Are you ready, South Florida sports fans? Tomorrow is opening day for the Florida Marlins, our first-ever Big League In Most Respects Baseball Team. The players have spent nearly two months running, throwing, catching, hitting, spitting and adjusting their personal protectors in preparation for this moment.
But the question, Mr. or Ms. South Florida Sports Fan, is this: Are YOU ready? Do you really know what's involved in being a Major-League baseball fan? To help you find out, here's a question designed to determine your knowledge of Fan Fundamentals:
It's the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game, with one out, runners at first and third, and a count of two balls and one strike. As the pitcher prepares to pitch, you, the knowledgeable fan, should:
a. Watch the pitcher closely, to see if some subtle change in his stance indicates that he will try to pick off one of the runners.
b. Watch the way the catcher crouches, to see if some subtle weight shift indicates that he has called for a pitchout.
c. Watch the runner at third base to see if some subtle change in the way he takes his lead indicates that he plans to break for home on the pitch, meaning that the "suicide squeeze" play is on.
The correct answer, of course, is that you should:
d. Yell "HEY UMP! YOU SUCK!"
If you didn't know this, don't feel bad. Baseball is an extremely complex and subtle game. It is not an action-packed, high-impact game like football, wherein every 30 seconds, the players are all required to lunge together and fall down and have knee injuries. Nor is baseball a nonstop, fast-paced game like basketball, where teams routinely run up dozens of points while they are still in the locker room.
No, baseball is a timeless and cerebral game, a game involving an enormous amount of strategy, defined as "minutes on end wherein no action other than scratching is visible to the naked eye." That is why it takes so much skill to be a baseball announcer or color man. These people have to be constantly thinking up things to talk about while all the strategy is going on.
ANNOUNCER: . . . that'll bring shortstop Wally Dweemer to the plate. Wally's a switch-hitter who was brought up this year from the Triple-A Syracuse Fountain Pens, where he led the conference two years in a row in RBI, ERA, GNP and Walks Versus Left-Handed Relievers Coming From Families Of Six Or More.
(The batter, standing just outside the batter's box, carefully adjusts his right batting glove.)
COLOR MAN: Wally's dad, Fred "Dreamer" Dweemer, played in the Cincinnati organization for the Grand Forks Pie Servers. Some fine ballplayers came up out of that ball club, Bob.
ANNOUNCER: Isn't that the club that Hector "The Egg" Del Huevo came out of?
(The batter completes the adjustment of his right glove and starts working on his left.)
COLOR MAN: No, Bob, I believe Hector played his minor- league ball for the Flagstaff Toxic Phosphates, where he led the conference in LPG, ASPCA, IOU and Being On Base When The Wind Really Kicked Up. That was in 1958.
COLOR MAN: A.D., Bob.
(The batter begins the process of positioning his right foot in the batter's box, carefully digging it into the dirt.)
ANNOUNCER: I'll tell you, they get some wind in Arizona.
COLOR MAN: That they do, Bob.
(The batter, unhappy with his right-foot positioning, steps back out of the batter's box. He starts frowning at his right glove.)
ANNOUNCER: My name is Bill.
COLOR MAN: HEY UMP! YOU SUCK!!
* * *
This is the kind of strategy that can occur in baseball with just one batter, before a single pitch has been thrown to him. Bear in mind that there are dozens of batters, not to mention pauses in the action every half-inning, when one team sits down and the other team gets warmed up again before play can resume; plus of course pitching changes -- sometimes several in an inning -- and conferences on the mound to discuss tactics and review secret hand signals. ("OK, if I touch my cap with my right hand, that means a pickoff; if I touch my right forearm, that means a pitchout; and if I scratch my left armpit, that means I have an itch in my left armpit.")
The result of this constant strategy is that modern baseball games regularly go on for more than three hours, although when you're there in person, it can seem much longer. This is why you, as a fan, need to become knowledgeable. To be a fan of other sports, all you have time to do is react to the action; in baseball, you have to come up with ways to keep yourself entertained and involved. Even the players have to do this. This is why baseball has WAY more extracurricular activities than any other sport. It has more statistics, more traditions, more rituals, more legends, more superstitions, more Famous Moments, more practical jokes and more nicknames, including -- these are real baseball nicknames -- Joe "Horse Belly" Sargent, George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk, Freddie "The Flea" Patek, Jake "Tomatoes" Kafora, Lee "Skeeter" Tate, Clem "Steamboat" Dreisewerd, Sheldon "Available" Jones and George "Prunes" Moolic.
Baseball also has more colorful lingo than any other sport, including "tater," "gopher," "gapper," "yakker," "hoover," "dinger," "dong," "cheese," "chin music," "can of corn" and of course "the ducks are up." Each of these terms means something specific. You cannot just walk up to knowledgeable baseball fans and throw these terms around at random.
FIRST KNOWLEDGEABLE FAN: . . . . so he's throwing yakkers, but then he comes with some cheese high and tight.
SECOND KNOWLEDGEABLE FAN: A little chin music.
FIRST KNOWLEDGEABLE FAN: Right. So on the next pitch, Jones hits a gapper, but this hoover at short . . .
YOU (walking up): Hi, fellows! "Can of corn!" How about the "dinger" on that "gopher"?
KNOWLEDGEABLE FANS: What a "dork."
* * *
The point I'm trying to make here is that if you're going to be a real major-league baseball fan, you have to know a lot of stuff, both about baseball in general and about your new team, the Florida Marlins. In a comically futile effort to provide you with this information, Tropic magazine sent me to the Marlins' spring-training facility for a few days in early March. Here is my Scouting Report, which I have broken down into the various key facets of the game, starting with the facet of:
This was the first thing I noticed when I arrived at the training facility, which is located in The Middle of Nowhere, Fla. You get off of I-95 and drive out through some fields, and then you come to the Marlins' facility, which is still under construction. But they have finished the baseball fields, and beyond one of them, over the right-field fence, there are cows standing around. I don't know whether these are civilian cows, or actually part of the Marlins organization, free-agent cows brought up from the farm system to give the hitters something to aim for. (This could lead to some new colorful lingo, as in "C'mon Hector! Hit a cow!" Or: "Make 'em spit cud!" Or: "He hit a real moo ball.")
Also on hand at the Marlins' training facility and behaving in a fairly herdlike manner were your standard
These people are everywhere in baseball. Every time I came to the Marlins facility, there they were, hanging around outside the clubhouse where the players came out, waiting to pounce.
I'm not talking about kids, here. I'm talking about grown people. Serious people. When a Marlin player would emerge from the clubhouse, on his way to one of the practice fields, the autograph-seekers would approach him, thrusting out balls, bats, cards, hats and various other baseball things.
"Gary?" they'd say. "Gary? Could I get an autograph? Gary?"
Some players would stop and sign, and clusters of autograph-seekers would quickly form around them. Some players -- these tended to be the veterans -- would sign, but keep walking briskly, with the cluster scurrying to keep up. Occasionally a player would wave the autograph-seekers away.
During lulls between players, the autograph-seekers would chat, examine each other's memorabilia, and talk strategy.
"I've been concentrating on the ones I know will make the club," one fan was saying. "Right now the only one I need is Dave Magadan."
"This is Fariss," said one male fan, frowning at a scrawl produced by outfielder Monty Fariss. "But I don't see how you get 'Fariss' out of that."
A short distance away, another man, holding an autographed bat, was saying, with some pride in his voice: "One time Milt Plum (a football player) told me to go f - - - myself."
At this point, catcher Benito Santiago, who is expected to be a Marlins' star and who can, while kneeling, throw a baseball farther than I can, while standing, see, came out of the clubhouse.
"I got him already," said a man.
"Do I have him?" said a woman, looking at her baseball as Santiago strode past. "No!" she said, sounding upset, turning to run after Santiago. "Benny!" she was calling, holding out her ball. "Benny? Please?"
This was a person in her 60s.
When I was a kid, 35 years ago, grown-ups did not do this kind of thing. Grown-ups, generally, acted like grown-ups. Kids ran after baseball players, trying to get autographs. Kids collected baseball cards, which they kept in shoe boxes, which eventually their moms threw away, which gives them something to talk about now.
"Do you know what my old baseball cards would be worth today?" guys are always saying. "I'd be RICH!"
Of course times have changed. Unless you just got back from a lengthy trip outside the solar system, you know that collecting sports memorabilia, and especially baseball memorabilia, has become a big business; that people pay huge sums of money for sacred artifacts like Babe Ruth's cigar butt; that a whole industry has arisen around baseball cards, which are evaluated and traded like stocks and bonds and purchased in bulk and carefully stored in plastic protectors by investors who wouldn't know the difference between a forkball and a forklift; and that some big baseball names charge money for their autographs, sitting at tables and collecting $5 or $10 a pop from people shuffling through in an assembly-line style operation that is as personal and meaningful as buying stamps at the post office.
All of which, if you ask me, sucks. I think the people who run major-league baseball ought to take a short break from arguing about money and pass the following rule:
No more autographs for grown-ups.
I admit this would be radical, but maybe it would make people start thinking about the silliness of all this intense collecting. Maybe the people wandering through these giant baseball-card shows would stop and say to themselves: "Hey, wait a minute. These are just baseball cards. I'm not going to spend actual money for these." And the bottom would fall right out of the memorabilia market and the "investors" would have to go out and get real jobs and leave baseball-card-collecting to kids, who would once again put their cards in shoe boxes. And then their moms would eventually throw the cards away, as Nature intended.
We Marlins fans have a chance to be trendsetters here. We could be the first fans in the major leagues to regain our perspective. We could be cool. We could leave the autograph- collecting to youngsters, while we sat back in our Joe Robbie Stadium seats, ate a hot dog, had a beer, and pondered the
FINER POINTS OF THE GAME
Baseball is full of them. Every time I have anything to do with baseball, I discover some new fine point that I had not been aware of.
A trivial example: I was at a Marlins' training-facility field, watching an intrasquad game. I was standing behind the backstop, which is scary, because major-league pitchers throw the ball unbelievably hard. The ball doesn't even go ZIP. There isn't time. The ball just has time to go Z and then WHAM it slams into the catcher and kills him.
Or at least that's what I always expect to happen. In fact, the catcher catches the ball, or sometimes -- this still seems impossible to me -- the hitter hits it. (In this intrasquad game I had already watched Jeff Conine, an outfielder, hit one over the right-field fence, into the cow area. What we call a "moo ball.")
So I was cowering behind the backstop, watching Cris Carpenter pitch. What I was seeing was a guy throwing a baseball hard enough to demolish a masonry building. But a few feet away, hitting coach Doug "Rooster" Rader, who does in fact look like Foghorn Leghorn, was seeing something else. He frowned, then turned to pitching coach Marcel Lachemann and said: "Does Carpenter have a slide step?"
"Carpenter?" asked Lachemann.
"Yeah," said Rader.
The two of them then put their heads together and spoke quietly and intently for several minutes. Major-league coaches, talking coach stuff. I thought: A "slide step"? What the heck is a "slide step"? Is that a good thing to have, like control? Or a bad thing, like rickets? I don't know the answer, but I plan to subtly slip it into the conversation next time I'm at a game with friends. ("HEY name of opposing pitcher! YOUR SLIDE STEP SUCKS!")
I should point out that not all professional pitchers throw hard. A flagrant exception is Marlins' pitcher Charlie Hough, who is 45 years old. And he's not the kind of 45 where you say, "He takes excellent care of himself." He's more the kind of 45 where you say, "He could easily pass for 53." He looks like your Uncle Warren, the claims adjustor, who somehow got hold of a major-league baseball uniform and sneaked into a major-league spring-training facility and the security guards haven't noticed him yet. He looks comically out of place in the clubhouse, a stoop-shouldered older guy surrounded by muscular stud-muffin specimens of youth. In his locker I saw a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray containing a couple of smoked butts. (Collectors, take note!)
The reason Hough is still around, at 45, is that he throws a knuckleball. This is a pitch that puts very little strain on the pitcher's arm, because it is thrown very slowly, by major- league, or even Little League, standards. (When Hough pitches to Benito Santiago, Santiago throws the ball back to the mound noticeably faster than Hough throws it in.) But the knuckleballer uses a mysterious grip that causes the ball to dance around in the air, mosquito-like, thereby making it hard to hit, unless the knuckleballer messes up, in which case the ball disappears, meteor-like, over the outfield fence.
It was fun to watch Hough pitch in spring training: He smiled a lot, joked around, looked genuinely happy and grateful to be out there throwing this goofy-looking pitch, instead of having to get some kind of standard 45-year-old-guy job involving accounts payable or something.
Root for him, Marlins fans. He's your Uncle Warren.
Another person I think we should be rooting for is
This is Rene Lachemann, younger brother of pitching coach Marcel. I caught up with Rene in the clubhouse one day after practice, while the players were milling around the locker area, changing and talking to reporters.
I've been in a number of professional-sports locker rooms, but I'm never comfortable. I was no good at sports as a young person. My memories of the Pleasantville High School locker room are that it smelled awful, and that large naked guys were always going around snapping wet towels at smaller individuals such as myself.
Professional locker rooms smell a lot better, and so far no large naked professional athlete has snapped me with a towel, but the possibility is always lurking in the back of my mind, and you know it would really hurt, especially if the guy snapping you was a pitcher. ("Does Carpenter have a towel snap?" "Yeah, we clocked it at 417 miles per hour.")
So anyway, I went into the manager's office and met Rene Lachemann, whom people call "Lach" (pronounced "latch"). The Marlins hired him out of the Oakland organization, where he spent the past six years as a coach. Before that he managed the Seattle Mariners for part of three seasons, and the Milwaukee Brewers for part of one. (Baseball managers do not have a lot of job security. George Steinbrenner has a note on his shaving mirror that says: 1. Take shirts to laundry. 2. Fire manager.)
Lachemann is 47, and looks a little like a stocky version of Paul Hogan, the Crocodile Dundee actor. He wears his hair longish in the back, longer than most of his players wear theirs. He's a friend of kick-butt-guitar-playing rocker George "Bad to the Bone" Thorogood.
Lachemann is an easygoing person. You get the feeling you can ask him pretty much anything; he's not intimidating, like Don Shula, who, if you ask him a question that he considers stupid, might very well order you to do push-ups, and of course you would have to do them.
My opening question to Lachemann concerned an issue that I imagine is very much on the minds of all Marlins fans, as the fledgling team prepares to enter its inaugural season with serious concerns about its starting pitching.
"How come," I asked, "the players wear their jockstraps outside their underwear?"
(They do, and it just seems wrong to me, like a woman wearing a brassiere outside her blouse.)
"Basically," Lachemann said, "I would say it's an old baseball tradition. Also there's the issue of jock rash."
He then launched into a mini-lecture about how players used to put on their pants when he first got into the game. The procedure was to turn the pants inside out, sit down with the pant legs pointing toward you, put your feet through the pant holes, then pull the pants up, so they ended up right-side out. Lachemann, who was wearing shorts, got up from his desk, grabbed a pair of pants and demonstrated this procedure to me and a group of sports writers, some of whom, because they spoke only Spanish, seemed quite surprised. They were clearly thinking: "What kind of question did this person ask that would make the manager put his pants on this way?"
Anyway, it looked like a ridiculous way to put on pants, and several of us journalists said so, and Lachemann gave us an explanation, which concerned socks, but I frankly did not understand it. Maybe it has something to do with the "slide step."
One thing I noticed, while Lachemann was talking, is that he uses the phrase "go ahead" a lot. He manages to slide "go ahead" into just about every sentence, sometimes several times, as in the following Lach Quotes, which I am not making up:
-- "The wind's really blowing today, but you're going to get into games where the wind is gonna go ahead and blow."
-- "I don't know where they go ahead and get these figures, but I'm not going to go ahead and challenge them."
-- "Our goal is to try to go ahead and win every game we go ahead and play."
-- "We need these games to go ahead and make observations, because we need to go ahead and evaluate these people, so we can go ahead and make judgments."
Of course "go ahead" has been in the English language since the age of Shakespeare ("To go ahead and be, or to go ahead and NOT be . . ."). But Lachemann has raised it to an art form, and I think we, as fans, should make it the Official Phrase of the Florida Marlins, incorporating it into our cheers, as in:
"LET'S GO AHEAD, MARLINS!"
"HEY UMP! YOU GO AHEAD AND SUCK!"
Speaking of umpires, Lachemann does not get thrown out of many games.
"What I've learned," he said, "is that you can argue with the umpires, and you can go ahead and use certain parts of profanity, as long as you never use the word 'you.' You can go ahead and say 'horse - - - -' or 'bull - - - -,' but you can never say 'YOU'RE horse - - - -,' or 'YOU'RE bull - - - -."'
Lachemann claims that one time he tried to get thrown out of a game. This was when he was managing in Seattle, and, as he tells it, the owner wanted him to act more hotheaded and demonstrative, so as to fire up the team and entertain the fans. So, according to Lachemann, he went out to argue a call with the umpire, Steve Palermo, a friend of his:
"I said, 'You're gonna have to throw me out of this game.' And he said, 'No.' So I said, 'Well, then I'm gonna have to go ahead and ridicule your Italian descent."'
Eventually he did manage to get thrown out, by employing a shrewd strategy involving the word "you." But this was just for show. Lachemann is generally an amiable, low-key person, although there's a certain wildness in his eyes, a glint that is usually associated with the kind of guy you knew in high school who would spend an entire weekend filling the principal's office, to the ceiling, with Pez.
I brought this topic up with Marlins' shortstop Walt Weiss, who played for Oakland when Lachemann was coaching there.
"About Lachemann," I said, tactfully. "I think he's insane."
"Oh yes," said Weiss. "Clinically. Ask him about the hotfoot."
So the next day I did.
"Lach," I said. "Weiss said to ask you about the hotfoot."
"I don't think you could go ahead and put that in the newspaper," he said.
"Trust me," I said. "This is my area of expertise."
But he was pretty much right. All I can say here is that one time in Oakland, while Lachemann was giving a TV interview, second baseman Glenn Hubbard, a friend of his, set Lachemann's shoes (the ones Lachemann was wearing at the time) on fire, which is an old traditional baseball prank. So a while later, Lachemann went ahead and got hold of Hubbard's shoes and carefully, using a tongue depressor, placed a personal bodily substance that he, Lachemann, had generated that morning while reading the paper, far inside each shoe in such a manner that Hubbard did not notice anything until he put his feet into the shoes. But the two were still great friends. Later, when Hubbard was released from the ball club, Lachemann went up to him in the clubhouse to commiserate with him, the two of them almost in tears. When Hubbard walked out the door, for the last time, Lachemann felt awful. And then, like a fool, he put on his shoes. A lot of this game is mental.
Speaking of which, one mental aspect of the Marlins' game that I am concerned about is
Most of what I know about baseball I learned from being in Little League in Armonk, N.Y., and one thing I remember is that we spent a LOT of time keeping up our team morale by making repetitive stupid noises.
"NO hitter," we would chant. "No hitter nohitternohitternohitter." Or, to our pitcher, we would say, incomprehensibly, "HUM babe humbabehumbabehumbabe." We would keep this up inning after inning, droning away like defective washing-machine motors. We weren't really sure why we did this; it seemed to have no effect on our pitchers, who would generally keep right on throwing the ball in random directions and occasionally over the backstop. But if we stopped doing it, after a while our manager, Mr. Parker, would yell: "Let's hear some chatter out there!"
So I grew up thinking of chatter as an essential element of baseball, and I was alarmed to note that there was very little of it going on in Marlins' spring training. I asked Lachemann about this, and he acknowledged that he is not a chatter- intensive kind of manager.
"To go, 'batterbatterbatterbatterSWING' is not my philosophy," is how he put it. He said the players would probably chatter more once they got to know each other better.
But one player who definitely reported to the team ready to chatter is first baseman Orestes Destrade. During the intrasquad games, and even during routine drills, he was constantly encouraging his teammates, urging his pitcher on. He was loud out there, usually the only player making noise.
You have probably heard of Destrade. He was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami, and he's popular with the media because he's smart, articulate and funny. He's popular with members of the Marlins organization because they think he will be regularly whacking the ball into orbit. The Marlins have signed him to a two-year, $3.5 million contract on the assumption, or at least hope, that he's going to hit the pitching in the major leagues the way he hit it in Japan, where he played for the past four seasons. He was a big star for the Seibu Lions, rivals of the Tokyo Giants and of course the legendary Hiroshima Carp. Destrade led the Pacific league in home runs for the past three seasons. He also -- this is, to me, more impressive -- learned to speak Japanese.
"I can chatter in three languages," he told me. To prove this, he chattered something in Japanese.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means 'let's go,"' he said. "At least they TOLD me it means 'let's go.' It might mean, 'I'm a stupid gaijin (foreigner) scum-sucking pig."'
Destrade told me that he chatters a lot for the Marlins because he believes, as a first baseman, that chattering is an infield responsibility.
"What kind of chattering do you plan on using this season?" I asked.
"It depends on the situation," he said. "In some situations, you might not chatter at all."
"How will you chatter if Barry Bonds is batting?" somebody asked.
Destrade thought for moment, then said: "I'd chatter Barry like this: 'HEY BARRY! YOU LOOK SILLY WITH THAT EARRING!"'
Barry Bonds, for your information, is an earring-wearing outfielder for the Giants who has a six-year contract paying him 44 hillion jillion squillion dollars per year. Which brings us to the mandatory
SECTION IN THE BASEBALL ESSAY WHERE THE WRITER COMPLAINS THAT ALL THESE HUGE CONTRACTS ARE RUINING BASEBALL, AND THAT IT IS OBSCENE, WHEN THERE ARE SO MANY NEEDY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, FOR THESE GUYS TO BE MAKING MILLIONS OF DOLLARS A YEAR JUST TO PLAY A GAME.
Don't expect me to write this section. I make darned good money for writing booger jokes.
Besides, not everybody believes the players are overpaid. Some people feel they might not be making enough. These people are, of course, agents.
I met an agent at the Marlins' spring-training facility. His name is Adam Katz, and he represents several Marlins, including Junior Felix, whose name really is "Junior Felix." (Speaking of baseball names that sound like nicknames but are not, you should be aware that the first batter ever for the Washington Senators, on April 10, 1961, was named "Coot Veal.")
Katz, 33, grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and now lives in Los Angeles. At the Marlins' facility, he was dressed casually but stylishly in jeans and a polo shirt; he carried a leather briefcase with a cellular phone sticking out. A number of players said hi to him as they walked past. He was eating a hot dog.
"Can't go to a ballpark and not eat a hot dog," he said.
"So," I asked him, "aren't you and your fellow agents the cause of everything wrong with baseball? Aren't you wrecking the national pastime? AREN'T YOU DESTROYING THIS NATION AND EVERYTHING THAT IT STANDS FOR??"
"Absolutely," he said. "I am personally wrecking America."
"NO!" he added. "Don't write that down. I'm joking."
Getting serious, Katz said that, basically, baseball is entertainment, and it generates an enormous amount of money, and he simply uses his skills as a negotiator to make the best deal he can for his clients. He then launched into a complex discussion of baseball's salary structure, which I did not understand, although, out of courtesy, I took several notes, including "non-arbitration-eligible."
Katz said that, when he's negotiating with general managers, he tries to be nonemotional. "Sometimes we end up yelling," he said, "but mostly we keep everything professional."
I asked him whether the fact that he makes his living in intense, high-powered negotiations helps him when he buys a new car.
"No," he said. "I just pay the sticker price."
"What?" I said.
"I just can't stand the hassle," he said.
At that point Katz noticed the Marlins' general manager, Dave Dombrowski, with whom he has negotiated many times, up in an observation tower.
"Hi Dave!" he yelled, waving his hot dog.
Dombrowski responded with several cheerful bursts from an AK-47.
No, seriously, Dombrowski, who is a nice guy, waved and smiled. It was very cordial, although of course things would be different during negotiations. I got a sense of how different later that day, in the Marlins' hotel, when I passed Katz as he was talking on a pay phone. He was negotiating with somebody about some player. This was a different Adam Katz from the laid- back guy I talked to at the training facility.
"You have put me in a box," he was saying, his voice angry, his face red. "You really boxed me in. You REALLY boxed me . . . My guy is going to perceive that he got in there ahead of him . . . Listen, just put them together, OK? Just PUT THEM TOGETHER. Because you have REALLY boxed me on this."
I wandered away, feeling concerned, because I genuinely liked Adam Katz, and you hate it when somebody you like gets boxed in.
Maybe he needs a slide step.
Speaking of money, it's time to talk about the most important Florida Marlins figure, namely
This is of course scarily successful business magnate H. Wayne Huizenga, who owns not only the Marlins, but also Blockbuster Entertainment, part of Joe Robbie Stadium and, as of this morning, 51 percent of your company. He also recently obtained South Florida's first professional ice-hockey team, which, as I write this, has not been given a name, which means there is still hope for "The Flying Pucks."
Huizenga came to the spring-training facility a couple of times when I was there, arriving in his large and swoopy private helicopter, choppering in over the cows. Every time I have ever seen H. Wayne, he has either just gotten out of, or is just about to get into, his helicopter. He is a choppering kind of guy. You get the feeling that when he wakes up in the morning, he choppers down to the end of the driveway to pick up the paper, and uses the time he saved to buy a new team.
I don't know whether Huizenga bought the Marlins because he loves baseball, or because it's a good business. If I owned my own professional baseball team, I'd have some fun with it, hang around the team, chatter a little, pitch a little batting practice, have the team doctor surgically remove the resulting line drives from my forehead, etc. But Wayne always seems to be rushing off to his chopper, trailed by a string of assistants. The closest I saw him come to appearing to be having real fun was at
THE VERY FIRST MARLINS GAME
This was the first spring-training game, March 5. It was played in an old, small, minor-league ballpark in Cocoa, but it was against a real major-league team, the Houston Astros, and everybody agreed it was a big moment for the new franchise.
As Marlins Manager Rene Lachemann put it, when asked by the media to summarize the game's significance: "A page of history is going to go ahead and turn."
The day was perfect -- a crisp, clear Friday afternoon -- and there was a happy sellout crowd on hand, including a lot of history-oriented kids skipping school. There was a huge media turnout -- newspaper, radio and TV reporters from all over the state. When a beaming Huizenga walked onto the field for the pre-game festivities, the media swarmed around him, asking the kinds of questions that sports journalists, particularly electronic sports journalists, are always asking, which in fact are not questions at all, but strings of seemingly random nouns. Here is an actual question that a radio reporter asked Huizenga:
"Wayne," he said, thrusting the microphone into Huizenga's face, "the excitement, the emotion, the reality that is all here."
I swear that's what he said, and what is more, Huizenga gave an answer.
"It's hard to describe," he said.
I also asked Huizenga a question, one that has been very much on my mind over the past years as I have watched him purchase business after business, each time pouring in huge amounts of money and paying top salaries to bring in the best people in the industry:
"Wayne," I said. "Would you please buy The Miami Herald?"
He stopped beaming, and stared at me.
"I don't mean one issue," I said. "I mean the company."
"Ha ha!" he said, beaming again. "Cut it out! Cut it out!"
It was worth a shot.
Also on the field for the pregame festivities, but not answering questions, was
THE MARLINS MASCOT
I will not mince words, fans: This is an area of great concern among veteran sports journalists. The mascot is a guy wearing a marlin costume, with the standard enormous head. The guy inside the costume, John Routh, is fine. He was the mascot for the Miami Hurricanes, and led them to several national titles. He has solid fundamentals, good timing and quick feet, and he can wave with either hand.
But the costume is not right. It's hard to say exactly what's wrong with it, but something is. I've given this a lot of thought, and as best I can figure, the problem is that a marlin is a fish, and -- follow me closely here -- fish do not walk erect. The mascot has fins on it, and a spear-like thing sticking out of its head, but nevertheless, when you see it walking around, your immediate reaction is, "Hey, that's not a fish."
I don't know what can be done about this. Maybe the solution is to have Routh act more fish-like. Between innings, some guys could carry him out to the middle of the infield and drop him, and he could flop around and gasp in time to loud rock music.
Or maybe the solution is to change the whole concept, use a completely different animal for the mascot, an animal that has some connection to the Marlins organization, and Florida, but lives on the land. An animal such as . comically squirt the umpires with its udders, or maybe drop pretend pasture patties on their shoes. Or possibly, in their shoes. I don't know. But we need to do something. The Marlins are in for a long season if they expect to play in the major leagues with problems at the mascot position.
Also their pitching sucks.
But the crowd wasn't thinking about this at the first-ever Marlins game. The crowd was enjoying the pre-game festivities, which were easily the most entertaining pre-game festivities in baseball history since the time in the 1970s when the Philadelphia Phillies, to open their season, hired a performer who went by the name of "Kiteman." Kiteman wore a wing-like contraption, and he was supposed to bring in the first ball by gliding down to home plate from high up in the stadium. Instead, he crashed into the seats. (This being Philadelphia, the fans booed him.)
The Marlins festivities also involved nonpowered human flight, in the form of a precision sky diving team. I think the sky divers were supposed to start landing, in dramatic fashion, just after the teams had been introduced, but instead they started coming in while the introductions were going on, so you had the players trotting out onto the field, forming a line, and meanwhile, in the background, these guys were plopping out of the sky into the outfield, with no mention of this being made by the public-address announcer. That in itself was pretty entertaining, but then the last sky diver came down, drifting out toward right field, and . . . he's fading back, back, back . . . he's at the warning track . . . YES! He's OUT OF HERE! The crowd went wild. I'm sure that, over the coming decades, the Marlins will provide me with many other exciting moments, but I shall always reserve a special place in my brain for the image of this precision sky diver, coming out of the blue, disappearing over the fence.
Then we had the national anthem. This was supposed to conclude with a fireworks display, but the timing here was also off a bit, so the fireworks started erupting in the middle of the anthem. Except they weren't the traditional fireworks, soaring gracefully up into the sky; they were more like bombs. They just sort of exploded right there on the ground, behind the left-field fence. We heard these loud BOOMs, and we saw clouds of smoke billowing up over the fence. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The crowd reacted nervously, because these didn't seem like fireworks so much as a possible attack by some terrorist organization from either the Middle East or St. Petersburg, which really wanted to get the Florida baseball franchise.
But they turned out to be harmless, and when the smoke cleared, H. Wayne Huizenga's dad, 77-year-old Harry Huizenga, threw the first pitch to H. Wayne. The pitch got to home plate on one bounce, traveling about the same speed as one of Charlie Hough's pitches.
And then the real game began, and the Marlins won in nine innings, which, in my opinion, is about three innings too many.
But I'm not complaining. I'm glad we have the Marlins. According to everybody, they're not going to win a ton of games this year, but so what? At least they'll be here. At least there will be a place where people can go and watch big-league baseball, and teach their kids about the intricacies of this quintessentially American game. ("See that guy? He's the ump. He sucks.")
And I'm glad because this is history we're talking about. History. What's happening here now, what will happen on opening day tomorrow, is something that you sports fans will remember for as long as you live. As Florida Marlins Manager Rene Lachemann put it, in my all-time favorite Lach Quote:
"This will be an exciting time to go ahead and reflect back on."