Baseball: World Series - Cuban upstarts pitch for world domination

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The Independent Online
Tonight in Miami's Pro Player Stadium, a Cuban defector and rookie pitching star called Livan Hernandez will open hostilities in one of the most intriguing World Series in years.

Rupert Cornwell savours the feast in store for Channel 5 nightowls as the Florida Marlins take on the Cleveland Indians.

Once again baseball has delivered its annual October miracle. Come the play-offs and the lazy, hazy game of summer is transformed into the tautest sporting spectacle in America, where games, careers, even history turn on a single play. But this year the gods who determine these things have been especially generous.

This is a match-up that was not supposed to happen - certainly not at the start of the season, and not even at the start of the month. Atlanta versus New York or Baltimore, the money and the form book said. Yet in three marvellous League series Florida disposed of mighty Atlanta, and Cleveland toppled first the defending champions, the Yankees, and then, most spectacularly of all, the Orioles.

Even now Baltimore must be wondering how they failed to win the AL pennant. All four of Cleveland's victories came by a single run, two of them in bizarre circumstances, and two despite epic pitching performances by the Orioles ace Mike Mussina, who gave up just one run in a combined 15 innings.

In a great series, the sixth and final game was greatest of all - scoreless until the 11th innings when Tony Fernandez blasted a 2-0 pitch from Armando Benitez over the rightfield scoreboard for the game's only run. Fernandez was only in the line-up because he accidentally injured the Indians' regular second baseman in batting practice a couple of hours before the game. "I felt bad. But I guess the Lord had a plan and he worked it out this way."

The Almighty has also smiled kindly on Jim Leyland, the manager of the Marlins. The best in the game, everyone used to say, except that he had never managed a club with the resources to prove it. Twice Leyland took the Pittsburgh Pirates close, in 1991 and 1992, only to fall at the final hurdle of the NL championship series, each time to the Braves.

Only by selling their best players - Barry Bonds to San Francisco, Bobby Bonilla to New York - could the Pirates stay afloat. By 1996 Leyland had had enough. A new fangled team in Florida beckoned, bankrolled by the billions of owner Wayne Huizenga. Helped by the small matter of $100m (pounds 62m) invested in new players, Leyland within a year has taken the Marlins to the World Series, courtesy of a 4-2 NLCS triumph over, who else, the Atlanta Braves.

Already he has made history. The Marlins are the first wild card team to reach the final stage since the expanded three- stage play-off format was introduced for the 1995 season. And no expansion team has taken so short a time to reach baseball's supreme stage. Even the New York Mets waited 10 years before appearing in -and winning - the World Series in 1969.

And so to the cauldron of the Pro Player stadium tonight. This series is a clash of cultures: Sunbelt versus Rustbelt; the Hispanic elan of the de facto capital of Latin America against Cleveland and its gritty East European stock; maracas against the prairie drums of Chief Wahoo, leader of the Tribe.

The bookies make Florida favourites, at least for tonight's game one. But tradition at least points to Cleveland. Baseball tends to make its upstarts wait, and most neutrals would argue the Indians deserve their turn, after losing to Atlanta in the 1995 finale. On paper the team is weaker than two years ago, shorn of the electrifying outfielder Kenny Lofton and the home runs of Albert Belle. Both, however, were difficult players to handle. The Indians' club-house chemistry - so important a factor in coping with the pressures of the play-offs - has improved beyond recognition. "Quite simply, we believe in ourselves," says Matt Williams, Belle's replacement from San Francisco.

Most important, baseball is a game of streaks. These last three weeks Cleveland have been on fire. But streaks are made of luck as well, and maybe the Indians are about to run out of that commodity. If so, the Marlins are perfectly equipped to pounce. In slugger Gary Sheffield, they possess one of the game's supreme natural talents. Led by Kevin Brown and Livan Hernandez - "El Duque" to his legion of worshippers in Miami's Cuban exile community - Florida has a formidable pitching rotation.

Not least, World Series are places where historic circles are completed. At the Marlins, Leyland has been reunited with Bobby Bonilla, who rewarded him by batting in three crucial runs in the decisive sixth NLCS game against Atlanta. Against Cleveland the pair could go all the way. If so, for Jim Leyland's sake, all baseball would be delighted.