MIAMI -- The Florida Marlins endured more than their share of criticism for having the audacity to be the first wild-card team to reach the World Series. People laughed at their funny-looking converted football stadium, poked fun at their fish-headed mascot and generally dismissed them as the product of Major League Baseball's warped imagination.
Well, guess what.
Everybody's doing the fish. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The Marlins are the champions of the world. They came from behind to defeat the Cleveland Indians, 3-2, in 11 innings before 67,204 at sold-out Pro Player Stadium, then rolled around on the infield grass like the precocious 5-year-old franchise that they are.
The television executives can complain all they want. The matchup didn't capture the national imagination. The Marlins were a store-bought team that didn't really deserve to be in the World Series. The games were too long, too ragged, too cold, too late for the kids to watch.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The Marlins are the world champions because Indians second baseman Tony Fernandez made a critical error in the 11th inning and Florida shortstop Edgar Renteria bounced a two-out single through the middle to score Craig Counsell with the biggest run in the history of baseball's youngest franchise.
The Marlins are the champions of the world because they outlasted everybody else, including the Indians, who were chilling champagne for 8 1/2 innings last night after rookie Jaret Wright pitched the game of his short life and the Indians' bullpen worked to within two outs of the club's first world title in 49 years.
Cleveland carried a two-run lead into the late innings, but former Oriole Bobby Bonilla cut it in half with a long home run in the seventh and diminutive second baseman Craig Counsell tied the game with a sacrifice fly to right in the bottom of the ninth. Indians closer Jose Mesa blew the biggest save opportunity of his life and the Indians will have to wait a little longer -- though probably not another half-century -- to end their long championship drought.
Manager Jim Leyland, who had come up on the short end of a few dramatic finishes in his career, paraded around the field with a giant flag that proclaimed the Marlins the 1997 world champions. It was mildly reminiscent of Cal Ripken's victory lap when he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record on Sept. 6, 1995, but it was just a spontaneous reaction from a manager who is known more for his lack of emotion.
"I guess every little boy dreams that this will happen to him one time," Leyland said afterward. "It's all a fantasy to me. These guys haven't quit all year, and this wasn't the night to quit."
The Indians have been waiting since 1948 for another world title. The Marlins didn't even have to win their first division title to get one. They won the wild-card berth -- finishing well behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East -- and caught fire at just the right time.
They swept the NL West champion San Francisco Giants in the Division Series, then surprised the defending NL champion Braves in the National League Championship Series. The big hero of October was Cuban defector Livan Hernandez, who dominated the Braves, then defeated the Indians twice to win World Series MVP honors and emerge as an international star in his first major-league season.
The 1997 postseason was a huge showcase for Latin players. Marlins outfielder Moises Alou hit three home runs in the World Series, including a decisive three-run shot off Orel Hershiser in Game 1 and another three-run homer off Hershiser in Game 5. He finished with nine RBIs. Indians catcher Sandy Alomar hit five home runs over the three playoff tiers and set a major-league record with 19 RBIs in a single postseason. And, finally, Renteria delivered the decisive hit that sent South Florida into seventh heaven.
"I feel so excited because the team won," said Renteria, a national hero in his native Colombia even before last night.
Still, the World Series did not play well on main street. Television ratings were among the lowest since the networks began keeping track of viewership data in 1959. The presence of a wild-card team with almost no history or tradition seemed to turn off viewers -- especially after several nationally popular teams bowed out earlier.
"I would hope people would look at this Series and realize that it doesn't have to be Los Angeles, or Baltimore or Atlanta," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove. "Those are very good teams, but the Florida Marlins are a great ballclub and the Indians are a great ballclub. It doesn't have to be the same teams every year. This was a great series."
The Marlins didn't design baseball's three-tiered playoff format, and Leyland lashed out at critics of the matchup during a news conference last week in Cleveland.
Major League Baseball wanted a format that would keep teams in contention longer, but no one expected a team like the Marlins to overstay its welcome and actually walk away with the world title.
"It's tough to take," said Indians first baseman Jim Thome. "In '95, it wasn't that tough because we were playing a great team and we were in for the first time. This time, we were two outs away. But nobody's a loser. We battled. They played well."
It was the Indians who seemed to have the horseshoe concession for most of the postseason -- right up until the ninth inning last night. Alomar's game-saving home run off New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera kept the club alive in the Division Series. Marquis Grissom's three-run shot off Armando Benitez in Game 2 of the ALCS turned the tide against the Orioles. Fernandez put them in the World Series with an extra-inning home run at Camden Yards.
Good fortune seemed to follow them all through the postseason -- from the game-winning missed suicide squeeze bunt in Game 3 of the ALCS to the surprisingly rocky performance of Marlins ace Kevin Brown in both his World Series starts.
Maybe that's why Hargrove felt so confident betting the world title on the live young arm of the 21-year-old Wright, who defeated the Marlins in Game 4 and was one of the heroes of Cleveland's comeback victory in the Division Series against the Yankees.
Hargrove's confidence in his rookie right-hander was well-founded. Wright gave up just two hits over 6 1/3 innings and looked like a winner until the Marlins scored in the ninth. His only mistake was the pitch that Bonilla launched deep into the right-field bleachers to lead off the seventh.
"Jaret was outstanding," Hargrove said. "He came out and gave us everything we wanted and then some."
Marlins starter Al Leiter retired the first six batters, but struggled with his control in the third and had the bullpen up early. He walked Thome to lead off the third and gave up a single to Grissom before Wright helped himself with a two-strike sacrifice bunt that set up the go-ahead runs.
Fernandez, who knocked out the Orioles with his 11th-inning home run in Game 6 of the ALCS, stroked a soft line drive to center field to score both runners. That's when relievers Antonio Alfonseca and Felix Heredia began throwing in the Florida bullpen, but Leiter collected himself and worked through the sixth.
It turned out to be a gutsy outing for the veteran left-hander, who had struggled through a difficult season and had not pitched well in his four previous postseason appearances. He worked six innings and gave up just the two runs on four hits but left with no chance to record his first postseason victory.
Cleveland Indians vs. Florida Marlins
(Best of seven) Marlins win series, 4-3
Game .. .. .. Result
Game 1 ... .. Florida, 7-4
Game 2 ... .. Cleveland, 6-1
Game 3 ... .. Florida, 14-11
Game 4 ... .. Cleveland, 10-3
Game 5 ... .. Florida, 8-7
Game 6 ... .. Cleveland, 4-1
Last night .. Florida, 3-2, 11
This was the fourth World Series Game 7 or 8 that was decided in extra innings:
1912 -- Red Sox 3, Giants 2, 10 innings, Game 8*
1924 -- Senators 4, Giants 3, 12 innings, Game 7
1991 -- Twins 1, Braves 0, 10 innings, Game 7
1997 -- Marlins 3, Indians 2, 11 innings, Game 7
* Game 2 ended in a tie
Good to the end
Teams that won the World Series this decade in the bottom of the last inning, with team, opponent and rally:
1997 Florida Marlins: Edgar Renteria's bases-loaded, two-out single off Charles Nagy in the 11th inning gives the Marlins a 3-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the seventh game of the Series.
1993 Toronto Blue Jays: Joe Carter's three-run homer with one out in the ninth inning off Mitch Williams rallied the Blue Jays to an 8-6 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies and a 4-2 triumph in the Series.
1991 Minnesota Twins: Pinch hitter Gene Larkin's bases-loaded single over a drawn-in outfield gives the Twins a 10-inning, 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves and a 4-3 triumph in the Series.
Pub Date: 10/27/97