Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Faith in Miami Marlins can be a challenge, but ’16 team looks promising

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, left, and hitting coach Barry Bonds speak with the media during Marlins FanFest at Marlins Park on Saturday, February 20, 2016 in Miami.
Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly, left, and hitting coach Barry Bonds speak with the media during Marlins FanFest at Marlins Park on Saturday, February 20, 2016 in Miami. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

The sounds of baseball spring training are viscerally like no other sport. Close your eyes and listen. Metal cleats chatter and clack across concrete. Fastballs pop hard into leather. Bats make contact with a crack that sounds like gunfire.

The sights weren’t bad, either, as the Miami Marlins gathered at their Jupiter training facility Monday on the eve of the year’s first full-squad practice.

Over there was the new manager, Don Mattingly, the first skipper in the club’s 24 seasons who was in the playoffs the year before.

“Five years of games under your belt,” he was saying. “I’m a lot more comfortable now. My opinions are a lot more settled on what I want.”

The nearby batting cages were an active hive as Mattingly spoke, and the new hitting coach was seen in pantomime through the mesh screen, demonstrating the pivot of hips and arm extension to young pupil Christian Yelich, one of the Fish’s rising stars.

Stitched across the hitting coach’s back shoulders: BONDS.

Imagine you were a young painter in the 1600s trying to master the oils on your palette and into the room to offer his advice stepped Rembrandt. Would you listen?

“One of the best hitters to ever play the game,” Yelich would say later, of Barry Bonds. “It’s special. A great experience.”

Behind the batting cages six pitchers threw to six catchers, and at the end of the session only one of those pitchers bounded to his battery-mate, pumped his hand and gave him a bear hug. Intensity is the default emotion, raw and real, even in February, for ace Jose Fernandez.

Striding on a nearby practice field, his gate and silhouette unmistakable, his biceps sculpted and bulging, was Giancarlo Stanton. He is 6-6 and 240 pounds but seems bigger, like his body fat is zero, like he should be cast in marble and rising from a pedestal.

It is one of the beauties of baseball: Hope springs eternal. No sport wipes the slate clean and starts fresh quite like this one. And so it is in Jupiter two hours north of Miami, and among many Marlins fans. The team’s prospects seem encouraging.

“We’re here to win,” Mattingly put it plain. “Now.”

And yet these are the Marlins, after all, the franchise that will let you down, and so an asterisk of caution must always be applied, right?

Or, as Yelich put it: “Hopefully we’ll have the season we thought we were going to have last year.”

This franchise has won the offseason and preened in February before, only to offer ultimate disappointment, so let’s demand proof come April before the dreaming of October begins.

Let us quantify and place in perspective the occasional feast in a landscape of famine that has been the existence of Marlins fans through the club’s near-quarter century.

The all-or-nothing Fish have made the playoffs only twice but won the World Series each time, in 1997 and 2003. No other team, among the 122 franchises in America’s Big Four team sports, has done such a thing.

But it must be noted the multiple championships are a lot more common than the paucity of postseason appearances.

Twelve teams in the four sports have won three or more titles since the Marlins came to be in 1993, and nine others have won two. That’s 21 of 122 clubs, better than one in six, that have equaled or exceeded the Marlins on rings and parades in that time. (And 16 of those 21 teams have reigned more recently than the Fish).

It is those mere two postseason appearances since ’93 that put the Marlins in much more rare and dubious company. Only five other franchises in the four sports have played every season since then also have as few as two playoff seasons — and all five have made it much more recently than have the Marlins.

Believers in the law of averages — in, “We’re due!” — might take solace in that.

There is something to the idea that a fandom that has endured low player payrolls, fire sales and an unpopular owner has paid enough dues to finally reap a dividend, and the kind of season not enjoyed since 2003, when the serendipity of septuagenarian manager Jack McKeon led the way.

McKeon, still in a Marlins uniform as a special adviser, was holding court in the spring clubhouse Monday. He was sharing old stories and old memories, as 85-year-old men are wont to do.

The Marlins need new memories. Might that happen in 2016? It might, it could, if believers can summon the faith to see a small parade of “ifs” all aligning like stars:

If Mattingly turns out to be an inspired hire, the anti-Ozzie Guillen, who used to leave the practice field to watch bull fights in his office, failed spectacularly and, as the perfect Miami parting shot, praised Fidel Castro.

If a healthy Stanton is bearing in on 50 home runs as the pennant races heat, his at-bats perhaps the most exciting minute in sports.

If a healthy Fernandez is in the heart of the Cy Young conversation, his starts turned into events that fill Marlins Park.

If Dee Gordon prove his spectacular 2015 was no fluke, and if Yelich begins to make the move from potential star to budding superstar.

If Bonds seizes this chance to rebuild his steroids-dented image and enjoys great impact as the hitting coach. (Quick memo to the Marlins: Do you think giving Bonds a late-season at-bat or two as a pinch-hitter would get any attention? You’re welcome!)

If Miami is cheering Ichiro’s 3,000th major-league hit as it cheers a playoff chase.

If Marcell Ozuna re-establishes himself with a comeback year, and if big farmboy Justin Bour blossoms into the team’s biggest slugger not named Stanton.

Here’s a personal if, if I may: If Jeffrey Loria and David Samson would force themselves to keep a much lower profile, Marlins fans would be a happier bunch.

All of that stuff would leave one more if, maybe the biggest of all along with the health of Stanton and Fernandez:

If Miami sees the emergence of two more starting pitchers to join the ace Fernandez, newly acquired Wei-Yin Chen and reliable innings-eater Tom Koehler. From among a half-dozen candidates the Marlins need a couple of volunteers to raise their hands — their arms — and capably join the rotation.

Do you believe enough of the “ifs” might come true?

February turning to March is the time for such leaps of faith, for hearts to control minds and for hope to win out.

That is the beauty of baseball in springtime.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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