They were there from the start — right when Charlie Hough knuckled the first strike in Marlins history on April 5, 1993.
Mike Morse, 11 years old at the time, was sitting up in the nosebleed seats in the upper deck in right field at Joe Robbie Stadium on that warm afternoon. Mat Latos, barely 5, was with his family near the Marlins’ bullpen.
“I remember a little bit,” Latos said. “Ricky Renteria, my bench coach in San Diego, was on the team. I remember the first pitch of the game, the crowd going nuts. I remember [Jeff] Conine hitting a shot to right-center [field]. I can’t tell you who scored the first run or who they were playing. I just remember it was hot as hell.”
Marlins memories have been flowing freely lately for Latos and Morse. The two South Florida natives — Latos graduated from Coconut Creek High and Morse from Davie Nova High — were among the three new additions introduced to the local media Friday during a ceremony at Marlins Park.
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Second baseman Dee Gordon grew up in Avon Park, about three hours north of Miami, just north of Lake Okeechobee, and didn’t spend quite as much time as Latos and Morse did following the Marlins. But as the son of three-time All-Star pitcher Tom “Flash” Gordon, Dee did go see his dad play against the Marlins here a handful of times.
Now, like Latos and Morse, he’s happy to be playing close to home.
“I feel like I’m graduating from high school again,” the 26-year-old 2014 All-Star told Marlins president of baseball operations Mike Hill as he was introduced on stage. “I’m just happy I don’t have to face these guys anymore — Big G [Giancarlo Stanton] and [Jose] Fernandez.”
For Morse, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal on Tuesday following his World Series title run with the Giants in October, becoming a Marlin is a dream come true.
There might not be a player in baseball with deeper connections to the Fish — and that’s not just as a kid who was there to chase Chuck Carr and Conine for autographs. As a young minor-league player, Morse, now 32, became close friends with many Marlins greats because he worked out at the same gym with many of them.
“Charles Johnson, Cliff Floyd and Pudge Rodriguez were at my wedding,” said Morse, who signed with the White Sox in 2000 as a third-round draft pick, straight out of high school.
“I found this trainer down at Gold’s Gym on Red Road down here in Miami, and these guys took me under their wing at the prime of their careers. Charles Johnson taught me so much. Cliff Floyd and Preston Wilson taught me how to hit. Pudge, he just texted me and said he can’t wait to come down here. I’m going to try and get him out to spring training to help with catchers and stuff.”
Latos, whom the Marlins acquired in a trade from the Reds during the Winter Meetings, wasn’t as diehard a Fish fan as Morse. But he went to about 15 to 20 games per year and can still remember chasing former Marlins pitcher David Weathers around for autographs.
“David Weathers, when he was a Marlin, had this white Mercedes, and he would leave the players lot and go down this one alley,” Latos said. “I would run after him with this hat I would get autographs on.
“My first year in the big leagues I got called up, my third start in the league against Cincinnati … David Weathers is out there as I’m going over to throw a bullpen. I walk up kind of like a little kid and tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Mr. Weathers, I know you don’t remember me, but I just want to let you know when you used to play for the Marlins you used to have that white Mercedes, and I would chase after you to get your autograph on a hat.’ He looks at me and says, ‘Damn, I’m getting old.’”
Latos said he became friends with former Marlins World Series winner Juan Pierre when he was playing at Broward College and working part-time as a hibachi chef at Peking Tokyo, a Pan-Asian-style restaurant near Pierre’s home in Coral Springs.
Latos said an autograph request turned into weekly conversations with Pierre. When Latos finally got called up to the big leagues, he said Pierre came over to him to congratulate him.
“It’s a good story that touches the heart of how this whole thing is about coming home,” Latos said.
And that’s how Latos and Morse see this — as a chance to return home and become hometown heroes like the Marlins they idolized.
“From what I experienced with the San Francisco Giants, you don’t have to be the best team to win the World Series. You just have to know how to win,” Morse said. “A lot of these guys have so much talent, you don’t really have to tell them much. You just have to point them in the right direction.”