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Jim Leyland on Fish

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Memories of '97: Leyland not surprised by Marlins' resurgence


By STEVEN WINE, AP Sports Writer

September 22, 2003

MIAMI (AP) -- In transient South Florida, where neighbors come and go like so many free agents, Jim Leyland's stay was typical: two years.


He remained long enough to experience the extremes in the Florida Marlins' bizarre history. Yet he left too quickly to develop much of an attachment.


Pittsburgh was always home, and that's where Leyland lives these days. He works as a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and watches from a distance as the Marlins bid for their first playoff berth since he led them to the 1997 World Series title.





Does he still feel ties to Miami?


``Yes and no,'' Leyland says. ``Obviously when you see the games there at Pro Player Stadium, you look back and think about it. I feel a certain tie in the fact I managed some of their players when they were very young. But it's a totally different management team from when I was there.''


Yes, with a succession of owners and managers, Florida's one constant has been change. And now, for a change, the Marlins find themselves in playoff contention in late September. They began the final week of the regular season with a half-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL wild-card race, and they open a three-game series Tuesday at home against the Phillies.


Dontrelle Willis (13-6) is scheduled to pitch against Kevin Millwood (14-11) in the series opener.


``This is what we left spring training for -- to play the final week and have a chance to maybe go to the postseason,'' says Phillies slugger Jim Thome, whose team lost two of three games last weekend to woeful Cincinnati. ``There's no looking back and saying, 'This should have been or could have been.' We've got a big series coming up.''


Few figured the late-September spotlight would involve the Marlins. They have no home-run champions or 20-game winners, their biggest star is the rookie Willis, and their second-biggest star is 72-year-old manager Jack McKeon.


But Leyland finds nothing fluky about his former team, and he says the Marlins could be a dangerous playoff opponent for NL postseason favorites San Francisco and Atlanta.


``They've got to get in, but once you get in, anything goes,'' Leyland says. ``They've got a lot of weapons.''


Florida's winning season is only the second in the 11-year history of the franchise, and the first since 1997. Leyland came to Miami that year and earned his first and only World Series ring, but owner Wayne Huizenga decided the title cost too much and ordered the payroll slashed.


The dismantling that ensued left Leyland with a cast of kids, and in 1998 the Marlins finished 52 games out of first place at 54-108. Among his players were four youngsters still with Florida: Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Redmond.


``We had an embarrassing record, and when you come off a World Series and go through that, it's not the easiest thing,'' Leyland says.


``I think back about those days and how tough it was for the kids. In reality, they played pretty good. They just weren't good enough. A lot of the kids held their heads above water for first- and second-year players. But no matter what we did, the results were pretty much bad.''


With the roster decimated, the team for sale and attendance in decline, Leyland quit following the 1998 season, then managed the Colorado Rockies in 1999. Until now, little has happened to make him regret leaving Miami, with three more managerial changes, two ownership changes, few fans and fewer wins.


But Leyland says he's not surprised by the Marlins' recent resurgence, because a foundation for success was in place even when he left.


``It was just matter of time,'' he says. ``There was a lot of talent in the organization the last year I was there. The kids weren't ready, but the ability was there. They just needed time to get acclimated to the majors, and it has finally happened. They've done a tremendous job.''


Considerable credit for this season's turnaround goes to McKeon, hired to replace Jeff Torborg as manager on May 10, when the Marlins were 16-22. They began this week 85-70.


That makes McKeon the Marlins' best manager since Leyland.


``Jack has been a steadying influence,'' Leyland says. ``He knew the team was on the threshold of doing something very good, and he has run the ship without any mistakes.''


Like the won-loss record, attendance is better. During the last homestand, Florida drew 40,000 for a game for the first time in two years, and big crowds are expected for the Phillies series.


Again, Leyland isn't surprised. He saw attendance in Miami exceed 67,000 per game during the World Series.


``It's pretty simple,'' he says. ``When you win, they come. It doesn't matter where you play. Maybe they don't come a little more often in certain places, but it's basically the same all over.''

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