Mr. Marlin giving Florida’s playoff bid a boost
MIAMI – Jeff Conine was there when the Florida Marlins won the NL wild-card race in Montreal six years ago, an occasion that generated more champagne suds than intoxicating drama.
He remembers the lone playoff berth in Marlins history as a foregone conclusion by the time they clinched it with five days left in the regular season.
This week is different. There’s no champagne _ yet _ but lots of excitement as the surprising Marlins try to hang onto their lead in a down-to-the-wire wild-card race.
“These games mean a lot more than they did in 1997,” said Conine, the hero of Florida’s victory Tuesday against Philadelphia. “We took care of business pretty early in ’97. This means so much more right now.”
Conine is the Marlins’ only current player who was with the team when it won the 1997 World Series. Subsequently traded to Kansas City during the infamous dismantling of the champions, he returned late last month when Florida obtained him in a deal with Baltimore.
The Marlins reacquired the former fan favorite known as “Mr. Marlin” to plug a hole in the lineup created when All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell broke his hand. And while Conine’s average has hovered around .200 since his return, he has contributed his share of big plays.
He homered, doubled and made a sensational catch in left field in a pivotal win at Philadelphia last week. His three-run homer sparked a comeback victory Tuesday, leaving the Phillies two games behind Florida in the wild-card race with five to play.
And he hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning Wednesday against the Phils to earn his first curtain call since returning to Miami.
“We know he’s a much better hitter than what he did the first couple of weeks here,” manager Jack McKeon said. “We thought he might be an experienced guy who would give us that extra push over the top.”
Conine batted cleanup when he first rejoined the lineup, but he’s now seventh in the order. He went into Wednesday’s game with a .211 average and three home runs in 21 games for Florida. He batted .290 with 15 homers in 123 games for Baltimore.
“It’s been a very frustrating month for me,” Conine said. “They brought me here to fill Mike’s shoes, and I’m just trying to work through it and trying to contribute every night somehow, someway _ defense, offense, whatever I can do.”
His struggles notwithstanding, the 37-year-old Conine is delighted to be back in Miami and back in a playoff race. He has been amused to find the mood in the clubhouse different from ’97, and not just because the Marlins’ wild-card lead is smaller.
The World Series team was a businesslike bunch led by such peevish stars as Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou. Most of the current Marlins have never played in a postseason game, and Conine finds their youthful enthusiasm infectious.
“The first day I was here, we had Andy Fox and Mike Redmond and Brian Banks and Mike Lowell on the bench, and the stuff they’re yelling out beginning with the first pitch …” Conine recalled. “I’m looking around thinking, ‘I’ve never heard this before.’ I was laughing to myself the whole first night.
“But it caught on,” Conine said. “Now I’m doing the silly stuff, too.”
The Marlins hope Lowell will return Sunday, which would likely bump Conine from the lineup.
On the bench but in the playoffs, shouting silly stuffâ¢ Mr. Marlin would take that.