1997 Marlins: Wild Card to World Series champs

20 years before hosting their first ASG, the Marlins sailed through uncharted territory in their postseason debut

June 26th, 2017

At the stroke of midnight on Oct. 27, 1997, one of MLB's most improbable coronations occurred. The Florida Marlins, in just their fifth year of existence, had risen from expansion unknowns to Big League kings.
Until the historic final game, which the Marlins won, 3-2, in 11 innings over the Cleveland Indians, the 93rd rendition of the World Series was hardly a classic. But that all changed in the winner-take-all Series finale at Pro Player Stadium in Miami: a grueling, four-hour, 10-minute baseball marathon that was celebrated in walk-off fashion.
To Marlins fans, the image that will endure forever is of Edgar Renteria's soft liner off Charles Nagy, which snuck its way into center field. Dashing home was Craig Counsell, who famously leapt into the air, pumping his fists as he touched the plate and thus sending South Florida into delirium and the Marlins to the postgame podium as champs. The magnitude of the moment was summed up so profoundly by then-Marlins radio broadcaster Joe Angel, who proclaimed: "A 5-year-old child has become king!"

Timing, they say, is everything. on that magical night in Miami, the timing was amazingly prophetic for the Marlins and their third base coach, Rich Donnelly, who waved Counsell home with the Series-clinching run as the game threatened to creep into the wee hours of the morning.
Counsell, who was then just beginning his career, had earned the nickname "The Chicken" because of the way he flapped his left elbow at the plate. Strangely enough, a silly saying in the Donnelly household was "The chicken runs at midnight." Years before the World Series title, Rich's daughter Amy had asked her father, then a coach with the Pirates, what he was yelling to a runner. His response? "The chicken runs at midnight." 
In 1992, Amy was diagnosed with a brain tumor during Spring Training. She died nine months later at just 18 years old. So for Donnelly, the coincidence of Counsell, the metaphorical chicken, scoring at precisely midnight really touched home, as if it was by fate. 
The 1997 World Series, though, had plenty of twists and turns that led to that point. Before the drama of Game 7, the Series had been widely panned. The games were long and plodding. Pitchers from both squads labored, issuing 76 walks and allowing 81 runs.
Game 3 at Jacobs Field in Cleveland was played in blustery conditions. The wind-chill factor was 15 degrees, making it the coldest game in World Series history. Through the sloppy play and unseasonably-cold weather, the '97 Marlins managed to find a way.
Miami Manager Jim Leyland, who during his decade-long tenure with the Pirates had come up just short of reaching the World Series three times, pushed all the right buttons, and his Fish responded.
When the Marlins dispatched of the Giants in three games in the NLDS, they became the third franchise in MLB history to sweep its first ever playoff series. The most recent team to have done that was the 1969 Mets, who eliminated the Braves seven years after their inception. Before that, you had to go all the way back to the Boston Braves, who in 1914 made quick work of the Philadelphia A's.
Following its Division Series sweep, though, the NLCS proved more difficult for Florida. The series against Atlanta was knotted at two games apiece until the Marlins broke things open to win the final two contests. In the World Series, the Marlins were matched up against a loaded Indians squad that hadn't won a title since 1948. Both teams had their chances in the back-and-forth affair, which culminated in the Game 7 showdown in Miami.
Game 1
Oct. 18 at Pro Player Stadium; Marlins win, 7-4

Right-hander Livan Hernandez, just 22 years old at the time, earned the win, while veteran ace Orel Hershiser suffered the loss in the Series opener. Cleveland struck early with a run in the first inning on a Bip Roberts double and a David Justice RBI single. The Marlins tied it in the third inning, on a play that featured a little foreshadowing: Edgar Renteria connected for an RBI groundout, scoring, guess who? Craig Counsell.
Miami broke the game open in the fourth inning when Moises Alou belted a three-run homer, and Charles Johnson followed with a solo shot. Despite a Cleveland comeback attempt via homers from Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome, Florida prevailed.
Game 2  
Oct. 19 at Pro Player Stadium; Indians win, 6-1
Behind Chad Ogea's 6.2 innings of one-run ball, the Indians took care of business with a five-run win on the road. In the sixth inning, Sandy Alomar homered off Kevin Brown -- the fourth overall pick of the 1986 Draft, who signed with Florida as a free agent before the '97 season -- and Cleveland never looked back.
Game 3 
Oct. 21 at Jacobs Field; Marlins win, 14-11

Florida outslugged the Indians on the aforementioned frosty night, which unfortunately brought with it a four-hour, 12-minute duel. Players on both squads bundled up, but neither team's offense cooled down with the 15-degree wind chill. The Indians led, 7-3, after five innings, and were primed to swipe the contest out of the Florida players' frigid fingers. But the Fish battled through the elements to tie things up. Entering the ninth, the score was still tied, but in that frame alone, the Marlins pushed across seven more runs. The Indians countered with four in the ninth before Omar Vizquel bounced out to second to put the game on ice as Florida hung on for a 2-games-to-1 Series lead.
Game 4 
Oct. 22 at Jacobs Field; Indians win, 10-3
It was all Indians in a 10-3 rout, as Jaret Wright took the decision over Tony Saunders. Manny Ramirez had a first-inning homer and Matt Williams also went deep, evening the Series at two games apiece.
Game 5  
Oct. 23 at Jacobs Field; Marlins win, 8-7
In a crucial swing game, the Marlins held on for an 8-7 victory. Livan Hernandez was credited with his second win of the Series, but it wasn't easy. The righty labored, recording just two K's and surrendering six runs over eight innings. Hernandez had the chance to go the distance, but after the first two batters reached in the ninth, Robb Nen came on in relief. Although he allowed two runs, it was enough to secure the save. Moises Alou contributed a key three-run homer for Florida in the W.
Game 6 
Oct. 25 at Pro Player Stadium; Indians win, 4-1
The alternating of wins continued, and the Indians stayed alive in front of 67,498 eager Marlins fans waiting to see if the club could clinch its first World Series title. Chad Ogea stepped up again, getting the best of Kevin Brown for the second time in the series. 
Ogea helped his cause with a double, contributing to Cleveland's four-run lead in the fifth inning and helping the team to extend the Series another day.
Game 7 
Oct. 26 at Pro Player Stadium; Marlins win, 3-2
The final game of the Series was something special. For just the fourth time in history, a winner-take-all Fall Classic game went into extra innings. 
Tony Fernandez knocked a two-run single off Marlins starter Al Leiter in the third inning, and the way Jaret Wright was pitching -- seven K's to just two hits over 6.1 innings -- it appeared that the lone knock would be enough for an Indians victory. But Bobby Bonilla gave the Marlins hope in the seventh with a homer off Wright, setting up some drama for the bottom of the ninth.
Moises Alou singled off Jose Mesa and took third on Charles Johnson's single to right. With runners on the corners, Craig Counsell lifted the game-tying sacrifice fly to send the contest into extras.
In the 11th inning, Fernandez made a crucial error on Counsell's roller to second. After Counsell reached third on Devon White's groundout, Edgar Renteria provided the heroics with his knock up the middle. Although Livan Hernandez was named World Series MVP, the 21-year-old Renteria had shown nerves of steel.
"Edgar [and I] played A-ball together," recalled Charles Johnson. "He was a really young kid playing shortstop, and to see him get that big hit in the World Series was tremendous."
The '97 Marlins were also historic trailblazers in another fashion. They were the first club to qualify for the playoffs as a Wild Card winner and go on to become World Series champions. After winning the crown, Hernandez issued a short yet sweet statement during his postgame interview: "I love you, Miami."
"I was so excited that night," the Cuba-born Hernandez recalls. "That was [a thank you for] everyone. We cut the interview right away, and continued to party."
This article appears in the 2017 MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Read more features on allstargame.com.