The Marlins’ inaugural spring training 25 years ago was a Space Coast blast

Thought it might be fun, as part of the franchise’s 25th anniversary celebration, to look back at the Marlins’ inaugural spring training in 1993.

For openers, they were the Florida Marlins back then, owned by Wayne Huizenga, who made many of his millions renting videotape cassettes of Hollywood movies. Yes, it really was a long time ago.

Jeff Conine honored at Marlins 2008 opener. Staff photo by Allen EyestoneThe Palm Beach Post.

The first training facility was near Melbourne on Florida’s Space Coast. They call the community Viera these days but back then it was just a flat expanse of land along I-95 where developers were just kicking off plans to build a huge residential community with plenty of retail and schools and a Brevard County  governmental complex.

As it was, the practice fields were barely ready for use and the more general landscaping of the property and painting of the clubhouse were still being done when the players headed out for the opening workout. Manager Rene Lachemann warned against anybody complaining too much about the conditions, bad hops and such.

“Some of the (groundskeeping) guys here are on work release,” he said. “You know what that means. They’re from the joint. Be careful what you say.”

Lachemann, always a funny guy, had already been fired twice as manager of the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers. He worked six years as Tony La Russa’s third-base coach in Oakland before former  Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski hired him to lead Miami’s expansion team.

Today Lachemann is out of the game but it took a while. He retired in 2016 after 53 consecutive seasons in a professional baseball uniform. Dombrowski remains busy as president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox.

Back, though, to the spring of 1993 and a detail that most Marlins fans have forgotten. Space Coast Stadium wasn’t available for the first exhibition season. In fact, there wasn’t even a groundbreaking for the stadium’s construction until the Marlins had left Melbourne to begin the regular season.

Consequently, the first-even Marlins spring game and all other 1993 home exhibition games were played 11 miles south on I-95 at an old facility called Cocoa Expo Stadium.

The Houston Astros used that place for 21 years and moved on, feeling cramped and ready for more modern accomodations in Kissimmee, but the Marlins did their best to spruce things up for their opening exhibition game in Cocoa on Friday, March 5, 1993.

Huizenga chartered a Boeing 727 to fly 150 VIP’s up from South Florida. Parachutists floated into the stadium pregame. There were fireworks in a sunlit sky and groundskeepers in tuxedos and all kinds of circus-style extras, like a fire-eating performer and live alligators on display.

As for the baseball, as you would expect, Jeff Conine hit a two-run homer for the Marlins, who beat Houston 12-8. As you might not expect, a sellout crowd of 6,696 was there to cheer and stomp and clap for practically everything that happened.

The next day a greater sense of reality set in as the Marlins climbed on a couple of buses for what should have been a four-hour ride to Homestead and a game with the Cleveland Indians. It took a little longer because one of the buses blew a tire soon after leaving Melbourne.

It took a sense of humor to get by in those early days, and in many cases with the rebuilding Marlins, now training in a first-class facility at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, it still does.

[Wade’s return touches every emotional touchstone for Heat fans]

[Where was Derek Jeter when the Marlins were born?]

[There was a time, gulp, when the Heat played in the Western Conference]

Derek Jeter apparently missed the memo on how fed up Marlins fans are with fire sales

 

With Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup, every day will be Home Run Derby for the New York Yankees.

It’s an excess of riches for Derek Jeter’s old team. And his new one? An excess of prospects, building toward some grand plan that Jeter, part-owner and top baseball executive of the Miami Marlins, has thus far failed to articulate.

New Yankee Giancarlo Stanton answers questions during a press conference at the Major League Baseball winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.)

The optics are not good here, trading away the franchise’s home-grown NL Most Valuable Player. Some of the worst ever, actually.

Even Jeffrey Loria, the owner everyone wanted to ride out of town on a rail, got off to a better start than this when he bought the Marlins from John Henry in 2002.

Forget for a moment that Loria basically had the team handed to him in an orchestrated deal that sold his floundering Montreal Expos to Major League Baseball first. Forget it because fans care far less about the financial underpinnings of any franchise than they do about the players they buy tickets to see.

In that respect Loria and his general manager, Larry Beinfest, got busy in a hurry on a set of transactions that were far more popular and beneficial to the team’s roster than anything Jeter has done or will do over the next few years.

Tim Raines, a good clubhouse guy and a future Hall of Famer, instantly came aboard as a low-cost free agent at the end of his career. Everybody loved “Rock,” whether he played a lot or not, so no harm there.

Next came a spring-training trade that sent Antonio Alfonseca, a flighty and overweight closer, to the Cubs in a package that got the Marlins an interesting young pitching prospect named Dontrelle Willis. The D-Train was on the verge of a breakout, from minor leaguer in 2002 to NL Rookie of the Year in 2003, so that worked, too. It was all part of a quiet rollout in which the Marlins improved from 76 wins to 79, with Loria making signs that he meant to compete for something.

In Loria’s second season he shifted into a different gear altogether, trading away Charles Johnson and Preston Wilson in a deal that brought Juan Pierre, a great leadoff hitter, to the Marlins.

Next came the free-agent signing of catcher Ivan Rodriguez for $10 million, which was more than one-fifth of the team payroll at the time. Pudge, a future Hall of Famer, was exactly what the Marlins needed to get the most out of a staff of kid pitchers who themselves would go on to be stars.

In May Loria showed his impetuous side, firing manager Jeff Torborg and replacing him with the ancient Jack McKeon. Nobody knew quite what to make of that, and the sale of Kevin Millar to the Red Sox was a puzzler, too, but then came the moves that really proved Loria wanted to win the World Series as soon as possible.

In July the Marlins got a top closer, Ugueth Urbina, in a trade, and in August Jeff Conine, a Marlins favorite who was lost in an earlier Wayne Huizenga fire sale, returned to the team by trade as well. The pieces were then in place for a World Series upset of the Yankees, with a mix of veterans and young stars developed in what was then recognized as a strong farm system.

No matter what anybody thinks of Loria now, at least he came into this thing with the idea that the Marlins should strive to be the best and South Florida fans should know that.

So far, the only things this market knows about Jeter are bad. He won’t care about winning for a while, it’s clear. He believes there is time for a rebuild because he is new to this project. Poor guy. He doesn’t realize that new projects are old news around here. Finished projects are what we crave.

I’m not telling you to love Jeffrey Loria. It seems, though, that he at least cared about first impressions as the owner of the Marlins.

Jeter figures he has already made his first impression, the only one he’ll ever need to make, by being one of the greatest players in Yankees history. That was a different time in his life, though, and this job of empire-building, the one that even George Steinbrenner struggled to master, does not come so naturally to him.

[A dream night for Jakeem, but not without familiar frustrations]

[It’s OK to start wondering if Tiger will return to Honda Classic]

[Before Richt was available, UM interviewed Schiano and Mullen]