The Miami Marlins are the hottest team in baseball. You could actually have awakened Wednesday to say that, and without sarcasm or irony. They'd won four games in a row and six of the past seven, the only loss by one run. It wasn't a mirage. Might not last, or signify a turnaround. But it really happened.
Grab onto it. Grab it like a man lost at sea would a floating plank of driftwood. Or like Tom Hanks with his volleyball friend in Cast Away.
The woeful, start-over Marlins picking themselves up off the floor reminds us anything is possible, and maybe more so in sports. It reminds us how to feel optimism again, even just a morsel. We need that right now in South Florida with our four major pro teams.
The negativity is in your face; yes, I am an occasional purveyor. But it is everywhere.
Post-free agency, ESPN's NFL power rankings had the Dolphins No. 32. There is no 33, folks. Post-draft, the WestGate SuperBook in Las Vegas put Miami's betting over/under at six wins, third-worst in the league. The broad perception: Another 6-10 season is likelier than a charge to the playoffs.
The Heat got bounced unceremoniously from the postseason, 4-1 in the first round, and, relying on role players and depth, seems a huge tier below the four NBA East teams still playing.
The Marlins, though hot lately, seem a slow rebuild to a future without guarantee, as weekday home crowds dip to the embarrassing 5,000 range.
The Panthers had a winning record. Still, for the 19th time in 24 seasons they were not in the Stanley Cup tournament.
Now let's find that plank of driftwood.
Here are reasons why fans of each of our Big Four pro teams, with a small leap of faith, might feel optimistic today:
(*) DOLPHINS: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill stays healthy and has a Pro Bowl-caliber season, his best yet, justifying management's faith in him and thumbing his nose at skeptics (like me) who thought Miami should have drafted a QB. Gronk-sized rookie tight end Mike Gesicki shows immediate impact and unlocks the offense for coach Adam Gase and Tannehill. Dynamic do-it-all safety Minkah Fitzpatrick elevates the entire defense in proving to be Miami's best long term first-round pick on D since Tim Bowens in 1994.
Hey, and consider: Philadelphia is reigning Super Bowl champion following consecutive 7-9 seasons. It can happen. Plus, the law of averages, right? I mean, not counting Browns sufferers, of course, who's due a wave of feelgood more than Dolfans?
▪ HEAT: Optimism here does not run so high as to imagine Miami acquires Kawhi Leonard in a trade and then welcomes back LeBron James this summer. Trying to keep it at least a little real. (Although if Pat Riley wants a last hurrah, Kawhi and LeBron are certainly enticingly available, if not likely to the Heat).
Miami is 74-49 over the past 1 1/2 seasons. This team is not far from being top-four in the East with the Celtics/Sixers/Raptors, presuming LeBron leaves Cleveland and the Cavs fritter to irrelevance. You get Dion Waiters back healthy, you re-sign 3-point shooter Wayne Ellington, you find a buyer for pricey Tyler Johnson, you get continued development from Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo — and you either find a trade partner for Hassan Whiteside or use him properly — not this 12-minute role-player nonsense that serves nobody.
Oh, and Riley will get somebody notable in free agency. Count on it. Paul George, Tyreke Evans, J.J. Redick, Carmelo Anthony — they're out there. This might not be the summer for Riley's ultimate whale, but it doesn't mean the Old Man won't be out on the sea in his boat, casting hard.
▪ MARLINS: Floor-up rebuilds in baseball can work. Houston went from 51-111 in 2013 to playoffs in '15 to World Series champs in '17. There is a template for what Derek Jeter is preaching (if not promising): Winning that is sustainable, if you'll wait until, say, 2020 or '21 for the payback. Jeter has done a ton wrong in his short time as out-front owner. He started by trading away the best outfield in baseball. But one thing Jeter did very right was bring Gary Denbo with him from the Yankees in charge of scouting and player development.
We'll see smarter drafting to augment the top prospects (such as Lewis Brinson and Jarlin Garcia) acquired in the fire sale.
If the new ownership will commit to enhancing the slow-build via youth with strategic spending on free agents (a starting pitcher, one big bat), what Marlins fans have been feeling the past couple of week has a chance to take root, and to grow.
▪ PANTHERS: Florida this season had the second-most wins (44) and third-most standings points (96) in the club's quarter-century The team's youthful core of skaters makes this a team on the ascent.
All-Star Aleksander Barkov, still only, 22, can be a 35 or 40-goal scorer and legit NHL superstar. Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau all are 25 or younger. The foundation the Marlins are trying to develop, the Cats have.
An obvious issue is the long-term future at goaltender, with mainstay Roberto Luongo now 39. But the Panthers believe they have a great one in development in 21-year-old French Canadian Samuel Montembeault. There may be no local pro team closer to competing for a championship than the one on ice.
Sports fans, this column has been sponsored by optimism. The feeling doesn't always come easily. It takes work, but don't let the occasional nuisance of reality get in the way of the nourishing insistence of hope.