Champion Giants remind McKeon of '03 Marlins
Organization set to celebrate 10th anniversary of World Series championship
MIAMI -- Watching the San Francisco Giants overcome long odds to capture the World Series served as a reminder to another improbable team that achieved what was believed to be an impossible dream.
Much like this season's Giants, the 2003 Florida Marlins banded together behind no-nonsense manager Jack McKeon to shock the baseball world.
A youthful low-payroll club, the '03 Marlins upset the Barry Bonds-led Giants in the National League Division Series. They rallied back to break the hearts of the Cubs in the NL Championship Series. Riding momentum, they dispatched the storied Yankees in six games in the World Series.
"I look at that '03 club sort of like the  Giants," McKeon said. "No one considered we had a chance. But the character of that club was so great. They were able to overcome a lot of things. I think the camaraderie on that club, the unselfishness and the dedication of those guys was something we will all look at and say, 'Hey, this was quite a club.'"
In upcoming months, talk of the '03 Marlins will resurface again as 2013 will mark the 10th anniversary of the championship season.
How the title team of a decade ago should be remembered can be summed up in one word: "Unselfish."
"Everybody was looking out for each other," McKeon said. "We were like a family. You had some veterans on that club, and you had some young kids on that club. They all seemed to be leaders."
Their resilience certainly was challenged, because the path to the game's ultimate victory was incredibly rocky.
There was turmoil and disappointment early. Not happy with mounting losses, Jeff Torborg was dismissed as manager on May 11. In his place entered McKeon, who brought old-school toughness to a floundering young team.
Success didn't simply come with the addition of a 72-year-old manager who demanded performance. On May 22, the Marlins dropped their sixth straight game, falling to 19-29 overall.
From there, something clicked, the club began chipping away and momentum started building. The Marlins went 72-42 the rest of the way, the best record in the big leagues over that span.
"We just started out real slow," said Juan Pierre, the center fielder and catalyst of the club. "But the way it ended -- there probably is not a day that goes by that you don't think about it, like, 'Man, we won the World Series,' especially during the season, when you come and play in these parks and stuff. You remember the good times."
The turning point?
McKeon and Pierre both single out an Interleague series at Boston. It took one of the most lopsided losses in franchise history to bring out the best in them.
On June 27, Carl Pavano took the mound for the Marlins, and he faced six batters at Fenway Park. They all collected hits and scored. His night was done without recording an out.
The nightmarish first inning continued, and the Red Sox pounded out 14 runs. It took three pitchers to collect three outs. The final score was a football-like 25-8.
Things didn't get much better the next day, at least through seven innings. Trailing, 9-2, the Marlins made it close with four runs. Still, they were down 9-6 entering the ninth.
Down to the last out, Ivan Rodriguez had an RBI single, and Mike Lowell delivered a three-run homer. Erasing a seven-run deficit, Florida pulled out an incredible 10-9 win. In the process, the Marlins realized they could compete with anyone.
"I think that brought us closer," Pierre said. "Coming off the game before, where we got waxed by the mighty Red Sox. We came out the next game, put the uniform on and went to work. For me, it was the Boston game."
Three days later, the Marlins routed the Braves, 20-1.
"We realized we were never going to give up," McKeon said. "We realized we had a chance to make this a special year."
No matter what challenge the club faced, it managed to persevere. Florida clinched the NL Wild Card on the final weekend. And it trailed in games in all three playoff rounds.
In the NLCS, the Marlins faced elimination, trailing three games to one going into Game 5 in Miami. But Josh Beckett came to the rescue, tossing a shutout. The series headed back to Chicago for the now famous Game 6 at Wrigley Field.
For seven innings, the Marlins were blanked by Mark Prior, but everything changed in the eighth, and an unsuspecting fan named Steve Bartman became part of playoff history.
Bartman's deflection of Luis Castillo's foul ball knocked away any chance left fielder Moises Alou had of making a play. Like they did all season, when given an opening, the Marlins capitalized. They went on to score eight runs in that eighth inning.
"Until the Bartman play, it was looking tough," said Mike Redmond, Miami's new manager and a backup catcher on the '03 team. "It was looking tough. But I will tell you this, after that Bartman play, we knew we were going to win."
Redmond was sitting on the bench near pitcher Mark Redman, who said after the Bartman play: "Man, let's make this guy famous."
"Sure enough, we made him famous," Redmond said. "I was sitting right there, with Andy Fox and Brian Banks. We were sitting there watching the whole thing. We all said the same thing, 'Oh man, I think he might have caught that.' We were like, 'This is the break we needed.'"
In the World Series, the Marlins didn't need any breaks from outside the lines. What they did do was rely on the strong arm and will of Beckett.
Pitching on three days' rest, Beckett turned in one of the most impressive close-out performances in World Series history. In Game 6, the hard-throwing Texan struck out nine in a five-hit shutout, and Florida eliminated New York in the 100th anniversary of the World Series.
Going with the 23-year-old Beckett on short rest was an easy call for McKeon.
"I called Beckett in, and asked, 'What do you think about pitching on three days' rest?'" McKeon recalled. "He said, 'Let me go out and throw a bullpen.' He went out and threw a bullpen, and then he came in and said, 'I'm your guy.' That's all I needed."
From his first pitch, the Marlins knew they were in good shape.
"When he took that mound at Yankee Stadium in the first inning, I said to one of the coaches, 'They ain't going to touch him tonight,'" McKeon said. "He had no fear. He was a guy who had the guts of a burglar. He believed in himself."