Marlins yearning for fresh fortune in money game

Poor relations seek a change in fortune against the rich elite who rule baseball

The opening day of America's baseball season always brings plenty of good things: beer, hot dogs and, God willing, a warm spring evening. But the one thing that is always there, even at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, is hope in a game that thrives on optimism.

Pro Player Stadium is the place that the Florida Marlins call home, and you could excuse them for having let hope run dry some time ago. The Marlins, by common consent, have been the worst team in Major League Baseball for the past two years, with the Minnesota Twins perhaps edging them out last year. But when Alex Fernandez, their stocky starting pitcher, took the mound on Monday night, the Florida air was bright with optimism.

Money does some strange things to sport, and it was money which did for the Marlins. They won the World Series in 1997, just four years after making their debut. But the owner, Wayne Huizenga, complained that it had cost him hundreds of millions of dollars to get there. He sold off the team, one by one, gutting the payroll from $45m (£28m) to $10m. Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Moises Alou and many others were gone: in their place, a young, inexperienced team who did not have a fighting chance against anyone.

Money has made modern baseball what it is: a game which is live, exciting and dynamic at the top, where a few teams square off for the chance to make it to the World Series, and a stern-faced traipse through repeated defeats for most of the others. For much of the last decade, the sport has been dominated by the well-funded New York Yankees (payroll: $85m) while the Twins, the Marlins and the Montreal Expos (all under $20m) bump along the bottom.

Money does not guarantee victory - it isn't entirely clear what Rupert Murdoch gets for $79m at the LA Dodgers, and the Baltimore Orioles don't seem that much of a bargain at $78m - but it sure helps. Money, along with a dedication to victory and a cohesion that the Orioles and the Dodgers both lack, made the Yankees the team of the 1990s and arguably the century.

That could change in the first season of the 21st century. Most of the pundits this year see the Yankees' domination cracking, and one of the other top teams prevailing. The power of money means that the different pre-season assessments all look much alike, though: there are few surprising names in the sports magazines. Sports Illustrated puts Pedro Martinez on the cover, and bravely punts for the Boston Red Sox over the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Others go for the Braves, the Indians or perhaps the Cincinnati Reds, invigorated by the arrival of Ken Griffey Jnr at the team his father made great.

ESPN's experts put either the Yankees or the Red Sox atop the American League East and the Indians ahead in the AL Central, with the AL West competitive: the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics all get tipped. The National League East favourites are the Braves or possibly the New York Mets, the Houston Astros or the Cincinnati Reds are expected to take the NL Central and the NL West is closely contested between the LA Dodgers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants.

The Sporting News points to the weaknesses in the Yankees' defence, and the steadily rising age of the stars: David Cone and Roger Clemens are both 37. But, even so, it is hard to bet against the Bronx Bombers, it says. "The starting pitching is too good and too deep; the line-up is too experienced and intelligent; and [manager Joe] Torre is too on top of things for this operation to take a tumble."

Dave Le Batard in the Miami Herald goes for the Indians and the Braves, with Atlanta the top team. But he sees "reason for optimism" this season for the Marlins. Who knows, there may be two or even three worse teams this year. The Marlins played a tough game on Monday against the Giants, which was pretty scrappy in parts. But then the Marlins are like an iceberg, to mix metaphors: most of their weight is not yet visible.

The Marlins' president and general manager, Dave Dombrowski, has husbanded his resources, bringing in young pitchers with his trades, and preparing for the day when it is worth bringing in some top-line talent. The team has one of the strongest groups of young pitchers in the game, names which do not mean much now but might in the future: Josh Beckett, AJ Burnett, Brad Penny and Wes Anderson. Most are still wending their way through the farm teams, but Ryan Dempster, Vladimir Nuñez and Jesus Sanchez are already in the team's starting rotation. And then there is Fernandez, one of the few survivors of 1997.

He had a good game in front of 35,000 people, pitching six innings and then driving in a run in a game which the Marlins took by 6-4. But then they won their first game in 1999, as well. Still, there's always next year.

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