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Marlins determined to defend title


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03/01/2004 1:50 PM ET

Marlins determined to defend title

Players say they have not been spoiled by success

 

Mike Bauman

 

 

JUPITER, Fla. -- When you become world champions, everything changes, but nothing changes.

You become a more public person, like it or not. You get more attention. Total strangers recognize you. This is a mixed blessing, but everyone can agree that it is much better than the anonymity of last place.

 

But when the next spring rolls around, for a championship baseball team, such as, in this case, the Florida Marlins, that celebrity turns into a case of "what have you done for me lately?" You understand, if you're not too caught up in the ultimate success thing, that you have the same job to do. You understand that there is even less room for complacency than ever.

 

This is how it is now for the Marlins. People liked to say that they shocked the civilized world with a string of October triumphs. Except that the more you examined the Marlins' performance the less shocking it became. They were the best team in baseball last autumn, better than even the mighty Yankees. They won on merit, not on a fluke.

 

Did success change them? Did it make them just a touch more smug or self-satisfied? There's trouble ahead going down that path. But the Marlins say no. They say that their lives changed with a World Series victory, but that they remain a hungry, dedicated ballclub. They need this to be true, because they have lost some key personnel and in their immediate neighborhood, the National League East, both the Phillies and the Mets have made notable improvements.

 

But there are positive signs that the Marlins haven't become somebody less. For one thing, the tone will be set, as it was last year, by manager Jack McKeon. What has changed about McKeon? He's 73 now, instead of 72. Otherwise, no real change. He's still smoking the cigar and spinning yarns and talking baseball common sense.

 

Will he manage any differently now that he's been a big winner? He started managing in organized baseball in 1955. What do you think?

 

"I didn't manage any different last year than I did previously," McKeon says. "A lot goes with the players. They did a spectacular job last year, being resilient, and having a tremendous attitude and having a desire to win.

 

"But I'm not going to change. I'm not going to do anything different. I'm going to do the same thing I did in the past. If it works, it works, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work.

 

"Last year it worked," McKeon says, and then smiles. "A lot of years it didn't work. That's about the best answer. But also I had different players."

 

Will success spoil his guys? What about the biggest World Series hero of all, Josh Beckett?

 

"I don't know," McKeon says. "That's not my forte, psychiatry. I got a degree in science, but I'm not a scientist." He later amends that to suggest that Beckett is "level-headed" and success will not be a problem.

 

McKeon doesn't mind the added attention that victory has brought. He likes an audience. He is good with an audience. There have been times when he couldn't draw a crowd. He appreciates the difference.

 

"I think it's a compliment when people come up to you and want your autograph," McKeon says. "What you've got to worry about is when they don't want it. That's why I try to sign as many as I can."

 

 

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"What you really learn from winning the World Series is, you learn to appreciate it. You really learn to savor it, because you don't know what the next day's going to hold for you. It's what you dream about."

-- Chad Fox

 

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In the clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium, the mood hasn't changed a lot, either. Relief pitcher Chad Fox, who came back from two Tommy John surgeries, a fractured elbow and other assorted serious career setbacks to find himself at the top of the baseball world, noted how the trappings of life had changed, but the basics hadn't. Back home in Texas during the offseason he had been much more frequently recognized. But here in Spring Training, he once again saw himself as a baseball player with something to prove.

 

"Usually, I'm not a recognizable person, I'm low-key," Fox says, "but when you're in department stores, Wal-Marts, whatever, and people recognize you, it's like, 'Wait a minute. What is this?' OK, I loved it and it was awesome, but I always enjoyed being low-key, especially with a family, wife and kids involved, because you need to give them all the attention they deserve.

 

"What you really learn from winning the World Series is, you learn to appreciate it. You really learn to savor it, because you don't know what the next day's going to hold for you. It's what you dream about. You dream about getting to the next level. And then you dream about playing in the World Series. Then you get the icing on the cake and you get to win it against the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium. There's no better way to write it.

 

"But then you come back here and you realize that we've got to work harder than ever, or at least I do. I look around this locker room and I've yet to see one player take it for granted, come walking in here, 'Hey, we're the world champs.' We know what's been written about us, 'We can't believe that team won the World Series.' But we know in our hearts that we deserved it. And we want to do it again. We've got a lot of guys around here saying, 'Hey, how much fun was that? Let's do it again.'

 

"So you still have to walk through that door, put your clothes on and go out there and do your job."

 

The Marlins did their jobs as well as anybody could last season. They were admirable and feisty and deserving and all right, surprising, at least at first. The odds are against them repeating. But so what? The odds were never with them in the first place. If they don't win this season, it won't be because they were overcome by complacency. Their names are bigger now, but their hat sizes aren't growing.

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The best thing going for this team:

 

1)Being written off by most of the media who selected other teams as their favorites

 

2)Losing 'key' players.

 

The first just makes this team feel disrespected - something that fueled them last year and will only help fuel them this year. The second only is fueled by the first - most people are writing the Marlins off because of WHO they lost. This team will be hungry to prove itself that they are legitimate AND that those players played nothing more than a role. A role that can be filled. They will want to prove that this team is legitmate. Dont discount a hungry team. Gotta like our chances.

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