Fish Bytes

The Erie Sailors got the ball rolling on Marlins baseball 25 years ago

John Lynch, who is now the general manager for the San Francisco 49ers, was the first person to throw a pitch in the Marlins organization when he took the mound for the Erie Sailors on June 15, 1992.
John Lynch, who is now the general manager for the San Francisco 49ers, was the first person to throw a pitch in the Marlins organization when he took the mound for the Erie Sailors on June 15, 1992.

The details are a little fuzzy. Ask those who were there, and they don’t remember much about the game, only that it was played on an old minor-league field in a Pennsylvania factory town, and that the kid who threw the first pitch was John Lynch, who is now the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.

Veteran scout Gary Hughes can’t believe it’s been a quarter of a century.

“It’s extremely hard to believe,” Hughes said, “until I look in the mirror.”

It was on June 15, 1992 — 25 years ago today — that the Marlins came into being in the form of the Erie Sailors of the New York-Penn League.

Not the Marlins, per se. They wouldn’t begin play until ’93.

But 10 months before knuckleballer Charlie Hough would deliver the first pitch in the Marlins’ inaugural game at Joe Robbie Stadium, the first game by one of the organization’s minor-league affiliates was played in Erie, Pa.

“It was the blossoming of the organization from an on-field aspect,” said Dave Dombrowski, the Marlins’ general manager at the time. “It was one of those moments were you just finally felt we’d started on the field. You actually saw some players in Marlins uniforms.”

Said Hughes, the Marlins’ scouting director back then: “It meant we were in business. It was a huge, huge day in our history.”

H. Wayne Huizenga had been awarded a Major League franchise one year earlier, and in the run-up to ’93, the organization began taking root, starting in the minors in ’92.

The Erie Sailors, a collection of young draft picks — most of whom were fresh out of college — became the honorary guinea pigs. That June, Hughes had drafted Lynch out of Stanford in the second round, right after the Marlins selected University of Miami catcher Charles Johnson with their first pick.

“We thought he was a heckuva pick,” Hughes said of Lynch. “It turned out to be not so good.”

The Sailors were managed by Fredi Gonzalez, then a 28-year-old upstart.

“To say the least, I was nervous,” Gonzalez said.

The Sailors practiced for a week in Delray Beach before making their way up to Pennsylvania. It was big news in South Florida. Local newspapers and television stations sent reporters to document the historic event.

“I just remember walking off the plane and there were camera crews waiting for us,” Gonzalez said.

An overflow crowd of 4,067 jammed into Ainsworth Field, with fans lining up outside two hours in advance to buy tickets.

“It was packed,” Gonzalez said. “I remember people with cameras standing on the roof of the stadium.”

Huizenga flew up 26 Marlins staffers in his largest personal jet.

“They filed into dumpy Ainsworth Field wearing suits and Sailors caps, kicking up dust with their dress shoes,” wrote the Miami Herald’s Dan LeBatard in his account. “They spent the chilly evening sitting in the wooden VIP box built just for them.”

While dressing for the game in a junior-high locker room outside the ballpark, Sailors players were surprised to discover a bat in the roof. Not a baseball bats. A winged bat.

“A bunch of the guys thought it was a sparrow,” pitcher Ryan Whitman said, “until they saw it hanging upside down by its feet.”

The first six pitches thrown by Lynch were balls.

“I will never forget throwing the first pitch—and unfortunately the first (six) were balls,” Lynch recently told Baseball America magazine. “Every time I threw a pitch the Hall of Fame grabbed something else—a ball, my hat. I came in after the first inning and they undressed me and took my uniform. It’s a fond memory that I will have forever.”

Brad Clem recorded the first Sailors hit. Scott Samuels scored their first run.

In a game that lasted more than four hours, the Sailors lost 6-5 in 13 innings to the Jamestown Expos.

“The game was interminable,” Hughes said. “It took forever. But Wayne — God bless him — wanted to stay until the end of the game. He didn’t want to go home.”

Huizenga, who turned his Sailors cap backwards to rally the team in the home half of the 13th, and Marlins front office executives could barely contain their joy. The future of Marlins baseball was nothing but bright.

“They’re our players, there’s no question this is history,” Huizenga told the Sun-Sentinel. “If we get this kind of support in South Florida, it will be fantastic.”

Said John Boles, who was then the Marlins’ director of player development and would later manage the Major League team: “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve got a lump in my throat. There are a few guys here who’ll someday be in the big leagues — and it’s great to be in on the beginning.”

The aftermath

▪ The Erie Sailors are no more. They eventually moved from Erie to Johnstown, Penn., and took the name Steal/Johnnies, and later to Florence, Ky., becoming the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League.

▪ Ainsworth Field, where Babe Ruth hit a home run in 1923, was deemed obsolete for professional use and is now used for high school and amateur games.

▪ Huizenga sold the Marlins to John Henry in 1999.

▪ Dombrowski left the Marlins in 2001. He is now President of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox.

▪ Gonzalez became manager of the Marlins in 2007 and later managed the Atlanta Braves. He is now the Marlins’ third base coach.

▪ After one season, Lynch decided to give up baseball and return to college to play under Bill Walsh at Stanford. He became an All-Pro strong safety in the NFL and was named general manager of the 49ers in January.

▪ No player on the ’92 Sailors ever reached the majors.

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