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Different atmosphere accompanies Marlins


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Different atmosphere accompanies Marlins

 

By Dave George, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

 

 

 

JUPITER -- Monday was the opening workout for Florida Marlins pitchers and catchers and already Jack McKeon is feeling the midsummer heat.

 

"Just about this time last year I was watching my grandson win a state high school championship in wrestling back in North Carolina," said McKeon, who was coaxed out of retirement only last May to replace Jeff Torborg as Marlins' manager.

 

"He repeated as champion last Saturday, but I couldn't make it this time, so he gave me a call.

 

"He said, 'Hey, Pop, see if you can go back-to-back, too.' "

 

Back-to-back World Series titles is what the kid meant. McKeon chuckles at the notion, not because it is funny, not at all, but because he appreciates the competitive spirit behind it. Kellan McKeon, his champion grandson at Chapel Hill High School, won the first state title at 103 pounds and then stepped up to do it again at 119.

 

Facing a severe challenge without a flinch, and moving up a couple of weight classes to do it. Sound familiar?

 

"Everyone's after what we've got, and it's great," Marlins President David Samson said as a half-dozen pitchers throwing simultaneously in a nearby bullpen session provided the welcoming background music of fastballs snapping leather. Sounds like popcorn, if you close your eyes.

 

Smells so much better, though, than spring training 1998, when most of the stars from the Marlins' first world championship team were already sold off.

 

This time around the World Series MVP, Josh Beckett, is in attendance from the opening practice, working a drill where the pitcher pounces off the mound to field a two-hopper down the first-base line. At one point Beckett waved the gloved ball toward an imaginary runner, as if it were Jorge Posada of the Yankees charging all over again into the game-ending tag play that would clinch the World Series.

 

Now I don't know if Josh was really thinking about that precise moment, but he was wearing an enormous smile, and so were dozens of newly energized Marlins fans pressed up against the chain-link fence on the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium.

 

"I come in at 6:15 this morning and they're waiting for me," McKeon said of the autograph-hungry crowd. "Here I figure I'm gonna sneak in early."

 

No more of that. Suddenly everyone wants to try the Marlins on for size, which is pretty much what Benjamin Strawbridge did.

 

He's 10 and from Boston, with a grandmother in Jupiter to visit and the boldness to approach every last Marlins player, coach and groundskeeper to sign his baseball. Mike Mordecai did the kid one better, taking off his own catcher's gear -- a mask, a chestguard and a mitt -- and letting young Benjamin wear the whole outfit for a photograph taken by his mom.

 

That's about as hard as a player can try on the PR front. A few minutes later Jeff Cox was out on the practice diamond proving just how much the Marlins' coaches are willing to give. Instead of just talking about the proper technique for getting back to first base on a close pickoff attempt, the 48-year-old assistant demonstrated three headfirst slides himself, gleefully smearing damp, orange infield clay across the front of his uniform in the process.

 

All that remains, it would seem, is to collect a prediction from Samson on how many games the Marlins will win this season. He hit it right on the nose last year, 91 regular-season victories, a laughable total at the time.

 

"April 5, the day before opening day, see me in the dugout," Samson said. "I'll give you my prediction then. I've already got the whole thing planned. It's going to be memorable."

 

The Marlins have already won, if only because this makes back-to-back seasons in which South Florida can't afford to look away. Given the history of this franchise, that's saying something.

 

dave_george@pbpost.com

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:blink: Mike Mordecai did the kid one better, taking off his own catcher's gear -- a mask, a chestguard and a mitt -- and letting young Benjamin wear the whole outfit for a photograph taken by his mom.

Whaaaaaaaaaat? Morde is our third string catcher this season, so I guess he would have the gear and be practicing.

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