This was about two hours before Tuesday’s first pitch of the Miami Marlins’ thrill-rally of an Opening Night. The crowd had just begun to straggle in, but any early arrivals watching the batting cage right then got an eyeful — a snapshot befitting Cooperstown more than the ballpark in Little Havana west of the downtown skyline.
There in a neat row, all in uniform, elbows on the back of the cage, stood Hall of Famers and Marlins ceremonial executives Andre Dawson and Tony Perez, all-time home-run king and new hitting instructor Barry Bonds, and quality new marquee manager Don Mattingly, “Donnie Baseball” of Yankees lore.
As they watched with eyes that saw more than 1,800 of their combined homers fly from big-league parks, the Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki, who is bearing down on 3,000 career MLB hits, walked from the cage. And in stepped reigning National League batting champion Dee Gordon. Nearby, pitching ace Jose Fernandez, who’ll start Game 2 Wednesday, was yukking it up with teammates. In the outfield, somehow looking large even 300 feet away, Brobdingnagian slugger Giancarlo Stanton shagged fly balls.
The Marlins have some star power, yes. They are dressed to impress with some of those names stitched on the backs of those jerseys.
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Now they must find a way to win, that’s all, and for a change. It has been a long, long time.
Opening Night verified why the Marlins could be an exciting team, and a maybe winning one. Miami trailed Detroit 5-0 and was hitless into the sixth, but pounded back to tie it 7-7 and force extra time — fueled by Stanton’s moonshot two-run homer and by a triple and pair of doubles from Gordon — before falling 8-7 in 11 innings.
“It didn’t start off very well and it didn’t end very well, but there was a lot of good mixed in there,” as Mattingly put it afterward. “I like a lot of what I was able to see. We just kept coming.”
It was Gordon who finally broke up the no-hit bid by Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who turned bats into Styrofoam noodles early. (Justin is both good and married to model Kate Upton, verifying life truly is unfair.) Marlins starter Wei-Yin Chen debuted as if convinced first impressions are overrated. And Fish owner Jeffrey Loria spent much of the early game shriveling in his plush seat just off the home dugout like a modern-day wicked witch melting.
That was before the rally that restored the faith, put the air back in the building, and showed the fight in the Fish.
We have all been here before, right? Cautiously stepping into another Marlins reboot. Wading into a new baseball season with optimism held carefully, as if it were a small bird with brittle bones.
It was exactly 23 years ago Tuesday that Charlie Hough’s stuttering knuckleball stitched a butterfly path to home plate and christened a franchise.
The Marlins have made the playoffs but twice since.
It is nice (and bizarre) that both postseason forays resulted in World Series championships, in 1997 and 2003 — nice, but not nourishing.
It is way past time for this franchise to be good again. Babies born when the Marlins last mattered are now entering high school.
The millennial Marlins franchise turned 24 with Tuesday’s opener. The excuses are all gone; the child is full-grown. Now it is time this organization — top to bottom — started acting like it, proving it.
It is time to win and matter again, finally.
Time to end an embarrassing, unacceptable 13-year playoff drought and, with that, strip away this market’s always-handy excuse for lagging attendance.
This begins (time flies) the team’s fifth season in still new-ish Marlins Park, but the palace has not been a panacea. Tuesday’s big crowd of 36,911 officially was a sellout, though marked by hundreds of conspicuously unoccupied blue seats.
Only winning might even soften the animus toward Loria. (Well, maybe.)
Winning doesn’t always mean playoffs, but it does require being routinely competitive and in the hunt. Last year the Fish were rotting by May. Can’t have that again.
Mattingly knows it. That’s a start.
The Marlins’ first new manager to have been in the playoffs the year before seems to invite expectations more than tamp them down. That’s refreshing. He also has an awareness of the market he is now in, and its challenges.
“We’re a young, talented club. We’re capable of making the playoffs,” Mattingly said prior to his formal debut. “I hope our club can create excitement here, with us being in a pennant race and having this place filled every game.”
That’s ambitious (especially the last part), but what better time than Opening Day to dream? No matter the opening loss, 99.4 percent of the season remains, after all.
“We really believe in this roster,” Marlins president of baseball ops Michael Hill was saying Tuesday. “We love the team we built.”
These are generally encouraging days on Miami sports’ main stage.
The Heat and Panthers both will be in the playoffs the same year for only the fifth time in 22 shared seasons, the Cats clinching their division title Tuesday night. Hurricanes fans are coming off an NCAA Tournament run in men’s basketball and excited about new football boss Mark Richt. Even beaten-down Dolfans seem carefully encouraged by new, bright, young coach Adam Gase.
The onus is squarely on the Marlins now.
They must end the longest postseason drought of any team just mentioned.
The Marlins — owner, franchise and team — are past due in owing Miami an uplifting season, one that replaces years of disappointment with a needed gust of good.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at miamiherald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.