COCOA, Fla. -- Big send-offs are not unusual along the Space Coast. The Apollo astronauts headed to the moon from a launching pad just a few miles from here, and if all goes according to plan, the Space Shuttle Columbia will blast off from the nearby Kennedy Space Center on March 16.
The Florida Marlins are in good company then, because they took off in style from Cocoa Expo Stadium yesterday, scoring a 12-8 victory over the Houston Astros in the first real home game played by a major-league baseball team in Florida.
It was just an exhibition game, of course, but that was obvious only by the size of the ballpark. The new Marlins franchise did everything to present it as the historic day that it was for Florida baseball fans, right down to the fireworks and the flyovers and the first-ball ceremony. To put it in terms that the local space nuts would understand, the baseball has landed.
The preseason opener was played in a postseason atmosphere. Marlins media relations director Chuck Pool issued 150 press credentials. The 6,695-seat stadium was packed beyond capacity and ringed by network satellite trucks. The game was carried live on cable television throughout Florida.
"Spring training is usually ho-hum," said third baseman Dave Magadan, who left the New York Mets to sign with the Marlins as a free agent, "but this is unbelievable. We never had anything like this for the Mets. Well, not unless there was some kind of controversy."
There was no controversy yesterday, only sentiment. The Marlins honored the late Carl Barger with a moment of silence before the game, and not a club executive allowed the day to go by without paying some tribute to the team's first president, who died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at the winter meetings in December.
Barger built this team. He hired the front-office personnel. He was supposed to be here celebrating the series of exhibition firsts that highlighted a picture-perfect Florida afternoon. He will be honored again with a pre-game tribute on Opening Day of the regular season at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium.
"The thing you really get back to is Carl Barger and how happy he would have been today," said Marlins manager Rene Lachemann. "I do believe he's enjoying it, watching over us right now. All of the firsts really brought that back to me."
Lachemann was managing his first game since 1984, when he was fired by the Milwaukee Brewers after a seventh-place finish in the American League East. He has spent the past six seasons as a coach with the Oakland Athletics, so he could not have been uncomfortable with the postseason-like media crush before and after yesterday's game.
"I think it will be a little more relaxing from now on," he said, "but you want to keep the excitement going. You want to keep the fans wanting to come out and see us. I'd like to see that [the media crush] again in October . . . but what I really want is for us to have the attitude that we have a chance to win every game."
The Marlins are not expected to tear up the National League East this year, but they had more than enough clout to add to the festive atmosphere of the exhibition opener. Twice in the first four innings, they batted around to score five runs as the game turned into an offensive extravaganza.
"It's just a fantastic day," said owner Wayne Huizenga. "I couldn't be more excited than I am. I guess the only day that could be better is April 5 when we kick the daylights out of the Dodgers at Joe Robbie Stadium."
It may have been a perfect beginning, but it was far from a perfect game. There were times when the Marlins looked very much like a solid major-league team, but there also were times when they looked very much like an expansion franchise that will be lucky to lose any fewer than 100 games this year.
"It wasn't an oil painting by any means," Lachemann said, "but I'll take it. It was the first exhibition game and the first win. We got both of them out of the way on the same day."
There were a lot of firsts. Former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher David Weathers threw the first pitch, which dipped low and outside for a ball. He also threw the first 1-2-3 inning, but hit a batter and walked three others in a sloppy second.
DTC The first Marlins hit was delivered by catcher Steve Decker, who also drove in the first run with a single to center that scored Magadan. The irony of that combination was not lost on the media contingent from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Magadan a Tampa native and Decker was drafted out of the San Francisco Giants organization, which recently pulled out of an agreement to move to the Tampa Bay area.
The first cheap win went to left-hander Jeff Tabaka, who gave up four runs over two innings and served up the first home run (to shortstop Andujar Cedeno), but got the victory when the Marlins sent nine men to the plate in the fourth to take control of the game. He was followed to the mound by former Orioles prospect Richie Lewis, who gave up two runs on three hits over two innings.
Left fielder Jeff Conine put the finishing touches on that rally with the first home run by a Marlin, a two-run shot to left that he claimed was the first home run he has hit in a major-league game of any kind.
The first win even looked good from the bench, where the other Orioles prospect lost in the expansion draft stood in reserve. Right-hander Kip Yaughn didn't get to pitch, but he was a part of history.
"It was a really exciting atmosphere," he said. "It looks like we are going to have a real great following here in Florida."
First pitch: David Weathers delivered the first pitch in Florida Marlins franchise history at 1:11 p.m. It was low and outside for a ball.
First hit: Catcher Steve Decker delivered the first hit -- and first RBI -- with a no-out single that scored Dave Magadan in the second inning.
First bat-around: The Marlins sent nine batters to the plate in the second inning and scored five runs to take a 5-1 lead.
First big lead blown: Left-hander Jeff Tabaka gave up four runs in the fourth inning to blow a 5-1 lead. He also gave up the first opposition home run -- to shortstop Andujar Cedeno.
Second bat-around: The Marlins sent nine batters to the plate in the fourth inning and scored five runs to take a 10-5 lead.
First hit batsman: Weathers hit third baseman Ken Caminiti with a pitch to lead off the second. Apparently, there was no history of bad blood between Marlins and Astros leading up to the incident.
First Marlins homer: Left fielder Jeff Conine hit a two-run shot off losing pitcher Darryl Kile in the fourth inning. He claims it was his first home run in a major-league game of any kind.
First Marlins batter to strike out: First baseman Orestes Destrade struck out to end the first inning, which shouldn't be considered unusual. He struck out a total of 407 times over the last three seasons with the Seibu Lions of the Japanese Pacific League.
First expansion moment: Weathers brought home the first run of the game by walking pitcher Brian Williams with the bases loaded in the top of the second inning.
First wild pitch: Former Orioles prospect Richie Lewis got credit for both the first Marlins wild pitch and the first balk.
First cheap win: Tabaka got the victory after giving away a four-run lead in the fourth inning. He had the worst pitching line of the four pitchers who worked for the Marlins.