The Post-Journal

What A Difference A Year Makes For Marlins

This time a year ago, the Florida Marlins were still in a daze. In only its fifth season, the team finished 92-70 to win the wild-card berth in the National League and went on to win the World Series.This year the Marlins are licking their wounds after finishing with the worst record in the major leagues at 54-108.

It was quite a turnaround, but not unexpected.

Even before the Marlins made the playoffs in 1997, owner Wayne Huizenga announced he was tired of losing money and wanted the team’s payroll cut from the $52 million it had reached at the end of 1997 to the low $20 millions. That meant going from the penthouse to the outhouse for the Marlins and among those who suffered the plunge were a couple of former Jamestown Expos general managers: Frank Wren and Dan Lunetta.

“We never dreamed it would end this quick,” said Wren who also played and coached for Jamestown’s NY-P League team in the 1970’s and 1980’s before becoming the GM.

“(General Manager) Dave (Dombrowski) and myself knew in the middle of last summer that there was a good chance this would happen, but kept hoping we could convince them otherwise. I think we knew once and for all the Thursday after the World Series. The World Series was over on Sunday night, there was a big meeting and that was it. Once that meeting was over, it (the Marlins ’success) was over.”

Wren recalled, “It didn’t really hit until early the next week when we traded Moises Alou (the team’s MVP). That’s when it really hit; when we actually had to start parting with players.”

And many more were to part, including Jeff Conine, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Bobby Bonilla.

“Even though you knew you had to, you kept thinking somebody could change their mind,” Wren said. “But once the players were gone, it didn’t matter if they changed their mind; it was over. So when we actually started trading the players, that’s when it was a reality. When we got to spring training and the reality hit that our players were gone, that’s when it got tough for me. Spring training was very difficult.

Lunetta stressed, “My attitude was I was so thankful and happy that we won the World Series because had we not won the World Series, this was going to happen anyway.”

But what happened didn’t really hit him until this week.

“It was painful; the whole season was painful,” the Jamestown native said Tuesday morning. “You sometimes felt like you were in a vacuum. As hard as it was, it hit me real hard last night watching the Cubs’ (play-off) game. And then I came to the full realization of what had happened to our major league club. We should be there (in the playoffs) right now and that’s tough to accept.

Wren felt the same way when the current postseason began.

“It’s a major letdown,” he said. “Today on ESPN News I’m watching the postseason interviews at the division series practice sessions and I remember attending those here last year because we were preparing to play the Giants in first round of the division series, so it’s a big letdown.”

However, no one involved with the Marlins sat around and complained or argued.

“When you are given an edict by ownership to slash payroll, you either accommodate his desires or you go look for a job somewhere else,” Lunetta said. “There is still a job to be done. We still have responsibilities, we’re still getting paid, so you have to undertake those responsibilities with the same vigor that you did before all of this happened. You have to be mentally tough.

And it was perhaps tougher on Wren than Lunetta.

“Dave and Frank had to sit through this and endure this every day,” noted Lunetta, who spent most of his time with the minor leaguers. “They had to see the big league team play every day.

Quite a few fans did, too.

“The fans were great,” Wren said. “They still came out and supported us. We still had a lot of nights when we were in the 30,000s on the weekends, which was fantastic considering our record. The fans were good; we have no complaints there.”

Wren was also on hand for the World Series ring presentation, but of course a lot of members of the 1997 world champion Marlins were not because they were playing elsewhere. So the next morning, Wren and Dombrowski began flying all over the country to hand deliver World Series rings.

“None of us liked the way it ended and we wanted to visit with each guy personally,” Wren said.

While Wren was watching the Marlins lose, he was continuing to cut the payroll (which is now about $13 million) by trading or not resigning players. However, Lunetta was in the position to make the Marlins’ situation a positive because he is involved with the team’s minor league operations.

“We told these guys you’re going to have an opportunity this year that you’d not have otherwise had because of our circumstances, so you’ve got to take advantage of it and capitalize and some of them did, “ said Lunetta, who pointed out that between 14 and 16 players on the Marlins’ roster should have been playing at Triple A. “Was it fair to them? Perhaps not, but we had no choice. I think the players took it as a challenge.”

Now there is a challenge of returning to playoff contention and that has helped when Dombowski, who was rumored to be headed to the Los Angeles GM’s position that was taken by former Jamestown Expos coach Kevin Malone, signed on for five more years with Florida.

“It’s a commitment to all of us that we’re going to put this back on the right track again and I think we’ve started that already,” Lunetta said. “I think we’ve got the worst behind us.”

Then he pointed out an example.

“Even though it’s been a rough year, there’s always a silver lining in the cloud and last week we were named organization of the year by USA Today,” he said. “That provided a very sweet ending to a sour year.”

Wren, who recently interviewed for the general manager’s position at Baltimore, signed on for three more years with the Marlins.

“If we can get the club sold and have a plan going forward, at least there’s hope,” he said. “Our timetable will be dictated by when we get a new stadium.”

That was stated before Manager Jim Leyland resigned on Thursday, but that was not a surprise. John Boles was named the Marlins’ manager Friday, so things are moving, but some wonder if it’s forward.

However, for now, Wren will still savor 1997.

“Until there’s a new world champion, we’re the defending world champion,” he said.

Lunetta said, “That’s the memory. Now you’ve got the dream again. You just hope to realize the dream again.

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