A look back makes Miami Marlins look ahead

Marlins hope young stars open new era with no more 100-loss seasons

03/30/2014 12:01 AM

07/31/2014 5:15 PM

Finishing dead last for a third consecutive season in 2013 was bad enough for the Marlins. But it was the extra tarnish of 100 losses that gave it gravity in a way that made it seem even more dismal.

That unsightly triple-digit numeral stung like the dickens.

“When you look at the standings, 99 is still two digits, so it falls in line with 89 and 79 and 69,” said Marlins president David Samson, explaining a preference for two-digit loss figures over the three-digit variety. “But 100 … you need another column. It’s something we certainly don’t want to see happen again.”

If history serves as any lesson, it probably won’t.

For that matter, the Marlins stand a better chance of reaching the playoffs within the next few years than they do of suffering through a second consecutive 100-loss season based on past results.

During the expansion era (since 1969), a dozen teams have reached the playoffs within five years of registering triple-digit losses whereas an even 10 have hit the century mark in losses in back-to-back years.

There are a number of notable examples that give hope to the Marlins:

• The Detroit Tigers, juggernauts now, suffered back-to-back campaigns of at least 100 losses in 2002 and ’03. In 2006, they reached the World Series.
• The Oakland A’s got to the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season, only two years after losing 108.
• The Marlins lost 108 games in 1998. Five years later, they won the World Series.
• The 1976 Montreal Expos dropped 107 games. Five years later, the franchise reached the postseason for the first time.

Marlins broadcaster Dave Van Horne remembers that time well. Van Horne was calling games for the Expos back then.

“Montreal turned it around in the 1970s on the strength of their farm system and their drafts,” Van Horne said. “They turned it around with young players.”

Much like the Marlins are trying to do now.

Although their 12-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays following their disastrous 2012 season caused an uproar, it also returned a haul of players that now serves as the foundation for the team’s rebuilding efforts, including players at the major-league level such as Henderson Alvarez and Adeiny Hechavarria, and prospects in the minors such as Justin Nicolino, Jake Marisnick and Andrew DeSclafani.

“A turnaround can happen here quickly,” said Tony Perez, a Hall of Fame player who now serves as a special assistant for the Marlins.

Perez ought to know.

In December 1976, mere months after the Cincinnati Reds claimed a second consecutive World Series title, with Perez representing a key cog in the Big Red Machine, he was traded to lowly Montreal.

Perez could have blocked the deal based on his 10-and-5 rights (10 years in the majors, including five with the same team), but chose not to. The Expos team that Perez joined had lost 107 games the previous season.

“They were a bad team, a real bad team,” Perez said.

But one look around the clubhouse convinced Perez the losing would not continue.

Those Expos had a cast of outstanding young players — Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Ellis Valentine and Warren Cromartie — who would help take the Expos to new heights.

“It didn’t happen right away,” Van Horne said of the recovery. “But by 1979, they were contenders with all those young players.”

Three years after losing 107, the Expos won 95 and went down to the final weekend of the season before being eliminated from postseason contention by the Pittsburgh “We Are Family” Pirates.

“They remained contenders from the 1979 season right on through the mid ’80s,” Van Horne said.

Or consider the Baltimore Orioles of the late 1980s.

Tim Kurkjian, now a senior baseball analyst with ESPN, covered the Orioles as a newspaper beat reporter during those down years in Baltimore.

Kurkjian was covering the team when it started out the 1988 season by losing a major-league record 21 consecutive games before going on to finish 54-107.

But one year later, the Orioles were a new team and remained in contention until September.

“I still don’t know how it happened,” Kurkjian said. “But I watched it happen. They beat [Roger] Clemens on Opening Day in ’89. It was fascinating to see how one game — and I believe this with all my heart — one game changed the look and outlook of a team. All of ’88 was swept away with one win on Opening Day. It was dramatic. It was that cool.”

Kurkjian said it was a season nobody could have imagined.

“The ’89 recovery by the Orioles was remarkable,” Kurkjian said. “We all predicted they would lose 100 games again. So there’s always hope. This is baseball. This is not the NBA. LeBron [James] isn’t going to touch it on every possession in this sport.”

Now comes the Marlins, who are trying to bounce back from their second-worst season, behind only the 108-loss 1998 team.

Media experts are again picking the Marlins to finish at or near the rear of the pack in the National League East, but figure they should avoid 100 losses because of additions such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones and Rafael Furcal.

Saltalamacchia, like Perez, is going from a World Series winner (in his case, the Boston Red Sox) to a doormat from the previous season. He said it was of “no concern” to him that he was going from great to potentially awful when he signed a three-year deal with the Marlins.

And with Saltalamacchia, there is reason to believe. After all, he said, the Red Sox lost 93 games in 2012, the year before bringing a World Series title back to Boston.

“I’ve been on a team that lost 93 games and won the World Series the next year,” he said. “Anybody can have a bad year.”

The Marlins can only hope that’s the case, and that they never again lose 100 games.

“A longtime baseball executive once said, if you stay around long enough, you’ll see everything,” Samson said. “It’s something that we’ve all seen, and would not like to see again.”

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