A Night To Remember: The 2003 Florida Marlins Shock The World

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A Night To Remember: The 2003 Florida Marlins Shock The World
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The temperature was a little chilly as I stepped out of my front door that day. Earlier, it had reached a high of around 54, but it felt as if it had dropped nearly ten degrees since then.

 

I didn’t mind this much, though. I’m someone who loves cold weather. Always have; likely always will. It just seems to perk me up and give me energy, just as it did that day. Closing my door and walking toward the waiting cab, I realized I’d just forgotten my Marlins cap.

 

Talk about absent-minded.

 

So, I rushed back to my door, opened it, and dashed inside to retrieve the hat. I couldn’t possibly go to a game without my Marlins hat. I’d had it since the day of Game 1 of the 1997 World Series, having purchased it from a street vendor on Canal Street in Manhattan the day my beloved team had played their first game in the World Series.

 

Florida won that game over the vaunted Cleveland Indians 7-4, and would go on to win the series on SS Edgar Renteria’s clutch hit in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7.

 

That hat had been with me through that series, and ever since. It was worn, and sweat-stained, and rather dingy, but it was and still is, my favorite article of clothing.

 

I cherish that hat like some would cherish an autographed ball from their favorite sports hero. While there’s no signature of any of my favorite ballplayers on it, it holds within it uncounted memories I treasure more than money.

 

Grabbing it, I once again locked up and headed for the taxi. As I was getting in, the driver, in the usual gruff New York Cabbie fashion, said, “You finish’d already, bud, or shud I wait anutha five minutes while ya put on ya favorite undawear?”

 

Nothing he could have said would have spoiled the mood for me at that moment though, so I simply smiled at him, chuckling lightly, and said, “Nah, just take me to the ferry, my man.”

 

“Good,” was his only reply.

 

As we headed toward the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, I reflected on the past week. Joy couldn’t begin to describe the feeling I had inside me at that moment. My team, the team I’d come to love since they first entered the big leagues, was on the verge of possibly making history and defeating the heralded and hated New York Yankees.

 

A bit of my history seems in order at this point.

 

I was born in Hollywood, Florida. We were a pretty poor family, with our roots actually in Michigan (my grandfather still lived there at the time), but my grandmother had moved down to Florida in hopes of making a better life.

 

My grandparents had separated before I was born, and my grandmother had brought her children with her when she’d headed south.

 

This move on her part would determine a great deal about my life, as it would decide the place of my birth, as well as eventually govern the sports teams I would end up rooting for in my later years.

 

I was not always a Marlins fan, though. After my birth, my parents still being very poor, decided to move out West to California. My father was a former light-heavyweight boxer (in fact he was once ranked), but those days were long behind him by the time I’d come into the world, and he earned a living as a house painter and mechanic.

 

Heading to California seemed a promising move for our family, as there was an abundance of work there at the time.

 

We finally settled down for a period in the Bay Area, near Oakland and as I became a bit older, my father would take me and my older brother, David, to see the Oakland A’s.

 

David and I were in love from the very start. Baseball, to our five and three year-old

minds respectively, seemed like the greatest game the world had ever created.

 

We were absolutely smitten with the pastime. From the smell of fresh-cut grass, hot dogs, and peanuts, to the scintillating crack of the bats as one player or another blasted a home run into the bleachers.

 

We would bring our gloves in hopes of shagging a foul ball, although we never did. It didn’t deter us from hoping though, and the games were never the less exciting for our failure to grab a trophy.

 

Our father, though, while he allowed us to root and cheer for the A’s (who would go on to glory in the early 70s), wouldn’t let us bear loyalty to the local football franchises in the area, the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers.

 

No, he said to us, “You were born right above Miami, and you’re going to root for the Miami Dolphins.” His choice for us was final, and while at first we were slightly dismayed, since all of our friends were either Raiders or 49ers fans, we would later thank him, as the Dolphins as well became a dynasty between 1970 and 1975.

 

My brother and I felt like the two luckiest boys in the entire universe. We rooted for teams that were not only good, but were practically unbeatable. In fact, in 1972, the Miami Dolphins were unbeatable, finishing out that year with the only undefeated season in NFL history.

 

Quite simply, we were in fan heaven.

 

In later years we would become familiar with the agonizing torture of our team’s defeats. We would live through the New York Yankees raiding our beloved A’s for players, luring away Hall-of-Famers such as Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Vida Blue.

 

This, of course, was and is one of the main reasons for the hatred both my brother and I have for the heralded New York squad.

 

We would also suffer through the 80s, where our venerated ‘Phins would, despite having the greatest quarterback to ever lace up cleats for part of that decade, first fall to the Washington Redskins, and then the 49ers.

 

We also gritted our teeth as the seemingly unbeatable Oakland A’s of the late 80s, with the indomitable “Bash Brothers” among them, only gave us the thrill of victory once, when all reason suggested they should have won a title three or four times.

 

However, as much as I was disappointed in those Oakland teams of that era, their failures played no part in my switching of allegiances to the Marlins. When South Florida finally brought major league baseball to Miami, I left my loyalties to Oakland behind without a second glance.

 

My father had instilled in me his quirky ideals that you should always root for a team from the place you were born. Growing up, this wasn’t possible in baseball, as there were no major league franchises near Miami. Yet, once they got a team, I was bound by those ideals to tender my resignation as a member of the A’s fandom.

 

The Marlins were my team from that point on, and it was a choice I would never regret. I’d already switched my allegiances in another sport for the same reason, having become a Miami Heat fan when they were awarded a franchise in the late 80s, and I felt no remorse over doing the same with baseball, even though the A’s had given me so many fond memories.

 

That inaugural season was a baseball lover’s dream, too. While the Marlins would finish the 1993 season with the 3rd worst record in baseball at 64-98, there was a palpable excitement that coursed through the veins of any and all Marlins fans.

 

We had a team! We had a team! We had a team, and it was gonna be great!

 

The next couple of years didn’t much live up to those expectations though, as the Marlins tied (ironically) the Oakland Athletics for the 5th worst record in baseball in 1994 at 51-64 (a strike-shortened season), and went 67-76 in 1995.

 

Yet, Florida had won 51 games in that strike-shortened year, and ended the season in 1995 only a game and a half out of second place in the National League East Division, right behind the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, who ended the year with identical 69-75 records.

 

So, there was still the optimism, and that optimism would be rewarded the following year, in 1996, as the Marlins would surprise the baseball world by finishing third in the National League East ahead of both the Mets and Phillies, with a record of 80-82.

 

They’d come within a single win of not having a losing season in their fourth year in the majors. They hadn’t won anything yet, but their accomplishment was no less significant. It showed a drive in the young franchise that gave Marlins fans everywhere the hope their team would shock the world soon.

 

The next year, they did just that.

 

While the Marlins didn’t even win their division that year, coming in behind the highly touted Atlanta Braves in the division with a record of 92-70, none of that mattered.

 

The unheralded Florida Marlins swept into the playoffs that year on fire, downing the San Francisco Giants in a clean sweep, three games to none, to move on to the National League Championship Game against the team favored to win it all that year, the Atlanta Braves.

 

The Braves had finished with the best record in baseball that year, at 101-61, and had been to the World Series the past two years, having defeated the Cleveland Indians in 1995 4 games to 2.

 

They’d lost in 1996 to an upstart New York Yankees squad, who had somehow found a way to overcome the odds and beat the team with the greatest starting pitching anyone could remember.

 

Yet, in 1997, they were odds-on favorites not only to win it all, but to cruise to easy wins doing it. The Baltimore Orioles of that year had come close to matching their win totals, with a record of 98-64, but were generally regarded as a team playing above themselves.

 

This would prove out, as the Cleveland Indians, a team that had won 199 games over the previous two season, yet only sported an 86-75 record in 1997, thoroughly dominated the O’s to take the American League Championship Series 4 games to 2 over Baltimore to get themselves into the World Series against the Marlins.

 

The Marlins, meanwhile, were busy dispatching the vaunted Braves in the same fashion, upsetting sports bettors around the globe with their shocking 4 games to 2 victory in the National League Championship Series.

 

This set up a match against the veteran and highly regarded Indians squad. While everyone conceded the Marlins had shown incredible moxie in upsetting the Braves to reach the World Series for the first time in their short history, no one thought it possible they would actually beat this Cleveland club.

 

Of course, as everyone is aware, the people who thought this were wrong.

 

The Marlins, in one of the most dramatic and exciting World Series on record, stunned the world by beating the Cleveland Indians four games to three on the heroics of Edgar Renteria mentioned above.

 

As I sat there in the cab remembering all that, the streets of Staten Island flashed by in a blur as we cruised down Victory Boulevard, which would later that night prove oh so poignant.

 

Getting to the Staten Island Ferry, I paid the cabby, telling him I was headed to the game and exiting the unmarked Mercury Marquis to his gruff remark that the Yankees were going to “Murda” my beloved Marlins.

 

The rest of the trip over to Manhattan and on to the Bronx to Yankee Stadium was even more of a blur, as the excitement built up in me for the game to come. I truthfully don’t remember much of it at all, and the only distinct memory I have of that trip was a lady and her young son, who wore a Yankees cap, smiling wanly at me on the Subway train as I headed uptown.

 

When I got to the stadium, I quickly filed in and headed to my seat, which was among some friends of mine near the first-base line just fifteen rows back.

 

John and Desmond, both Yankees fans, greeted me with their usual camaraderie, giving me a quick pounding of fists and male hugs (you know the ones, where you don’t quite hug, but pretend to), jovially telling me my boys were going down tonight.

 

As we took our seats, the hotdog vendor came by and we ordered a few dogs, mine with lots of mustard. John had already gotten all three of us some beers, and handed me mine to help wash down the steaming frankfurter.

 

Fairly soon the game began, and the excitement that had been building up all night came to a head as Andy Pettitte threw the first pitch of the game which would end up being the last in the series.

 

As I sat there watching the action, my mind reflected a bit on how the Marlins had gotten to this point.

 

Unlike the Yankees, who had posted the best record in the majors that year en route to their 39th Fall Classic, the Marlins had once again gotten to the World Series as a Wild Card, and for the second time in their young ten-year history had the chance to be “David” to the New York franchises’ “Goliath.”

 

Florida had gone through some incredible series just to get to the World Series, the postseason for them already rife with dramatic and emotionally draining moments, where every game literally came down to the final pitch.

 

They’d lost the first game of the NLDS to the San Francisco Giants, but rallied to win the final three games of that series and knock off the boys from the Bay Area. They followed that up with even more drama, going down three games to one to the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS before coming back to win the final three games in that series as well.

 

Most people hadn’t believed the Fall Classic could live up to all that drama that had preceded it, but it did.

 

Game 1 started out the Series in the same manner the Yankees had opened both the American League Divisional Series and the ALCS, with the New York franchise losing to the erstwhile Florida team 3-2. That snapped the Yankees’ ten-game-home winning streak in the World Series that had dated back to Game 2 of the Fall Classic of 1996.

 

Yet, most believed the Yankees, as they had in those previous series, would still find a way to overcome the underdog Marlins. David Wells had failed to best Brad Penny and Ugueth Urbina in that Game 1, but the Yankees were replete with star pitchers, including Roger Clemens and the aforementioned Andy Pettitte. The Yankees fans weren’t overly worried after the loss.

 

Game 2 did nothing to dispel that confidence the Bronx Bombers fans had, as Andy Pettitte, pitching on three days’ rest, allowed just one earned run over 8 2/3 innings for his ninth consecutive win, with the Yankees topping the Marlins 6-1 and evening the series 1-1.

 

Game 3 only added fuel to the fire as the Yankees watched Mike Mussina battle the Marlins ace, Josh Beckett and come out ahead. Beckett worked through a lengthy rain-delay and accounted himself well, striking out ten of the boys from the Bronx while giving up three hits and two runs.

 

However, he was pulled after 7 1/3 innings, having thrown 108 pitches, and the Marlins brought in the “A-Train,” Dontrelle Willis, who struggled with his control due to the wet weather. Hideki Matsui came up big for the Bombers against Willis, snapping a tie with a two-out RBI single in the eighth. Aaron Boone and Bernie Williams would both add homers in the ninth as the Yankees finished the Marlins off 6-1 again.

 

At that point, the entire world felt that first-game win by the Marlins was nothing more than an anomaly; a series-beginning jitters mistake. Game 4 would clear them of this erroneous notion.

 

While the Marlins were down 2-1 in the series, and facing the Yankees ace, Roger Clemens, there was not a player on the team that doubted their resolve to come back, even if the rest of the world thought such a feat was beyond impossible.

 

The first two batters to face Clemens gave instant heft to that belief, as they were quickly set down by Roger. However, things went wrong fast after that for the future Hall of Famer as Ivan Rodriguez’s two-out single ignited an early Marlins rally.

 

Miguel Cabrera, just a twenty year-old rookie, then drilled a 2-2 pitch by Clemens into the right-field seats, giving Florida a 2-0 lead. Jeff Conine and Mike Lowell followed that with a pair of singles, and the Marlins had runners on the corners. Derrek Lee then finished off the inning by driving in Conine, putting the overwhelmingly-favored New York franchise down 3-0 and giving the Marlins fans in attendance something to cheer about.

 

The Yankees rallied in the second-inning, loading the bases with three singles and scoring on Bernie Williams sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 3-1. The game, and “The Rocket” seemed to settle down, as Clemens, who had thrown 42 pitches in the first-inning debacle, needed just 54 to get through the next five innings.

 

The seventh inning would be the last for Roger, though, as he stepped on the mound to face the Marlins second baseman, Luis Castillo. The flashbulbs popped with each pitch as many of the 65,934 in attendance sought to capture what might be Rogers' last game in a Yankee uniform. He was on top of Castillo in the count, 1-2, before Luis fought five more pitches off.

 

On his ninth pitch to the diminutive Castillo he got what he wanted, as Luis sat watching the ball tail over the inside corner for a called strike three. Walking off the field, Roger was greeted with a standing ovation by the classy Florida Marlins fans, and the Marlins players added to that by tipping their caps to the Yankees dugout. Clemens would come out for a curtain call and returned the gesture, waving to the fans and his opponents.

 

The game would be tied up 3-3 in the eighth as Ugueth Urbina surrendered two runs to Ruben Sierra, who drove in Bernie Williams and Dave Delucci. It would remain that way until the bottom of the twelfth, when Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez, with a full count, drilled the payoff pitch down the left-field line, clearing the 330-foot sign by mere inches, giving the upstart Marlins the 4-3 victory and guaranteeing this would be a series.

 

The Marlins fans went nuts that night, and it was only a precursor of more to come.

 

Prior to Game 5, Yankees fans, while certainly a little apprehensive, were still incredibly confident and cocky. If you asked one of them if the marlins had a shot at winning the series, they still would have looked at you as if you’d just been released from Bellevue Hospital and needed the men in white coats called in to haul you away.

 

That game, though, would forever change their thinking on such things. It began quickly falling apart for the Bombers when David Wells suffered a “freak” back injury right after the first inning. The Marlins would then easily get to reliever Jose Contreras, nailing him for four runs in three innings, and adding two more off his replacement in the fifth.

 

Brad Penny, on the other hand, held the Yankees to just one earned run over seven innings, and although the Bombers attempted a late rally, it was snuffed out and the Marlins once again walked away with a win, 6-4.

 

Now the Bombers were facing elimination, and while their fans were still cocky, you could sense the fear beneath the surface. They knew these Marlins weren’t going to just roll over and die, and they knew they’d put themselves in a hole it would take a lot to dig out of. While they had Andy Pettitte on the mound for Game 6, they knew they were facing Josh Beckett.

 

While Beckett hadn’t won that Game 2 matchup, they’d watched as he mowed down 10 of their batters in looking nearly unhittable. They were only mildly in tune with how unhittable Josh could be, though; and as I sat there reflecting on the previous games in the series, I smiled a little bit knowing they were likely in for a lesson.

 

As the game progressed, I knew I’d been right in believing Josh would give them such a lesson. Pitching on just three days rest for the first time in his career, Beckett simply dominated the Bronx Bombers, pitching a complete-game, five-hit shutout that is the stuff of legends.

 

Pettitte had my heart racing as well, holding the Marlins to just two runs over the seven innings he stayed in the game. It wasn’t till the fifth inning that the Marlins even touched Pettitte up a bit. As with Clemens first inning in that incredible Game 4, Andy set down the first two batters he faced in that inning.

 

However, Alex Gonzalez and Juan Pierre then tapped him for consecutive singles, and Luis Castillo worked himself out of an 0-2 hole to make it 2-2 before lining a single to right field.

 

Yankees outfielder Karim Garcia tried to toss the ball home, but his throw was slightly up the first-base line and Gonzalez was able to slide in and avoid the tag, giving the Marlins a 1-0 lead. The Fish added a run in the next inning, and Beckett continued to roll.

 

In the home half of the sixth inning, Josh struck out Bernie Williams looking, and then fanned Hideki Matsui swinging to put the Marlins just nine outs away from their first title since 1997 and their second overall.

 

The Yankees fans were actually silent through much of this, praying their team could find a way to rally against this heat-throwing young man from Texas. Occasionally,

they would erupt into cheers and chants, but they seemed hesitant to really burst into any overwhelmingly loud applause so as not to jinx themselves.

 

They erupted in some cheers in the seventh as Jorge Posada led off the inning with a double to left, but Beckett quieted them down quickly as he got Jason Giambi to ground out to third before striking out Garcia and pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra to end the inning without the Yankees scoring.

 

The eighth inning was relatively without drama as the Yankees inserted Mariano Rivera to ensure no more runs were scored.

 

Beckett returned in the top of the ninth to finish the job he’d started. He first got Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui to both fly out to left. This left Josh and the Florida franchise just one out from making history and defeating the vaunted New York Yankees in their home stadium, before their home crowd.

 

Everyone was standing, with my friends John and Desmond covering their eyes in mock attempts at not looking at the action (of course they were looking).

 

They, along with the rest of us, watched as Beckett threw the ball toward home plate. We watched as Jorge Posada softly dribbled Beckett’s offering down the first-base line. We watched as Josh himself fielded the ball and tagged the New York catcher out before he even reached first base for the final out of the game and series.

 

As the Marlins rushed to mug each other and celebrate their incredible victory, I shouted to the heavens in triumph as my friends sat in stunned disbelief; polite smiles playing over them at my jubilation.

 

I didn’t even mind the ball (or whatever it may have been), that thumped me in the back of the head that moment, for I had reached sports nirvana. Not only had my favorite team won the World Series, they had done it beating the “Evil Empire,” the team I despised most on the planet, and they’d done it in front of their home crowd.

 

To me, there was nothing better. To me, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

 

To me, it was a night to remember.

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