Classic seasons: Marlins' first title in 1997

May 18th, 2020

MIAMI -- As the Marlins' manager in 1997, Jim Leyland often spent his down time watching a classic sports underdog story.

“I remember Jim Leyland and his staff, they loved to sit in his office and watch 'Hoosiers,'” recalls longtime Fox Sports Florida television analyst Tommy Hutton.

There certainly was something relatable for Leyland to the story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team beating the odds and winning the state championship, because the ’97 Marlins were given little chance to win it all.

As an organization, the Marlins began play in 1993 and entered '97 with four straight losing seasons.

Leyland was already established as a big league manager with the Pirates, and his mission was to do more than help the young franchise develop. He was hired to turn the team into a contender.

Leyland took over a roster that included several star free agents who were mixed in with a few elite young players. Team owner H. Wayne Huizenga increased the payroll and allowed general manager Dave Dombrowski more resources to put together a realistic championship-caliber team.

In the offseason, the Marlins signed Alex Fernandez to bolster the rotation and added two proven hitters in Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou. They joined a core that included starters Kevin Brown and Al Leiter, and position players Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson and Jeff Conine.

“It was just a good solid team,” Hutton said. “You had what you needed in a season like that. You had good veterans.”

Even with an abundance of talent, Leyland’s squad overcame the odds and became unexpected World Series champions.

How the year played out is well-documented, with Game 7 going down as an all-time classic. Edgar Renteria, then 21, slapped a soft single to center off Charles Nagy, and Craig Counsell dashed home with the decisive run, giving the Marlins a 3-2 victory in 11 innings and bringing a World Series title to South Florida.

“It was a great feeling for me, being a hometown guy in this area and going to school at the University of Miami,” Johnson said in a TV interview at a 2017 reunion honoring the 1997 club. “And having the opportunity to win a World Series -- that, there, was absolutely amazing to me.”

The 1997 Marlins are a historically significant squad. They were MLB’s first Wild Card club to win the World Series, and no expansion franchise until that point had won the title as early as its fifth season. That distinction has since gone to the 2001 D-backs, champions in their fourth season.

The Marlins' meteoric rise was a result of Dombrowski and his staff, along with Leyland and his staff, getting everything to click that year.

After finishing 80-82 in 1996, Huizenga bumped up the payroll in ’97 to $53 million, which was a 33% increase from the year before.

From the moment the Marlins stepped on the field in Spring Training, it was clear they meant business. Granted, Grapefruit League games don’t count toward the regular season, but the Marlins went 26-5 that spring and showed no signs of slowing down once the regular season started.

The Marlins hit the ground running, starting off 8-1.

Fernandez was a star in the rotation, winning 17 games, but the right-hander wasn’t available in the World Series due to a right rotator cuff injury.

Kevin Brown went 16-8 with a 2.69 ERA, and he set a franchise record with 205 strikeouts (long since broken).

Brown’s signature performance came on June 10 at Candlestick Park, where he no-hit the Giants in a 9-0 win.

Behind the plate, Johnson became MLB’s first everyday catcher to go through the entire season without committing an error.

Closer Robb Nen finished with 35 saves, and reliever Dennis Cook was a key addition, logging 62 1/3 innings. At the plate, Cook was a threat as well, going 5-for-9 with a home run. Occasionally, Leyland used Cook as a pinch-hitter.

The offense was paced by Alou (23 homers, 115 RBIs), Sheffield (21 homers) and Bonilla (17 homers, 96 RBIs).

A couple of July trades proved crucial. Counsell was acquired from the Rockies on July 27 for Mark Hutton, and he played regularly over Luis Castillo in the final months.

On July 21, Darren Daulton was obtained from the Phillies for Billy McMillon.

On two sore knees, Daulton provided a significant spark. In the clubhouse, he was demanding and initially called out teammates in a meeting days after he arrived.

“It was a really big emotional change when Daulton came in,” Johnson said.

Tommy Hutton added: “When they got Darren Daulton, that gave them a little infusion of what it was really like to win. That guy ran down the line hard all the time. He was hurt. His knees at that time were really shot.”

The ’97 Marlins finished 92-70, which remains the best season record in franchise history. Still, they ended up nine games behind the Braves (101-61) in the National League East.

But in the NL Championship Series, the Marlins eliminated the Braves in six games. The headline performance came in Game 5 when Liván Hernández, a rookie, struck out 15 while going the distance in a 2-1 victory. Hernández, who won the NLCS MVP Award, benefited from a generous strike zone from umpire Eric Gregg.

The 15 strikeouts are tied with Roger Clemens (2000) and Mike Mussina (1997) for the most in an LCS game.

Hernández’s heroics carried over into the World Series, as the rookie won two games and took home MVP honors again.

“Livan came to our team at the right time,” Johnson said. “And he brought that thrill of pitching.”

While Hernández was the World Series MVP, it was another Marlins rookie who delivered the most memorable moment. Renteria's walk-off single in Game 7 is arguably the franchise's most famous hit.

The way Renteria’s soft single skipped into center prompted Hernández to say at the 2017 reunion: “It was like we were supposed to win the World Series.”

To all of South Florida and Marlins fans everywhere, Hernández delivered the most memorable line of the World Series. On national television, he held up his MVP trophy and announced: “I love you, Miami!”