to Latin America with a lot of great players. I thought it was great in the sense that you could have players live there all year long with the warm weather. We had a great situation with Spring Training, because it was only a couple hours away, so people could drive back and forth. When you start looking at all the reasons why you could be successful, they were all there, and you also had the ability to build a franchise from the very beginning."
Dombrowski's first order of business was formulating a front office with people from across the industry. Frank Wren (assistant GM) and John Boles (VP of player development) joined him in Florida. González, who was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami, was hired as the Marlins' first Minor League manager in November.
A new franchise also meant the need to find players. Around 600 people attended open tryouts held at the Bucky Dent Baseball School in Delray Beach, Fla. González flew to Arizona and watched talent over there. The organization even sent González to see future Major Leaguer Todd Helton in Knoxville, Tenn.
The club later selected Charles Johnson (University of Miami) with its first Draft pick in 1992 and opened the expansion Draft that fall by selecting outfielder Nigel Wilson.
The payoff to all this work came in 1993, when the Marlins drew more than 3 million fans in their inaugural season.
"Dave is trying to build the front office, and Boles is trying to build the player development, and Gary Hughes is building the scouting infrastructure," said González, who managed the Marlins from 2007-10 and is now a coach for the Orioles. "There was a really tight group of people that, for the most part, we've all stayed in touch.”