Marlins' magic wows even their own fans

Baseball's opening day is usually in the spring. This year, for the Florida Marlins, it didn't really arrive until May.

That's when the Marlins lured Jack McKeon out of retirement to become the team's sixth manager in 11 years. Shortly after his arrival, something magical seemed to happen.

Fans here in south Florida didn't notice it at first. For much of the summer, it seemed impossible to even give Marlins tickets away. The team played to a sea of empty orange chairs (and a scattering of baseball aficionados) at a stadium built for the Miami Dolphins.

But since May and McKeon's arrival, the Marlins have been the hottest team in Major League Baseball. This weekend they go to the World Series as champions of the National League.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria knows the story. "Jack McKeon, who nobody wanted to hire because of his age, deserves an awful lot of credit," he says.

At 72, McKeon joined the likes of Connie Mack (88) and Casey Stengel (75), both Hall of Famers, as the third-oldest manager in the history of baseball. Rather than being a hindrance, McKeon's experience and wisdom meshed perfectly with a young roster loaded with talent. McKeon told sportswriters the team's gutsy play makes him feel 45 again.

Slowly, slowly, this season the momentum built under McKeon's guidance, and the Marlins clawed their way into the postseason as a wild card. They stunned the San Francisco Giants. They rocked the Chicago Cubs, overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series. And now, with the Marlins preparing to make their second trip to the World Series in their 11 years of existence, Marlins mania has a firm hold on south Florida.

Hundreds of fans camped out at the stadium Wednesday night to snap up World Series tickets, selling briskly for $60 to $145 each. Marlins National League Champions T-shirts are rolling off the presses at a rate of 2,000 an hour.

But the Marlins won't be here to enjoy it. They were set to remain in Chicago to watch Game 7 between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox before heading to the winning city for the first game of the series on Saturday.

Through it all, the Marlins have maintained their poise and determination. And their main motivation has been that nobody expected them to win all year. It may prove an effective weapon yet again in the World Series.

"Nobody in America gave us a chance, but we shocked everybody," proclaimed Jeff Conine, moments after defeating the Cubs to advance to the World Series. Conine was acquired by the Marlins in August and is one of the team's few veterans. But he is no stranger to the Marlins: He was a key member of the team that won the World Series in 1997.

In a postseason dominated by buzz about the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, which have endured long droughts from World Series glory, the Marlins story is quite different. They Marlins have not lost a postseason series.

In 1997, the Marlins swept San Francisco with three straight victories, beat Atlanta four games to two, and then defeated Cleveland in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

The 2003 run has been far different from the team's success in 1997. That team was loaded with high-priced veterans, a roster of stars largely assembled via the checkbook of then-owner Wayne Huizenga. But those glory days were short-lived. Most of the stars were dealt away to other clubs, and the Marlins sank back into baseball mediocrity.

The 1997 championship has come to be viewed largely as how an owner with deep pockets can buy victory. The current Marlins team is the antithesis of that approach. They have ascended to the World Series the old-fashioned way, through grit, guts, and talent. It is a team of largely unknown (until recently) young players who can pitch, field, and hit. And they are guided by a savvy manager who seems to be having the time of his life.

McKeon was manager at Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego, and Cincinnati. He was fired in 2000 by the Reds and had moved to North Carolina to become a full-time grandpa. Until May.

Now he's at the helm of a red-hot team competing in the biggest show in baseball. It looks as if that grandpa thing will have to wait just a little longer.

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