Happy Just to be Here
Published in Play, The New York Times Sports Magazine
June 4, 2006
Meet your Florida Marlins, the best team that the lowest payroll in baseball can buy, and their first-year manager, the ex-Yankee Joe Girardi, who -- when you analyze it -- has a terrific job. Sure, he has a bad team. But you want to see some happy boys? Girardi's boys are happy. And grateful, too. They may not all be exactly big leaguers yet, and some may never be, but by the grace of baseball's lopsided economic system -- and because nearly every established Marlin was traded away in the off-season -- they are in the big leagues. Inscribed, for all eternity, in the Baseball Encyclopedia. How great is that!
So they listen to their manager. They bust it down to first base on every hopeless infield groundout and race around the bases on two-out pop-ups, just in case one gets lost in the sun or the lights. The losses pile up, and the players come to the ballpark early each day to try to get better. As often as not, they don't solve their problems but ingrain them deeper. ''Our kids work so hard,'' Girardi says ruefully. ''But half the time they're working hard at the wrong things.''
Many, many hours before an April game at Chicago's Wrigley Field -- several hours, in fact, before batting practice -- three Marlins sat on a brick wall beside the visitors' dugout. They were in a state of wonder. Perhaps euphoria. They were already dressed to play, like Little Leaguers who jump out of bed at sunrise and wriggle right into their uniforms.
The veteran in this trio was Matt Cepicky, 28, a hefty, shaggy-haired, left-handed outfielder who lives in Eureka, Mont., and looks a bit like a poor man's Jason Giambi. Over the course of his seven previous professional seasons, Cepicky had participated, without distinction, in 80 big-league games. Sitting beside him was Dan Uggla, 26, a veteran of five minor-league seasons, none of them above Double A. Last year his baseball salary was $1,500 a month, just for the season, which he supplemented by giving hitting lessons to kids: $30 for 30 minutes of learning to hit the Dan Uggla Way. Now Uggla, as the Marlins' starting second baseman, was making the major-league minimum of $327,000 -- about $54,000 a month.
Beside Uggla was Reggie Abercrombie, 24, the most heartbreaking of all the Marlins. Abercrombie is ''all tooled up,'' as Girardi puts it. He's 6 feet 3 inches tall and 218 pounds, a carved-in-granite outfielder with a sweet soul, blinding speed, upper-deck power, a bazooka for an arm and a seemingly total inability to hit a breaking ball. He whiffs at good curveballs. And average curveballs. And hanging curveballs that all but hover in the strike zone, begging to be crushed. After watching Abercrombie's ''approach'' at the plate, as baseball folks like to say, I wondered if he could hit my curveball.
On this evening at Wrigley, Abercrombie would start in center field, and he and his two buddies were gazing out in that direction, trying to ascertain if the 400-foot sign that marks the deepest part of the park is really in dead-center field, as it appeared from their vantage point. Someone had told them it was not, but they couldn't tell for sure. Uggla trotted over to home plate to scout things out, then returned with his report: the marker was definitely not in dead center. Abercrombie nodded, digesting yet another new piece of big-league intelligence.
The other Marlins began to file out of the clubhouse and onto the field: the scrawny rookie outfielder Eric Reed, who looks as if he needs nothing so much as a square meal, bounded out of the tunnel cradling his glove and pregame snack, a heaping bowl of Lucky Charms. He was followed by Matt Treanor, a catcher who spent 10 seasons in the minors before being called up and is known around baseball (to the extent that he's known at all) mainly for being married to Misty May, the Olympic gold-medal beach volleyballer. Next came Josh Johnson, a massive pitcher with all of 26 days of previous big-league service -- and then another hurler, Dontrelle Willis, an established star at 24, who, Girardi notes, seems (at least for now) happy to be playing with his chronological ''peer group.''
The Marlins, World Series champs in 1997 and 2003, draw poorly -- 6,017 showed for a recent game -- and play in an utterly charmless facility: a football stadium plunked down beside the Florida Turnpike. Girardi, 41, was hired last October by the owner, Jeffrey Loria, to manage the team. A couple weeks later, yet another attempt to secure public funding for a new ballpark stalled. Loria, who won a World Series in his second year as owner and was tired of absorbing financial losses, decided to ''take the roster down'' and build it back up with prospects. By the start of spring training, the Marlins' entire all-star infield -- Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell, along with the speedy center fielder Juan Pierre and the pitchers Josh Beckett and A. J. Burnett -- had been shipped out.
The payroll was slashed to $15 million, a figure that is exceeded by the individual salaries of five Yankees, whose team payroll is $198 million. Even the payroll of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- which, at $35 million, is the second lowest in baseball -- is more than twice that of the Marlins. The Marlins received real prospects in return for their established players -- ''Baseball America'' ranks the franchise third among all clubs in farm-system talent -- but the big club was left barren. What remains is an assemblage of talented kids called up too soon, veteran castoffs and career minor leaguers getting their miracle shot.
As the Marlins began to stretch and play catch before the game at Wrigley, Loria, a Yale-educated Manhattan art dealer, strode out onto the ballpark's lush grass. I told him that I wondered what it was like to be part of this year's Florida Marlins. ''You make it sound like a pejorative,'' he said. Not at all, I answered. From my perspective, it seemed that being a Florida Marlin in 2006 -- as distinct from a Florida Marlin fan -- was a beautiful thing.
In every new city the team visits, Girardi is asked the same question: Did he know he would have to field a team that looks like a bunch of September call-ups? That he would have to compete without essential pieces -- no left-handed reliever, for example? His diplomatic answer: he was ''prepared'' for it. He knew that it could happen if the stadium talks foundered, but he took the job because he (like many others in baseball) respected the acumen of Loria and his front office.
''I was willing to take that chance because they've made great trades in the past and they've gotten good pitching,'' Girardi told me. ''People call me up and say they feel bad for me. I say: 'You feel bad? For what? I spent one year coaching in the big leagues, zero in the minor leagues, and now I'm one of 30 guys managing a big-league team. You'd love to be doing what I'm doing.' ''
Girardi was the classic small-town sports hero. High school quarterback. Star catcher on the baseball team. When he wasn't on the ball fields, he worked as a busboy, mopping floors at his father's restaurant in Washington, Ill., near Peoria. He played baseball at Northwestern University, where he earned a degree in industrial engineering, then spent three years in the Chicago Cubs' minor-league system. In the season that Girardi played ball in Peoria, he lived at home with his widower father, who always made sure to send him off on the long minor-league bus rides with a brown bag lunch.
Girardi's 15-year major-league career was constructed from decent talent and a lot of hard work and baseball savvy. He was never the most confident of players nor the most thick-skinned, and his failings plagued him. As a Yankee from 1996 to 1999, which included three World Series championships, Girardi was close to Paul O'Neill, the passionate right fielder (and well-known hothead and helmet thrower). Part of what they had in common was their torment -- Girardi was just more private about his.
''One night in my second year in the big leagues,'' Girardi recalled, ''I came home after a game -- we were living in a small town house at the time -- and my wife, Kim, came downstairs and said, 'Why aren't you sleeping up here?' And I said to her, 'I'm playing so bad I'm not worthy to sleep in the same bed as you.' I mean, it's just crazy what goes through your mind.''
After he was traded to the Yankees to replace the popular catcher Mike Stanley, Girardi was booed at the team's annual welcome-home dinner, and he remembers seeing signs that said ''Go Back to Colorado,'' his team after the Cubs. Even in the retelling, it was obvious that the incident still stung. ''When they announced my name, I got booed bad, and these were supposed to be a thousand of the Yankees' most loyal fans,'' he said.
Girardi finished with a .267 career average, but he never felt like much of a hitter, and if he worked too much on that part of his game, he believed, it would come at the expense of his defense. In more than 4,000 major-league at-bats, he hit just 36 home runs. ''As a hitter, I never really had a load,'' he told me, meaning that he couldn't keep his weight back in his stance -- something that's essential for a power hitter. What kept him on big-league rosters was his soundness as a catcher and his baseball mind -- his knack for putting together pitch sequences that defeated hitters.
In 2001, Girardi got the most votes in a survey that asked players, managers and front-office personnel to pick the likeliest future manager among active major-league players. In his years with the Yankees, whenever he wasn't playing, he sat in the dugout beside Joe Torre, the manager, and the coaches Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre. ''Just to learn,'' he told me. ''I listened to what they were saying, and if I had something to contribute, I was free to.''
In February, when the Marlins convened in Jupiter, Fla., for spring training, Girardi was just two years removed from playing. He had spent one year as Torre's bench coach after a season in broadcasting. A workout fanatic, he still looked like an athlete -- or maybe more like a marine, with his graying hair shaved into a buzz cut. He lifted weights with his players. He threw batting practice. When he ran with the pitchers and some of the heavier ones had a hard time keeping up, he dropped back in the pack and urged them on. ''We had a couple of really big guys, like 6-foot-5, 250, and they're running with guys who are, like, 190 pounds, and they're being asked to do the same thing. I would just tell them, 'I'm watching you, and I see how hard you're working, so don't be embarrassed.' '' When I asked Girardi why he played such an active physical role, he replied, ''I'm a believing man, and Jesus always walked through things with people, so I wanted to walk through it with them.''
But it was more than their drills he was walking through with them. There may be a few players in each generation who find baseball to be an easy game -- does Manny Ramirez, even after going hitless for one night, ever wake up the next morning wondering if he can hit? -- but Girardi was among the vast majority who find it excruciatingly difficult. So he felt his players' struggles and insecurities in a direct, almost personal way. ''I still remember what it was like to be a young man in this game,'' he said. ''You go 0 for 4 and you look over your shoulder and think, Is somebody going to replace me? When you first come up, sometimes you think it's your only opportunity, but usually it's not.''
Girardi has an engineer's orderly mind. As a catcher, he saw each hitter as a puzzle that needed to be solved. What precise order of pitches would get each batter out? He would spend hours thinking about the solutions to equations like this, and as the Marlins' manager, it is still one of his major preoccupations. But the more time I spent with Girardi in Miami and on the road in Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, the more I noticed another facet of him -- his deep vein of baseball sentimentality. He wants his players to succeed, even if logic, past history and current evidence argue against it.
I asked him about Reggie Abercrombie, who was struggling so mightily at the plate. Abercrombie had struck out an immense number of times in the minor leagues -- 164 times in just 448 at-bats one year -- which suggests that his deficiencies with breaking balls are not a new phenomenon. But Girardi was desperately hoping to help him. ''Two organizations gave up on Reggie,'' he said. ''But what I've told him is: 'I will not give up on you if you don't give up on yourself. We'll try different things.' People told me during my life what I couldn't do, and it just made me work harder.''
The Marlins' owner, Jeffrey Loria, trades in 20th-century masters (Picasso, Matisse, Henry Moore, Roy Lichtenstein). In baseball, his specialty has been distressed properties. Loria owned the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals), which he sold back to Major League Baseball in 2002, and now owns the Marlins, a franchise that, from its inception in 1993, has been a critical success and a commercial flop. ''I take on situations nobody else wants to touch,'' he explains succinctly.
Although he angered many fans, Loria insists, with some justification, that his sell-off was different from what occurred after the Marlins' previous World Series victory, in 1997. Unlike former owner H. Wayne Huizenga, who immediately unloaded most of the team's best players, Loria continued to field competitive teams for two seasons after the 2003 World Series -- this while working to gain support for a new stadium. He is still trying for a deal in South Florida, but he has also talked of moving the team elsewhere. In the meantime, this year's Marlins are a funny kind of team: easy to root for, because they're such an earnest, appealing group of young men, but hard to actually watch. (Shortstop Hanley Ramírez, 22, obtained in the off-season from the Red Sox, has looked to be the most advanced of the Marlins' young players; in mid-May, he was leading the National League in batting average.)
Good baseball teams win mostly in the same ways, with some combination of good pitching, timely hitting and competent fielding. But losing brings many more variables into play, and like all losing teams, the Marlins are quite inventive in this regard. Their pitchers issue an alarming number of walks. Their hitters strike out a lot. They sabotage potential big innings with recklessness on the base paths -- trying to advance from second to third base, for example, on ground balls hit hard right at the shortstop. In the field, they make spectacular plays and then follow them up, at just the wrong moments, with boneheaded ones.
One night, I watched as the second baseman Dan Uggla, the Double A reclamation project who looks like a genuine hitter, a real find, just missed making a great diving catch of a line drive in the seventh inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies that the Marlins were then winning. Two runners scored. As Uggla retrieved the ball, his head down, and slowly walked it back to the mound before flipping it underhand to pitcher Dontrelle Willis, the runner from first base, a speedy Jimmy Rollins, who had already reached third, scooted home and scored. That's not a play you see much in the big leagues.
The late-April game against the Cubs, on the day that Abercrombie, Uggla and Cepicky (who was later sent back to the minors) tried to plot the exact point of dead center at Wrigley Field, was another typical Marlins affair. Miguel Cabrera, a power-hitting third baseman -- and the one recognizable player, apart from Willis, to be retained over the winter -- hit a two-run homer in the first inning. Jason Vargas, a second-year starting pitcher, turned in the best outing of his career, allowing just one hit in six and a third innings.
But in the bottom of the eighth, with the Marlins leading, 3-0, the reliever Matt Herges -- at 36, one of the Marlins' few veterans -- allowed a double and a walk. Girardi replaced him with Johnson, an imposing 6-foot-7, 240-pound 22-year-old. Johnson promptly walked another batter, loading the bases. Then Cabrera fielded a chopper at third base and, trying for a force-out at home, made a low, unfieldable throw, making the score 3-1. After the next hitter struck out, the following batter singled to tie the score -- and then the next Cubs hitter, Jacque Jones, hit a three-run homer.
In the course of about 10 minutes, a 3-0 lead became a 6-3 deficit, the eventual final score. But that sort of thing happens to the Marlins quite a lot. If games were six innings long, they would have many more wins, but they fold late.
After the game, in the cramped visitors' clubhouse, it was striking how absolutely devastated the young Marlins were. You want to see some professional athletes who care? Here was a whole room full of them. Nobody was in a hurry to shower and pull on his clothes and jewelry and see what action might be found in the Windy City. Most of the players sat on stools in front of their locker stalls, just staring into space.
Girardi always took losing hard, but as a manager he has worked on what he calls his demeanor. In the dugout, he tries not to even wince when something goes wrong. His preferred way of correcting mistakes is to approach a player the following day in the clubhouse or on the field and have a quiet conversation. ''That's one of the things I learned from Joe Torre,'' he told me. ''Players know when they screw up. They don't need me ranting and raving.''
After losing to the Cubs, Girardi sat in an office just around the corner from his dejected players. The great thing about having such a young team, he said, was that they quickly forget the previous game and come back the next day enthused and ready to play. ''Our guys will bounce back,'' he said. ''That's one thing I don't worry about. They compete every day.''
Girardi figures that his team will stop pressing so much in the late innings and learn to win more of the close games. But the possibility certainly exists that the young Marlins will get worn down by defeat and start getting blown out of games. In May, the team tied a franchise record with 11 consecutive home losses. After the collapse against the Cubs, a beat writer asked Girardi if it would be hard for him to sleep that night. ''No harder than when I was a player,'' he said. ''I didn't sleep too good after losses then, either. I took it personally.''
Many of the young Marlins have never been to the National League cities the team visits, not even New York or Washington. They walk around during the day and do a little shopping, usually staying pretty close to the team's hotel, but they don't go out much at night. Reggie Abercrombie speculated that maybe they'd venture out more ''after we get those million-dollar contracts.'' And besides, he said, he had a girlfriend back home in Columbus, Ga., and didn't need to be out sampling any night life.
The Marlins, at that point, were on a pace to lose more than 100 games, and Abercrombie, despite having hit memorable upper-deck home runs in Cincinnati and Washington, was struggling to keep his average above .200. He said that he felt Girardi's support -- ''I couldn't have no better manager'' -- and that his experience with the Marlins, so far, had been ''fun.''
When I asked what, specifically, had been fun, he looked at me as if I were from outer space. ''Everything,'' he said. ''I'm in the big leagues, you know what I mean?''
Copyright © 2006