Winning brings Marlins expanded expectations Florida players refuse to let first-year status dictate their destiny INAUGURAL YEAR 1993


PHILADELPHIA -- The best way to insult a member of the Florida Marlins these days is to call him a member of an expansion team.

Sure, the Marlins and the Colorado Rockies are in their first seasons of existence, the first gate-crashers to the National League party in 24 years.

But the Marlins realize that when most baseball fans think of expansion clubs, they think of teams like the 1962 New York Mets: broken-down veterans drawing their last paychecks and not-ready-for-prime-time rookies.

"It's just not healthy to think of us as an expansion team in terms of winning and losing," said Marlins right-hander Jack Armstrong. "If you start to put it in that connotation, you're setting limitations on what an expansion team can accomplish based on what they've done in the past. That may not be the case here and it seems not to be the case. We just go on and play with whatever experience we have."

Said right-hander Ryan Bowen: "We're professional ballplayers first. We just happen to be employed by the Florida Marlins, who just happen to be in their first year. If we keep pushing, who knows how many we can win?"

And so far, Florida is winning. The Marlins already have swept a four-game series over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the three-time defending National League East champions. With Thursday's 4-1 win here over the Phillies, the current East leaders, the Marlins have won at least one game in each National League city, except Chicago.

They've only been swept once in 23 series, and while the Marlins' 31-35 record through Friday won't win them a title, they are closer to .500 at this point in the season than any expansion team since the 1961 Washington Senators, who reached the break-even point in their 60th game, then promptly lost 10 in a row and ended up 61-100.

In fact, the Marlins would be in contention if they were in the American League West, where the division-leading Kansas City Royals, a 1969 expansion entry, were four games over .500 through Friday.

Yet Florida has only three players among the league leaders in hitting or pitching categories and only one starter with a record above .500.

"We felt we could be competitive, that we had an opportunity to be in the games and not get blown out," said first baseman Orestes Destrade. "Once you can do that, then you try to go on to the next step. You don't want to be complacent and say, 'Well, we'll win a couple of games and just look decent.' We have a lot of guys here with competitive edges who want to take the next step, even if it's something that's not expected or done before by a first-year team."

Still, the Marlins, like the Rockies, are a collection of the old and new. They have knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough, at 45 the third-oldest player in the majors this year. Hough was pitching in the majors before 23-year-old center fielder Chuck Carr, who leads the league in steals, was in kindergarten.

But thanks to careful selections in the expansion draft and wise free-agent signings, Florida was nine games better than Colorado before Saturday, and 10 games ahead of the Mets, who are headed for their worst year since that 40-120 season in 1962.

"They've got some experience over there [Colorado], too, but it seems like the Rockies either have guys who have been around seven years or they have rookies," said Marlins third baseman Dave Magadan, a member of the Mets last season. "We've got a nice mixture of guys who have been around seven years, guys who have been around two or three years and the young kids. There's different levels of experience over here, so it's a good combination."

Indeed, general manager Dave Dombrowski, who left the Montreal Expos to help launch the Marlins, built an extensive scouting network that identified younger talent such as Carr, outfielder Jeff Conine and infielder Bret Barberie, to be plucked from the expansion pool. The Marlins then fortified that youth with free-agent veterans such as Hough, Magadan, catcher Benito Santiago and Destrade, who signed after two years in Japan.

"We tried to supplement that [younger] talent with some veteran talent through free agency," Dombrowski said. "So it would give us a chance to be a little more competitive now, but also allow some of the young talent we acquired to develop."

The Marlins went into the draft with a few advantages over their expansion predecessors. First, they had the very deep pockets of Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, who owns the Blockbuster Video chain as well as half of Joe Robbie Stadium, where the Marlins play, 15 percent of the Miami Dolphins and all of the Florida Panthers, who will enter the NHL next year.

Second, the Marlins and Rockies were allowed to select players from teams in both leagues. In the past, expansion teams only drafted players from teams in their own leagues. Third, the two new teams also were permitted to sign free agents.

"They drafted from both leagues," said Philadelphia manager Jim Fregosi, a member of the 1961 Los Angeles Angels. "They had a chance to put their organization in place before the draft. . . . It's a whole different game compared to what we had to go through in the early years."

Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, who was a member of the 1969 Kansas City Royals front-office staff, agrees with Fregosi that comparing the Marlins to other expansion teams is "apples and oranges," but he gives Dombrowski credit for constructing the Marlins.

"They're going to be a good club," said Schuerholz. "The Kansas City Royals are the only club never to finish last, and we won the division faster than any other expansion team. The Marlins may exceed that."

Perhaps Dombrowski's biggest coup was the drafting of closer Bryan Harvey from the California Angels. Harvey, who had 46 saves with the Angels in 1991, had surgery on his right elbow last year. Many observers considered him a luxury on a team that probably wouldn't have many opportunities to use his services, even if he were healthy.

Instead, Harvey has anchored a superb bullpen. He has 20 saves in 21 opportunities and has held opposing hitters below .200.

"Bryan Harvey has given the Marlins a lot of credibility," said former Orioles announcer Joe Angel, who is the lead broadcaster for Marlins games. "They've been able to win those games in which they have led in the late innings. I mean, if you start losing those games, they can get the ballclub down. Harvey is money in the bank because he's done that for the club. If Dave Dombrowski gets overwhelmed with a trade offer, that's also money in the bank."

Dombrowski says that he did not select Harvey to then trade him and is not actively shopping him now, though he would be open to the right offer.

Part of Dombrowski's reluctance to deal Harvey or any other regular may stem from the notion that while the Phillies' astounding start this season has chilled any talk of contention for this year, the Marlins, with some luck, could challenge next year for a spot in an expanded playoff format.

For now, however, the Marlins and the 40,000 fans who attend Joe Robbie Stadium each game are content to sit back and wait.

"Second place is still a little way away from us," Harvey said. "I guess our goal was not to lose 100 games. Nobody wants to do that. But it's hard to set goals, because no one knew what was going to happen.

"We just come out every day and try to play as hard as we can and hopefully good things happen. So far, they have."

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