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Joe Morgan: Fish still got it going on


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The Florida Marlins won last year's World Series as a wild-card underdog with a low payroll, and it's great for baseball that they're sustaining their success this season with a similar payroll ($41.1 million, 26th out of the 30 major-league teams).


This proves that if a franchise makes the right decisions and invests money wisely, a high payroll isn't necessary to contend and win a championship. Lots of GMs get credit for keeping their clubs in the pennant race with a low payroll. But the Marlins do it the old-fashioned way -- with good pitching, speed and defense. The Minnesota Twins follow the same formula.


The Marlins are a fun team to watch because they feature all the components of a quality club: great young pitchers, good defense (especially up the middle), speed and some power. Florida is a well-balanced ballclub with a manager who knows how to use all of the parts at his disposal.


It's been a year since Florida manager Jack McKeon was hired last May to replace Jeff Torborg, who was fired after a poor start. McKeon's impact far exceeded anyone's expectations.



After being hired in May 2003, Jack McKeon led the Marlins to the franchise's second World Series title.


McKeon: Old-school approach

McKeon was skipper of the the Cincinnati Reds from 1997-2000. When the Reds hired him, I said that the organization should have given a young minority candidate a chance.


At the time, I was thinking of quality baseball people like Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Davy Lopes and others. I wasn't downplaying McKeon's ability. I simply was supporting the principle of giving deserving minorities an opportunity instead of veteran managers who had already been at the helm of a major-league team.


Well, the 73-year-old McKeon made the most of his chance with the Reds, winning the 1999 NL manager-of-the-year award. The Red lost to the Mets in a one-game playoff that year to decide who would be the wild card.


McKeon certainly has made the most of his chance with the Marlins, too. Besides the World Series victory, he also won the NL manager-of-the-year award last year.


I still feel and will always feel that minority candidates for managing positions were overlooked during that time. But I'm pleased that McKeon has shown that old-school baseball still works in this era of standing around and waiting for the three-run homer.


Florida's old-school formula starts with leadoff hitter Juan Pierre and No. 2 hitter Luis Castillo getting on base. They were effective putting pressure on the Yankees in last year's World Series, and they've had continued success this season -- especially Pierre, who is batting .338 with 11 stolen bases.


In Pierre's Yankee Stadium debut last October, he led off Game 1 with a bunt single that started the Marlins on the road to the world championship. Pierre put pressure on the Yankees throughout the Series. It was tough for the Yankees to defend an aggressive team like the Marlins.


No computer necessary

McKeon's old-school approach extends to his view of technology.


I spoke with him earlier this season in conjunction with one of ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" broadcasts. He told me that he doesn't use computers because he knows his players -- and he manages the game accordingly.


McKeon said that if you're going to rely solely on computers and statistics, you might as well have a computer in the dugout managing the game, providing a printout before every pitch.


It was interesting to hear his managerial approach, especially in this new age of computer printouts and mathematical schemes and sabermetrics that are used to judge players.


A decade before his stint with the Reds, McKeon was GM of the San Diego Padres. He was known as Trader Jack because of his wheeling and dealing. Now he's strictly the manager, with Marlins GM Admin Beinfest handling the personnel decisions.


Starts with pitching

Beinfest has built an awesome rotation for McKeon to manage, led by Dontrelle Willis (4-2), Josh Beckett (3-3), Brad Penny (4-2) and Carl Pavano (3-1). The Marlins also hope A.J. Burnett -- who had a strong rehab outing on Tuesday -- can return soon from his Tommy John surgery of April 2003.



Last year, Willis ran out of gas at the end of the season because he wasn't accustomed to pitching past August in the minor leagues (he was called up in May 2003). Now Willis and his staff mates have all pitched into October. I believe Willis will finish stronger this season because he's improved his arm strength. He now can handle those extra innings.


It's possible for pitchers to excel consistently despite the added strain of postseason play. Remember all the extra innings that the Atlanta Braves' rotation -- anchored by Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine -- pitched in the entire decade of the '90s. The Braves have played in every postseason since 1991, and in their amazing run those starters pitched the equivalent of at least a full season. But they still managed to perform year in and year out.


Florida's young starters are predominantly power pitchers. Last October, they dominated the Yankees, who had trouble handling the fastball. Yankee hitters weren't prepared for Florida's power pitchers, perhaps because they were seeing them for the first time. If the Yankees had Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez in their lineup last year, the outcome of the World Series might have been different.



This year, the Marlins ran off to an 8-1 start and lead the NL East by one-half game over the Philadelphia Phillies. Yes, the Marlins have a realistic chance of getting to the postseason again. And if they get there, you never know -- because we do know they can win in the postseason.


The Marlins have demonstrated that you have to beat them on the field, not on paper. They were underdogs in every postseason series last year, from the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS to the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS to the New York Yankees in the World Series. Florida's young players seemed to relish being on the postseason stage.




America got the chance to see the value of a leadoff hitter like Pierre as well as third baseman Mike Lowell (the club's best clutch hitter ), right fielder Miguel Cabrera (at 21, one of the game's best young players) and the other Marlins. Most of all, the nation's baseball fans saw what good defense does for an already strong team.


I thought the Marlins would miss Ivan Rodriguez's leadership and bat much more. He was clearly Florida's leader, on the field and in the clubhouse. I didn't expect Florida to do so well so early without him, but they've overcome the loss of one of the best catchers in baseball history. The offseason acquisition of first baseman Hee Seop Choi, who has nine home runs and 20 RBI, has helped.

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