Extra Innings: Marlins staying hungry

Day 4: Marlins | Extra Innings

JUPITER, Fla. – The last time the Florida Marlins won the World Series (1997), they reported to Spring Training the following February a shell of themselves. The South Florida fire sale immediately sent the franchise back to obscurity and became an embarrassment for baseball.

"I think a lot of players from the '97 team that returned for spring of '98 looked around the clubhouse and thought they were traded, too, because of all the new faces," said Jeff Conine, who was a member of the '97 team only to be shipped to Kansas City. He returned to the franchise last season.

The Marlins, of course, won it all last year, too. And while some notable stars got away (Pudge Rodriguez to the Tigers, Derrek Lee to the Cubs), the core of this club reported here to training camp on Wednesday.

"You would have liked to have kept everyone if you could, but that's not in my control," manager Jack McKeon said. "I think you will see that in baseball, teams will lose players because of the salary structure."

For Detroit, which needed credibility to sell tickets, Rodriguez was worth a $40 million contract. He wasn't for Florida.

"They were all good players, and you hate to see them go but that was in the past," McKeon said. "They are not here so we are not going to be concerned with them. We just will do the best with what we've got."

The young pitching staff is intact, including Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and Brad Penny. Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell and other bats are back. Florida even went out and got Armando Benitez to be its closer.

The Marlins actually have a chance to defend their title this time around.

"Pretty good nine that we can put out there," McKeon said.

The key, the 73-year-old manager said, is staying hungry and forgetting the past. Do that and anything is possible.

"Well, it's a new year," McKeon said. "Last year is history. That is about what I can tell them. Hey, you've done it before, let's try to do it again. But you can't live in the past.

McKeon hopes the team receives its rings and then leaves 2003 in the scrapbook.

"I think it is going to be a great toast to a great season, raise a flag and get rings, but it has no bearing on [this season]. 'Hey, you're going to get the rings today, boys, so we are supposed to win. We don't even have to show up, just get the rings and we win?' No. We could be as good as we were last year, or we could be as bad as we were in the past. You don't know."

Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman still may be despised by some in his hometown for trying to catch a foul ball in Game 6 of the NLCS, helping Florida eventually go on to win the game and extend the series. But the man who hit the foul ball, Luis Castillo, loves him.

"I want to thank him," Castillo said. "If he still lives in Chicago, I feel so sorry for him. I think that play was the key for us. The Marlins should do something. If he wants something, tickets, I could give him some."

Castillo, a native of the Dominican Republic, said he and the Dominican players on the Cubs (Moises Alou, Sammy Sosa) were talking trash throughout the series. "They were up 3-1 and they say, 'What time's your flight to Dominican tomorrow?' "

So he had no problem teasing Alou when he ran into him during the offseason.

"I told him, 'When you guys go to spring training, go early and put fans in the way and try to catch a fly ball because maybe it can happen again.' "

• McKeon became a media darling since the Marlins' Series win, in no small part because of his tell-it-like-it-is style. He said his favorite moment came when he got a few minutes to talk with President George Bush during the Marlins' visit to the White House. Not content just to give the president a cigar, the skipper took the chance to tease the "most powerful man in the world. I got a few barbs in there," he said.

• Speaking of cigars, one reason you have to love McKeon's old-school baseball heart is that at 9 a.m. of the first day of Spring Training, he was smoking a big, fat cigar. By noon, he was on No. 2. Ash Wednesday indeed.

• McKeon sit-downs are required listening for anyone who loves good, old-fashioned baseball humor. A sampling from Wednesday's two media chats:

McKeon is making an effort to learn some Korean words to understand new Marlins infielder, Hee Seop Choi, more easily. "I tried some Japanese first, but he would just look at me like I was crazy. Then [coach Jeff Cox] wrote down a few words of Korean for me to try on him, but I think [Cox] screwed those up. So I just call him Big Choi. There's always ways to communicate."

Preseason forecasts have not been kind to the defending champs, but McKeon likes it that way. "What's the difference? [My wife] watches 'The Bachelor' and 'The Bachelorette,' and I'll pop in and out and pick the one I think is best. But what does that mean? It doesn't mean anything, what do I know?"

When a reporter asked him what kind of cigar he gave President Bush, McKeon deadpanned: "Padron." The small smile on his face showed his playful side as non-smoking reporters scribbled it down. Since Padrons retail for about $6, it would have been the cheap fruitcake of all presidential gifts.

• A pre-noon downpour at the Marlins' (and St. Louis Cardinals') sparkling training facility left the practice fields looking more like Lake Okeechobee than any fields of dreams. It was coming down so hard animals were pairing up.

• Marlins pitcher Carl Pavano is reportedly dating Hollywood starlet Alyssa Milano, which means if they get married and the actress wants to hyphenate her name, she would be Alyssa Milano-Pavano.

• If you're looking for one big leaguer to root for this spring, try Bryce Florie, a Marlins non-roster invitee. Florie is the former Red Sox pitcher who took a line drive directly to the face in 2000 in one of the more gruesome scenes in recent memory.

• Our road-trip diversion for Tuesday night included a trip down to Coral Gables, Fla., for the Seton Hall-Miami college basketball game. The struggling 'Canes provided an entertaining evening and included sidelights too good not to share: Remember Dancing Barry, the lunatic NBA sideshow? Well, Miami has its own Dancing Fool who gyrates non-stop in the visitor's bench end zone.

During one second-half timeout, a three-foot youngster named Danny competed in a dress up-and-dribble contest where he finished the chore by tomahawking the mini-ball through the (Playskool) hoop and wound up ripping down the rim much to the delight of the crowd.

If you think being a coach is a glamorous life then you didn't spend time after the game in Perry Clark's office. UM has lost 10 consecutive games and Clark, who just two years ago set the school record for wins in a season, and his staff are at their wits' end.

Postgame led us to Dan Marino's Coral Springs eatery where the mojitos flowed courtesy of UM's Geoff Schimberg and his way, way better half, Maggie. Plus the food satisfied like a Marino two-minute drive. It blows away any of Don Shula's overrated eateries that we swore off many trips ago.

• For all the damn Chamber of Commerce items we're providing Coral Springs, you'd think they'd thank us with something other than an $18 parking ticket. Haters.

• Next campaign stop: Fort Myers, Fla.

• Total miles thus far: 442.1

• Number of Peter Gammons sightings: 1 and holding