‘A dream come true’: 25 years later, 1997 Marlins reflect on club’s first World Series

·5 min read

The moment is still fresh in Craig Counsell’s mind almost two-and-a-half decades later.

He’s standing on third base with two outs in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series between the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians, 90 feet away from glory. Edgar Renteria stood at the plate with an 0-1 count.

Renteria lofted the pitch from Charles Nagy just above the pitcher’s head, between the middle infielders and into center field. Counsell, with his arms raised high and Pro Player Stadium turning into a frenzy, crosses home plate.

The Marlins, five years into their existence, have won the World Series.

“To be the guy that got to score that run,” Counsell said, “you pinch yourself. It’s a dream come true.”

That moment, and the season that led to it, was on full display at loanDepot park on Saturday as the Marlins celebrated the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s first World Series team with Counsell in the opposing dugout as the Marlins hosted the Milwaukee Brewers.

In addition to Counsell, 13 other members of the 1997 team were in attendance: Manager Jim Leyland, World Series MVP Livan Hernandez, Kurt Abbott, Antonio Alfonseca, Alex Arias, John Cangelosi, Rich Donnelly, Jim Eisenreich, Alex Fernandez, Cliff Floyd, Charles Johnson, Renteria and Gary Sheffield.

“I didn’t realize how much time had past,” Sheffield said. “When you are doing a lot of things and have a lot of things going on and they tell you something about a 25-year anniversary, you start reflecting a little bit and then you start going back into your memories and looking at the good times we had.”

The group converged on the field pregame for a group photo before the official ceremony began.

Jeff Conine, given the Mr. Marlin moniker and now the associate head baseball coach at FIU, spoke on a pre-recorded video that was played on the scoreboard. Conine could not be in attendance because FIU had a weekend series at UAB.

And then they were introduced one by one by Jay Rokeach, the Marlins’ public address announcer for that 1997 season, with loanDepot park’s multicolor-capable LED lights flashing in teal as each player emerged from the home dugout.

“Talking about that stuff never gets old,” Counsell said. “It was one of the most fun times in your life. Winning the World Series, you always want to re-live that stuff. That’s your favorite stuff in baseball.”

In this Oct. 26, 1997 file photo, Marlins manager Jim Leyland circles the field at Pro Player Stadium after winning the World Series.
In this Oct. 26, 1997 file photo, Marlins manager Jim Leyland circles the field at Pro Player Stadium after winning the World Series.

And while the lasting memory is that final hit — Renteria driving in Counsell — the consensus among the team is that the success was driven by the trust Leyland had in his players.

Sheffield, who the Marlins acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres in 1993, pointed to a moment when he was walking to the side fields during spring training. Leyland put his arm around Sheffield’s shoulder.

The message the manager was going to relay to his All-Star outfielder in a heart-to-heart conversation:

“This team is going to go as far as you take us,” Sheffield recollected Saturday. “Not that all the pressure is going to be on you, but if you do your part, we have the pieces around you to do it.”

Sheffield’s thoughts at that moment, after being part of the first four Marlins teams that had never finished a season with an above-.500 record?

“That’s when I started believing,” he said.

The Marlins would end up going 92-70 that season to earn a spot in the playoffs as a wild card team. They swept the San Francisco Giants in the best-of-5 National League Division Series and beat the Atlanta Braves 4-2 in the National League Championship Series before reaching the pinnacle of the World Series.

To Sheffield, Leyland “gave the organization some direction and some leadership from the top.”

“He brough that from Day 1,” Sheffield said. “He put the right pieces in place and we got along. We had one heartbeat and that was the slogan throughout the World Series.”

For Alfonseca, who the Marlins selected with the No. 4 overall pick in 1993, Leyland is like another father.

Alfonseca made his MLB debut that season. He played in just 17 regular-season games that year and threw 25 2/3 innings, but Leyland trusted the rookie enough to give him the ball in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series with the Marlins within a run of Cleveland. He retired four of the five batters he faced, allowing just a walk, to put the Marlins in position to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

“As a rookie in ‘97, I said ‘Thank you, Leyland,’” Alfonseca said. “He always taught me.”

Counsell, now in his eighth year as the Brewers’ manager after a 16-year MLB career that began in earnest after being traded to the Marlins in 1997, said there were lessons he learned from being around Leyland that he has taken into his managerial career.

“We learned from people we were around,” Counsell said. “The key is you take it in, but you have to be yourself when you implement things that you learn. It never comes across the same as Jim Leyland — and I wouldn’t want it to; I wouldn’t expect it to. You try to learn from it and make it come across as authentic.”

The authenticity of the moment, meanwhile, was still felt as teammates recollected on memories 25 years in the making.

Alfonseca remembers being in the dugout as Game 7 went to extra innings, anxiously waiting to see if the moment would come, if the Marlins would be able to pull off the World Series win.

And then came the moment. Rentaria single up the middle. Counsell scores from third.

Pandemonium begins.

“I’m going crazy and jumping like a little kid,” Alfonseca said. “I see that and go, ‘That’s it.’”

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