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It’s no time for Don Mattingly to cry, but he might want to consider it

The then-Florida Marlins finished 78-84 in Joe Girardi’s lone season as manager, but it was a great improvement from an 11-31 start.
The then-Florida Marlins finished 78-84 in Joe Girardi’s lone season as manager, but it was a great improvement from an 11-31 start. Miami Herald

It’s much too soon for tears.

But if this Marlins season continues on a downward trajectory, manager Don Mattingly might want to borrow a page from Joe Girardi’s playbook.

He might want to stand up and cry.

It worked for Girardi in 2006, his lone year at the helm of a young Marlins club that started out 11-31 before going on a historic tear, climbing back above .500 and entering the September playoff picture before finally running out of steam.

No team had ever dug itself out of such a huge hole.

Whether the spark was Girardi’s tearful speech in front of players is open to debate. But Dontrelle Willis, a member of that team, is convinced that it was.

“I think from that point on, everybody just started buying in,” Willis said.

First, some background.

The situation then for the Marlins was much like it is now. Those Marlins were in a full-blown rebuild. After winning the World Series in 2003 and following it up with two more winning seasons, management shredded the roster.

Josh Beckett was traded. Mike Lowell was traded. Juan Pierre was traded. Luis Castillo was traded. Carlos Delgado was traded. Guillermo Mota was traded. Paul Lo Duca was traded.

What remained were Willis, Miguel Cabrera, a large ensemble of rookies, a first-year manager and no hope of winning. It was a team that many thought would challenge the 1962 Mets’ Major League record of 120 losses.

Sure enough, those dire predictions didn’t seem unreasonable after the 11-31 start.

“It was horrible,” Willis said. “It was a rag-tag group. We were throwing the ball all over the place. It was almost like a Major League ‘Bad News Bears.’ 

But during a mid-May series in Atlanta, Girardi gave his speech, standing up in front of players and balling his eyes out, imploring them to try harder, do better.

“I’d never seen a coach in my life cry like that,” Willis said. “Joe Girardi was so emotionally distraught. He was so upset. He said ‘What are you guys doing? You guys aren’t playing fundamental baseball!’ 

Willis said it worked.

“You either say that’s B.S., or this guy really cares about us,” Willis said. “After that, we wanted to go out there and kick everybody’s backside. I would have run through a wall after that. Nobody wanted to play us. Guys started showing up at the ballpark earlier and earlier. We never felt we were going to lose 100 games.”

The Marlins, with a strong cast of unsuspecting rookie talent that included the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco, went 58-37 to get back above .500 (69-68) on Sept. 4.

Alas, they faded in late September to finish 78-84.

“It was fun that year,” Willis said. “That year is really memorable to me. It was a lot of guys’ coming-out party.

The Marlins’ 5-0 loss to the Phillies on Thursday was their third in a row, left them at 2-5 and knocked them into last place.

It’s only seven games, no time to cry.

But Mattingly might want to start giving it some thought, just in case.

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