Baseball's 'Odd Couple' World Series

Dramatic victories pit upstart Florida Marlins against old-guard Cleveland Indians

As millions of baseball watchers settle into couches and easy chairs for Saturday's first World Series game (NBC, 8:05 p.m.), they will be confronted by a number of rooting choices.

Foremost among these may be one's personal preference between a team that owns the annual rings of a redwood (the Cleveland Indians) or those of a sapling (Florida Marlins).

Does one cheer for a team that knows what it means to suffer decades of mediocrity and worse (Cleveland) or for a team that basically has no history to overcome (Florida)?

This is also the upper Midwest versus sunshine country; a team that won its division race (Cleveland) versus a playoff "wild card" that finished nine games out of first, and a city with no pro football or hockey team (Cleveland) versus one that has both (Miami). There is a lot to choose from, and if the best-of-seven series lasts long enough (if it reaches a sixth or seventh game), these teams will be the first to complete a season where Grapefruit League baseball begins a new one each spring.

Game 1 will be played in Miami's Pro Player Stadium, a football stadium that limits seating capacity for baseball but during the Series reportedly will sell more seats than usual - about 60,000 per game. Both teams enter the World Series after dramatic victories in League Championship play. The Marlins defeated the Atlanta Braves, 4-2, in a National League series that saw Florida humble a pitching staff that masters many opponents.

The Indians, meanwhile, dispatched the Baltimore Orioles in another six-game drama that produced an enviable number of unforgettable moments, as well as at least two games for the ages.

It was baseball at its best, which is not to say it was always the best baseball, only that it was entertaining, botched plays and all.

This was actually a 6-1/2-game series in terms of innings played, since Game 3 went 12 innings before Cleveland's Marquis Grissom won it by racing home on a passed ball, and Game 6 wasn't decided until the 11th, when backup second baseman Tony Fernandez scored the game's only run with a solo homer to right field.

These thriller victories may have negated Mike Mussina's efforts, but they shouldn't obscure his 15 innings of near-perfect pitching for Baltimore. He gave up 1 run, struck out 25, and may, in retrospect, have planted questions about the wisdom of lifting a starting pitcher in the late innings when he is sawing off bats left and right.

Manager Jim Leyland of the Marlins was talked out of just such a decision in his team's pennant clincher, which, like Cleveland's, was secured on the road. He was going to lift Kevin Brown, who battled illness earlier in the series, at midgame, but was talked out of it by the intensely competitive pitcher. Brown hung on to notch the victory with a 141-pitch complete game - a welcome full-distance display in the modern era of bullpen set-up men and closers.

Leyland, who is widely regarded as one of the keenest minds in the game, also stayed with rookie Livan Hernandez, a Cuban defector, during his 15-strikeout, 2-1 victory in the pivotal fifth game. That performance earned Hernandez selection as the series Most Valuable Player, a stature he may have to sustain for Florida to beat Cleveland. That's because the Marlins have lost the services of frontline pitcher Alex Fernandez to an injury.

The Marlins are on a roll, however, as are the Indians, so momentum maintenance should be a factor in deciding which team will be baseball's '97 king of the hill - a free agent-loaded Marlins team in its fifth year of existence or the revived Indians, who may have had better teams in 1995 and '96, but who may bring home the bacon, a championship last won in 1948.

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