Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Marlins coup d’ grace

For a week now, I’ve been holding off on posting about the sorry state of my hometown baseball team, the Florida Marlins. Last Wednesday’s firing of Fredi Gonzalez certainly did not come as a surprise to me. Every time the Marlins went on a losing streak, I’d log onto to see if owner Jeffrey Loria had finally axed the manager. Following their three game sweep at the hands of visiting Texas would have been an opportune time to relieve Fredi of his duties. But in typical Marlins fashion, they wait until winning three out of four to fire Fredi Gonzalez on the road in Baltimore. It’s the sort of classless action that reminds me of when Mets GM Omar Minaya fired Willie Randolph in the middle of a west-coast swing. Nevertheless, I suspect Loria saw the writing on the wall, suspecting the Marlins could possibly sweep hapless Baltimore and decided to pull the plug before those expected victories.

Fredi Gonzalez was a lame duck before this season ever started. In fact, it traced back to the last weekend of the ’09 season when Florida was reported to covet Bobby Valentine for the manager’s post. During the off-season, management opined it was playoffs-or-bust for the ragtag group of Fish. Despite overachieving with 84 victories last season, nothing short of a wild card berth in the National League would be accepted by Loria and henchman David Samson. Predictably, the Marlins started the season exactly like their talent would dictate. Moody SS Hanley Ramirez and burgeoning ace Josh Johnson would keep the Marlins afloat, but the rest of the roster was shaky.

The idea of the Marlins improving on last year’s 2nd year finish was laughable. Each of the other clubs in the NL East added significant pieces to their repertoire. Philadelphia didn’t rest on their laurels, upgrading at 3B with Placido Polanco and adding a future Hall-of-Famer in Roy Halladay. (And while we’re on the subject of Halladay, it was quite ingenious of Loria to try and make money of his team getting blanked by selling unused tickets from the Perfect game. But I digress) The Atlanta Braves added a healthy Tim Hudson back to their rotation, along with phenom Jason Heyward. The Mets signed OF Jason Bay, and welcomed back a healthy Jose Reyes. On the other hand, the Marlins add Mike Lamb, Brian Barden, and a whole bunch of flameouts in their bullpen. The Marlins were pressured to add some salary, and did ink Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson to contracts. Mike Stanton is in the big leagues, but is getting struck out by average major league stuff.

All that being said, as a Marlins fan I was somewhat satisfied with the course this season had taken. I understand that if the Fish keep it close, and are still alive coming to September, that it’s been a successful season. Clearly, management bungled the managerial search. I was sure that Bobby Valentine and his faux mustache were on his way to Miami Gardens. There was no way that a major league franchise would fire its most winning manager and replace him with a sub-.500 AAA manager in Edwin Rodriguez. Only total fools would allow a club still marginally in the hunt to be managed by Rodriguez and a team of minor league roving instructors. Rodriguez would be allowed to take a heartwarming return to his native Puerto Rico, only to be replaced by a professional coaching staff once the team reached Atlanta on Friday.

I nearly jumped out of my chair when I learned, during the 2nd inning of the Marlins telecast from San Juan, Rodriguez had the interim title lifted and would take the reigns for the remainder of the season. The rookie manager sounds like a nice guy and I am genuinely happy that he’s the first Puerto Rican manager in MLB. But to promote him in the middle of the season, without an experienced bench coach, hitting coach, or 1st and 3rd base coaches, Rodriguez cannot be expected to succeed. It’s all well and good when you play the Mets, who are familiar to all. But how will the team strategize and plan to play teams like the Dodgers, Padres, and Diamondbacks, whom they already see sparsely throughout the season.

After remarkably taking the first two games of their “home stand” in San Juan, last night was the Marlins moment to shine. ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball was in town to cover the final game of the series. The Marlins on national TV is rarer than a lunar eclipse, so naturally the team would want to impress. Ironically, the evening started out like a typical home game. Rain delayed the start for over 80 minutes. Fans suffered through a first inning of nearly 45 minutes, with the Mets emerging with a 3-2 lead. The entire nation would quickly be exposed to what it’s like to witness the Marlins on a daily basis. They were treated to a veritable orgy of infield miscues, featuring two errors from Jorge Cantu and one apiece from Gaby Sanchez and Dan Uggla. The eight whiffs from Marlins batters was actually an improvement from the double-digit K’s they usually produce. Chris Volstad was lifted for a pinch hitter in Mike Lamb, who meekly grounded to the pitcher. (Incidentally, Lamb has been designated for assignment twice and cleared waivers both times) Fans were treated to the middle-relievers of this playoff-worthy club. Alex Sanabia, in his 5th full inning in the majors, is betrayed by his defense and will eventually earn his 1st major league loss. Jose Veras, a championship caliber free agent addition, miraculously delivers a 1-2-3 eighth. To cap off the ineptitude, Rodriguez is forced to bat Emilio Bonifacio and Brian Barden in key spots in the 8th and 9th, respectively.

At night’s end, following a 6-5 defeat, the Fish fall to a mediocre 37-41. If I were the casual fan watching at home, having admirably made it all the way to the midnight hour, I’d be impressed that this ballclub was only four games below .500