Ryan Dempster stared at the burning limousine and tried to recount what just happened. His team, the 1999 Florida Marlins, were on the way to meet former teammate Gary Sheffield at his mansion in Los Angeles. Kevin Millar rented two limos for everyone, but then ditched them to ride with Sheffield in one of his luxury cars.
For Dempster and everyone else, the ride was a disaster. About halfway to Sheffield’s house, one limo’s air conditioning failed in the LA heat. The players in that limo had no interest in sweating the rest of the way, so the entire team crammed themselves into the back of one limo.
Things went surprisingly smooth until they pulled up in front of Sheffield’s gate. The limo driver started yelling, “Get out, get out!” The limo had caught on fire, and players were climbing over Mike Lowell to get to the door. Before the limo was fully engulfed in flames, Livan Hernandez dove back into the car to save his Louis Vuitton bag.
As the wreckage burned, Millar pulled up with Sheffield wondering what the hell just happened.
That story is the perfect metaphor for the ’99 Marlins. Which part? Well, that’s up to your interpretation. The ’99 Marlins were not a good club, winning just 64 games. So, “What the hell happened?” seems apt.
They also could have been the burning limo. While the team was awful, it also contained some incredible players. Guys who would go on to do tremendous things in the big leagues.
“Anybody who watched that ’99 team, you could tell how hard we played,” Preston Wilson says. “Almost everybody in that starting lineup ended up being an All-Star at some point.”
The All-Star Game will be played in Miami on Tuesday. The team name has changed to the Miami Marlins, but there will be constant reminders of popular players, and memorable seasons in franchise lore.
That ’99 team, despite its record, will be tough to ignore. You won’t just see members of the club in Marlins Park, you’ll see them plastered all over your TV. Five players from the team: Ryan Dempster, Cliff Floyd, Mike Lowell, Kevin Millar and Preston Wilson reunited, and work together as broadcasters with MLB Network today.
The 1999 Marlins may have failed on the field, but something memorable was happening in the clubhouse. Every day, a group of some of the loudest, wackiest and most rambunctious players in baseball were thrown together and forced to co-exist. The locker room was boisterous. The stories bordered on unbelievable. The 1999 Marlins were full of some of the biggest personalities in the game.
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) July 10, 2017
If it looks like those are just five random players from one team who conveniently happened to stumble into each other a decade later, it’s one hell of a coincidence. Those five players were very much at the center of that 1999 Marlins club. They bonded and formed lifelong friendships. They grew as ballplayers and men as they learned how to play in the majors together.
They also had a ridiculous amount of fun, creating unforgettable memories, some of which they are still hesitant to share today.
They were, in many ways, “the island of misfit ballplayers,” Wilson says.
Looking back on the team, it’s evident why the Marlins struggled to win games. The team not only employed a number of rookies and inexperienced players, but many of them hardly played together in the minors.
Millar was the only player of the group to come up with the Marlins. Dempster joined him in 1996 after he was acquired in a trade from the Texas Rangers. Wilson came over in a 1998 deal with the New York Mets. Lowell was acquired from the New York Yankees just a month before spring training in 1999. All four of them walked into the clubhouse that season with their rookie eligibility intact.
Floyd was one of the few veterans on the club. As such, he became the de facto leader on the team. While some players might have bristled at the thought of dragging a bunch of rookies through their first taste of the big leagues, Floyd proved to be well suited for the role.
“Sometimes, if a guy is more of a veteran, he does things different and alienates himself from the young guys, but Cliffy wasn’t that,” Lowell said.
“When you’re young coming into a big league environment, you need someone to shorten that learning curve,” Wilson says. “You need someone who has been there, seen that, heard that, experienced that — that you can bounce ideas off of and, for me, Cliff was that guy.”
Floyd’s role was to police the clubhouse and make sure the rookies stayed focused. But that responsibility didn’t just fall on him. Even though Millar lacked big league experience, he made his presence known in that clubhouse.
“Kevin Millar was the anchor,” Floyd said. “He held down the fort and kept it loose and made sure we didn’t go crazy.”
“I’ve always had a leadership quality because I was vocal,” Millar said. “If someone wasn’t running out a ball, I let them know. If somebody wasn’t doing their job, I let them know.
“It’s not easy to get on guys when things aren’t going well. Guys get defensive and guys have egos. With our group, it was never taken that way.”
Millar, unsurprisingly, brought levity to a locker room that had to deal with a lot of losing. His most important quality may have been his ability to connect with every single player on the roster.
“I didn’t see Kevin as a leader. I saw him as a guy who kept everything loose,” Wilson said. “He was always a guy who was joking. He had this magnetic personality. No matter what language you speak, he’s going to make you laugh.
“He tended to draw that out of other people. Some guys who came over from the Dominican Republic could barely speak English, but they’re joking with Kevin Millar.”
Millar had a partner in crime in the form of Dempster. Together, the two were considered the class clowns on the team. It didn’t matter that Dempster was a pitcher. This locker room didn’t operate like a football team. Pitchers and position players didn’t function like NFL offenses and defenses. Dempster was firmly a part of the group.
Dempster “and I lived together every year in spring training,” Millar says. “He was like my second wife at the time. I’ve said I’d marry Ryan if I could have.”
Millar and Dempster were involved in plenty of hijinks that had the team in stitches. It ranged from simple things like ragging on each other and giving fake tours on the team bus when they were in a new city to slightly more involved antics like wearing fake teeth and glasses and trying to distract each other during interviews.
There was also some physical comedy, including one time when Dempster intentionally threw himself down about 16 stairs in a crowded restaurant, got up, dusted himself off, let the horrified patrons know he was fine and then casually walked away. It even entered into the magical realm. Dempster would put on magic shows in the clubhouse. That practice regrettably came to an end.
“I wasn’t doing a very good job of making the ball disappear so I had to start doing that a little bit more,” Dempster explains. “I probably could have benefitted in my career a little bit by maybe being a little more serious.”
It may have looked like fun and games most of the time, but some teammates were able to see some sincere qualities in Dempster’s antics.
Dempster “ended up being a starting pitcher for, like, 14 years in the big leagues,” Wilson says. “In his rookie year, in between starts, he’s going to a comedy club in Boston and standing on stage. Do you know how fearless you have to be to do an open mic night in Boston?”
With two guys willing to go to extreme lengths to entertain, you might think that would rub some teammates the wrong way. But that wasn’t the case. On a team that lost so many games, their ability to keep things light kept everyone from getting frustrated.
That was especially important to Lowell. Weeks after he was acquired by the Marlins, Lowell was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He missed two months of the season undergoing treatment.
“I met the team for the first time when I finished my cancer treatments,” Lowell said. “Guys like Kevin and Demp were huge for me. Where I was in my life, I really welcomed that. [Being able to have fun] was easily my biggest challenge [after] overcoming a health scare.”
The team may have struggled on the field, but the rookies could play. No one embodied that more than Wilson. But it took him a while to figure things out.
After a tough start, Wilson found himself hitting under .200 during the season’s first month. He turned his entire season around May 9. Wilson hit a pinch-hit solo home run against Los Angeles Dodgers starter Chan Ho Park to bring the Marlins within one run.
They would go on to win that game, and Wilson would credit the home run as the play that got him on track. From that point on, he hit .296/.366/.517, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Wilson exemplified what many members of the 1999 Marlins saw every day. The team wasn’t winning, but the talent was there.
“We probably had 14 or 15 guys go on to play 10-plus years in the big leagues,” Millar adds. “That’s pretty unique on a team that was probably worst in baseball.”
The games may not have been memorable, but the stories were. While all five players laugh at the memories, there are still some things they can’t share with the public 10 years after the fact.
“I’m trying to find the G-rated version,” says Lowell. “I’ve got a couple that there’s no way I can tell.”
“I can’t share any of my best stories from that season,” Wilson laughs.
On a team full of entertainers, it’s impossible to keep everything buried. Like the time Dempster and Floyd spent the entire night out on the town in South Beach the night before a game. Instead of going home first sight of sunlight, they went to Waffle House to complete the all-nighter.
As they were sitting down, they noticed a man looking at the sports section of the local paper. He keeps looking down at the paper, and then looking over at Dempster and Floyd. After doing this a number of times, the man finally opens the paper to show them the story he’s reading and says, “Shouldn’t you be at home sleeping?”
A few hours later, Floyd crushed a home run.
“It was unbelievable,” Dempster said. “We were like, ‘We’re going to Waffle House again at 5:30!’”
But the biggest thing to come out of that season is a slogan every baseball fan knows and uses today.
“I don’t think we thought that when we first heard Kevin Millar say “got him” it was going to go public 10 years later,” Floyd says.
Yes, “got him,” or “got heeeeeem” as Millar says it today, actually originated around this time. It became the go-to phrase anytime someone on the team succeeded against a pitcher.
“The ‘got him’ thing was Paul Bako and me,” Millar says. “We used to sit on the bench. When a guy would hit a home run, we would be like ‘got him.’ “
The phrase caught on with the team, but Millar never thought about bringing it to a national audience until he started broadcasting games.
As he was prepping for his first broadcast on FOX, Millar received a text from Bako telling him he had to use the phrase as a home run call.
“Bako had texted me like, ‘Bro, you gotta get a good home run call,’ thinking I’m going announce the home runs,” Millar says. “Joe Buck does all that, but I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ So we’re gonna use ‘got him.’ You know, ‘high drive, got heeeeeem!’ “
“Obviously, I never used it because Joe Buck is the real announcer, but that’s how it all came together.”
Millar resurrected the phrase while hosting “Intentional Talk” with Chris Rose on MLB Network. It’s become one of the most popular, and most quotable, segments on the network.
Millar was the first of the ’99 Marlins to join MLB Network roughly a year after it launched in 2009. He decided to give broadcasting a shot after he was released by the Chicago Cubs in 2010. By his own admission, he wasn’t good at it initially, but he loved it.
The rest soon followed. Dempster, Floyd, Lowell and Wilson came aboard, and suddenly, the ’99 Marlins were back together again.
While none of them had any idea broadcasting was in their future back in 1999 — MLB Network didn’t exist until 10 years later — they’ve all carried parts of their playing career with them in their current roles.
Lowell is considered one of the smartest hitting analysts at the network. Dempster is a natural entertainer. Even his mom knew he was bound for television when his playing days were over. Millar still doesn’t know how to tie a tie.
They are comfortable being themselves every time they step in front of the camera. Both Floyd and Wilson refer to the group as “authentic.”
It’s those same qualities that led these five to form a tight bond back in ’99. It’s a major reason they still remain friends today. As often as you might read puff pieces on teams with great chemistry, forming lifelong friendships that last long after playing careers end is what sets this group apart.
“Not every teammate is your friend,” Millar says. “Once you get traded, you lose touch. But this group, they are still in the cell phone to this day and now obviously we work together which makes fun television when we’re on together because the chemistry has been there for over 20 years.”
“We grew up together like family,” Dempster says. “At the core of it all, I think that’s what they all have in common … they are just really, really good people.”
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