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Reason to believe

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Article I just read, thought some of you might like it.


It would be so easy for Dontrelle Willis to feel discouraged at the sight of all of his world champion Florida Marlins teammates from 2003 scattered about the majors, or to be disillusioned by the return of all those empty seats at Dolphin Stadium along with the recurring rumors that, for all he's meant to the franchise, he, too, soon will be pitching elsewhere.

But as we have come to realize from the day Willis burst onto the big league scene with such ebullience in '03, discouragement and disillusionment simply are not part of his nature. And from the looks of it, the 24-year-old Willis' "life is good" optimism and self-confidence have rubbed off plenty on this rookie-filled Marlins team he has, by default, been anointed to lead. As Willis was saying after losing a 2-1 duel to Mike Mussina in the first game of yesterday's day-night doubleheader, "We show up. We have a great young group here who play hard and love and respect the game." The Marlins got the better of the Yankees in the nightcap, winning 5-0.

And lest anyone even suggest otherwise, Willis wants to remain a Marlin and, down deep, believes he will.

"It's just talk," he said. "I hear it every week. I'm a Yankee one week, a Met another week. I don't pay any attention to it. Besides, nobody wants me to mess up their charisma."

Which is just as well because, while no one in the Marlins' hierarchy will come right out and say that Willis and his fellow championship holdover, 23-year-old All-Star third baseman Miguel Cabrera, absolutely will not be traded, there is no reason to move them. When owner Jeffrey Loria declared last winter that the new stadium impasse with the Florida bureaucrats had left him no choice but to drastically cut payroll, the decision never included Willis or Cabrera, both of whom are 2-1/2-3 years away from free agency.

Unlike the previous Marlins owner, Wayne Huizenga - who, in a scorched earth policy that nearly killed baseball in south Florida, dismantled the '97 Marlins the winter after they won the world championship and sold the team for profit - Loria isn't looking to get out of the game, just out of debt. The Marlins' payroll, at $15 million, is the lowest in baseball, as is the average age (26) of their players, 13 of whom are rookies. But Loria also still wants to win, and, much to his surprise, these no-name baby Marlins have been doing a lot of that lately. Dare anyone mention that, coming into Yankee Stadium as they did on a 20-8 tear, they were within striking distance of the NL wild card?

"It's only June," Loria cautioned last night. "But I've got to say, other than 2003, this has been the most fun I've had as the owner. These kids are so much fun to watch."

Unfortunately, the Marlins' overachieving (if you want to call it that) has not caught on in Miami, where the average attendance, 11,091, is the lowest in baseball, dwarfed - like their payroll - by the Yankees' 50,502. Loria, who grew up a Yankee fan in New York, shrugs at the mention of the lack of support from the home folks.

"There's an age-old problem in Florida and that's the weather," Loria said. "You don't want to come out to the park and it pours. We need a ballpark with a roof and we just haven't been able to get it done. They've got two new ballparks being built here, which is a great thing for New York, but for us it's a political issue in Florida."

"I think it's a twofold thing," said Marlins manager Joe Girardi. "They don't come out because they don't know if the games are gonna be played and it's hard to latch onto a team you don't know is gonna be there."

But between their own commitment of $212 million for a proposed $400 million retractable roof stadium, invigorated negotiations with the city of Hialeah and the expected intervention and full support of Major League Baseball now that the Twins' new stadium issue has been resolved, there is cautious optimism a deal finally will be reached to keep the Marlins in south Florida.

"Even so, the earliest we could have a new stadium is 2010," Loria said. "But I think the fans will certainly come back because the uncertainty will be lifted."

Meanwhile, as this season has progressed, there has been considerably less uncertainty about this stripped-down team that was universally picked for last in the NL East and doomed to 100-plus losses. Clearly, the pundits who made those dire predictions underestimated Girardi's leadership skills and the scouting acumen of Marlins GM Admin Beinfest and his player development staff.

Like Willis said, they show up, they're not over-awed and they can play with the big boys.

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