Marlins left fielder Jeff Conine was nervous as he stepped to the plate on July 11, 1995. He was 29 years old and in his third full Big League season, with more than a thousand plate appearances behind him. But this was different. It was his first at-bat in an
Marlins left fielder Jeff Conine was nervous as he stepped to the plate on July 11, 1995. He was 29 years old and in his third full Big League season, with more than a thousand plate appearances behind him. But this was different. It was his first at-bat in an All-Star Game. And he was leading off the top of the eighth as a pinch-hitter with the score tied at two, and facing a pitcher, Athletics right-hander Steve Ontiveros, he'd never faced before.
Two pitches later, the butterflies dissolved into euphoria. He drilled the second offering he saw through the hot Texas night and deep into the left-field bleachers at The Ballpark in Arlington. That blast ultimately gave the National League a 3-2 win.
Not long after, he was being interviewed by ABC's Lesley Visser on national television as he accepted the game's Most Valuable Player Award. "It was just surreal," he recalled.
Thanks to that moment and nearly a decade of others, Conine is known as Mr. Marlin. He was in the starting lineup for the franchise's inaugural game in 1993, going 4 for 4. He represented the team at two All-Star Games and remains the only player in the organization's history to be voted MVP of the Midsummer Classic. He was an integral part of both World Series championship teams, in 1997 and 2003. In 2008, at age 41, he signed a one-day contract so he could retire as a Marlin.
At 51, the longtime fan favorite is still with the club, and he's now in his ninth year as special assistant to the president. He also contributes pre- and postgame analysis for FOX Sports Florida. Naturally, then, he's thrilled the Marlins are hosting their first-ever All-Star Game.
"Absolutely," he said. "I get to be a part of it again. I didn't think I'd ever get a chance to be part of another All-Star Game. It's a special thing. Miami is an event town, and I think it's going to be a huge event here."
Conine's first All-Star nod came in 1994. Although disappointed that he didn't play at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, he enjoyed it immensely.
"I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole experience," he recalled with a laugh. "You walk into that locker room and you're looking at the jerseys that are hanging around. Just the collection of Ken Griffey Jr. and Ozzie Smith and Fred McGriff. Guys you tried to emulate. Guys you grew up watching and you feel like you've got to pinch yourself and say, 'Do I really belong here?' You never put yourself in that company. Or I never did, anyway."
Originally drafted by Kansas City in the 58th round in 1987, Conine made his Major League debut three years later. In the first inning of his second career game, while playing first base at Minnesota's Metrodome, he collided with the runner -- none other than Twins future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett -- as he attempted to corral a wide throw from third.
"Puckett kind of eyeballed me up and down because I'd just gotten called up. He goes, 'How much do you weigh, man?'" Conine said. "'I'm like, 'About 210.' He's like, 'I'm about 230. That could have been ugly.' And then he said welcome to the Big Leagues and congratulations. This is Kirby Puckett, you know?"
"Fast forward a couple years. I go to the National League (in the expansion draft). And I'm walking across the field [at the All-Star Game] to go to the team picture, and I hear someone yelling from across the field: 'Hey, Conine! Conine!' It was Kirby Puckett, and he says, 'What's the matter, man? You don't talk to the American League guys anymore?' And I thought, 'Holy cow, Kirby Puckett just yelled at me, wondering why I wasn't talking to him.' That was a pretty cool experience."
Even with that encounter behind him, hitting with the All-Star Game on the line a year later was surreal. In the top of the seventh, National League Manager Felipe Alou told him to get ready to bat for Ron Gant, the designated hitter. While he was in the on-deck circle, McGriff struck out to end the inning. Instead of left-hander Kenny Rogers, the right-handed batter would confront Ontiveros to begin the next inning -- a platoon disadvantage, especially given that Conine didn't have a book on the pitcher.
"I knew Ontiveros was coming in, so I started asking guys what he had, because I had never faced him before," Conine said. "[Giants third baseman] Matt Williams had seen him a couple times because of the San Francisco-Oakland [exhibition] series they had before the season started, and he told me he liked to throw a cutter. Cut fastballs were his main pitch. So that was the information I got going up there."
The outfielder decided to take all the way on the first pitch.
"And, sure enough, he throws me a cutter for a ball," he said. "I stepped out and I was thinking, 'All right, maybe I'll take another one just because I'm still nervous and I'll get another pitch under my belt. Because even if he throws a strike it's an even count.'
"Then, as I'm stepping back into the box, I'm thinking, 'Forget that. If I get something good to hit, I'm swinging.' Sure enough, he throws me an absolute gut fastball, cutter again, same pitch but lower. And I just reacted and hit it."
The rest of the game passed quickly and without much fanfare. Randy Myers nailed down the win in the ninth. The thought crossed Conine's mind that he might be in line for some hardware. After all, the NL had just three hits, and each a solo homer. His was the game-winner.
"I figured I might have a chance," he admitted. "I'm thinking, 'Well, if [Myers] closes out the game, shoot, I might get a trophy here.' And sure enough, as soon as the last pitch was made and we won, I jumped out of the dugout and they came over to me immediately, stopped me and said, 'Hey, you've been selected as the All-Star MVP.'"
It's a moment Mr. Marlin will never forget. How could he? That trophy is prominently displayed in the loft area of his home, a daily reminder every time he enters the room.
This article appears in the 2017 MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Read more features on allstargame.com.
Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J. G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing.