Five-year-old Patrick Leyland may be new in town, but he looks right at home standing in front of a cluster of empty lockers playing catch with his dad.
“Give me the heater,” Jim Leyland says.
“Keep your butt down on those grounders.”
“Don’t throw like a girl.”
“If you catch this one, the Marlins win the World Series.”
Spring training begins this weekend, and for the first time, the Florida Marlins’ manager is talking about the World Series.
The team has been transformed by owner Wayne Huizenga’s checkbook. Eager to find out whether South Florida will support a winning team, Huizenga spent $89 million on six free agents during a three-week spree late last year.
The job of ensuring that a $48-million dollar payroll makes sense falls to Leyland. He was hired in October after seven years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where financial constraints made it difficult to compete.
In recent years, Leyland’s teams were expected to lose. This year, his team is expected to win.
“There’s a lot less pressure for me personally going into this season than there was last season,” he says. “This is good pressure. Last year was bad pressure because we knew we didn’t really have a chance.
“Now you feel like going in, if you play real good, hey, you have a chance to do something.”
Young Patrick Leyland isn’t old enough to remember the last time his dad began spring training with such a talented team. At the least, the Marlins are projected to make the playoffs, and some foresee a challenge to the Atlanta Braves’ reign in the N.L. East.
Either way, expectations are great for a fifth-year franchise still waiting to play a meaningful game in September, let alone October.
“This organization hasn’t finished .500 yet,” Leyland says. “That’s a big step to climb, to start putting yourself in the class with the Atlanta Braves. We look good on paper going in, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
Work begins today in Melbourne when pitchers and catchers conduct their first drills. Position players report Wednesday, and the opening spring game is Feb. 28 in Fort Lauderdale against the Baltimore Orioles.
There will be plenty of new faces in the clubhouse, among them free-agent acquisitions Alex Fernandez (five years, $35 million), Bobby Bonilla (four years, $23.3 million) and Moises Alou (five years, $25 million).
They’re expected to strengthen a team that finished 80-82 last year despite having players who challenged unsuccessfully for several major awards, including the Cy Young (Kevin Brown), most valuable player (Gary Sheffield) and rookie of the year (Edgar Renteria).
The 1-2-3 combination of Brown, Fernandez and Al Leiter could rival the Braves’ top starting pitchers, and Robb Nen again anchors the bullpen. Sheffield, Alou and Devon White give Florida one of the best outfields in baseball, while shortstop Renteria, second baseman Luis Castillo and catcher Charles Johnson make Florida solid up the middle. Bonilla - who became a star in Pittsburgh under Leyland - and Jeff Conine figure to provide plenty of offense from the corners.
“Six of the eight regulars were on the ballclub last year,” Leyland says. “It’s not like we had a total change-over.
“That’s why I came here. I really like the double-play combination, and Devon is an outstanding center fielder. Sheffield is one of the true superstar offensive players in baseball. Charles Johnson is two-time Gold Glove winner at a very young age.
“So the makings were here. Obviously there were some holes. We tried to go out and fill those.”
The fiercest battle this spring figures to be among Pat Rapp, Rick Helling and Mark Hutton for the Nos. 4 and 5 slots in the rotation. With most of the roster already set, Leyland’s focus will be on getting to know his players.
“I’m going to have to gradually earn their respect,” he says. “They’re going to see how I operate and hopefully over a period of time they’ll say, ‘This guy’s OK.’ I’m not going to come in here and try to impress the players in spring training.”
But with a $48 million payroll, the players will be expected to impress Leyland.
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