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Unseen snags upset Marlins' plans

by Jerry Crasnick
July 29, 2004

PHILADELPHIA—Josh Beckett beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series on short rest and adrenaline, and it was only natural to wonder what he might have planned through 2015. Here was a rarity: a young pitcher talented enough to make both scouts and statistical nerds dreamy-eyed with possibilities.

How good can Boy Josh be? The answer, it appears, is hypothetical and epidermal in nature.

Beckett's right hand—the one that threw the fastball that induced Jorge Posada to hit that roller down the line in the ninth inning of Game Six—is either day-to-day or pitch-to-pitch, depending on when this issue of Baseball America hits your mailbox. He can't seem to shake a run of blister trouble, and there's no telling when the next fastball might snap off his fingertips and leave him incapacitated.

Beckett is barely on a pace to surpass 100 innings this season, but he leads the majors in goofy home remedies. As Rick Ankiel and Nick Esasky can attest, mystery ailments are a magnet for well-meaning fans with medical advice.

Credit Beckett for keeping an open mind. He visited a University of Miami burn specialist at the suggestion of the club, and tried that old standby, Stan's Rodeo Cream, for the umpteenth time.

At the height of Beckett's despair, one South Florida paper ran a story on the whys and wherefores of blister maintenance. Among other things, the piece debated the merits of soaking the afflicted hand in pickle brine, applying Super Glue, squeezing a fist in a bucket of dry rice and, when all else fails, resorting to the gee-whiz treatment out of the Moises Alou playbook.

No wonder Marlins fans were anxious to get back to reading about those Steve Finley and Larry Walker trade rumors.

Weird Summer

Beckett's natural cockiness can be grating. It wasn't too cool when he called the Marlins trainer a "jackass" after the team placed him on the disabled list in May. But if you were chosen No. 2 in the draft, dated Leann Tweeden and had the run of your own Texas ranch at age 24, you wouldn't lack for self-assurance, either.

Beckett's teammates feel for him because he's so close, and yet so far. They know they're going to need him to make a run in September.

"Man, we just want him to be OK," Dontrelle Willis said. "If it was an elbow or a shoulder, that's one thing. This is something so small, but it's so significant to your livelihood."

It's been that kind of year for the defending World Series champions, and for South Florida sports in general. Consider: If someone approached you in the spring and asked you to lay odds on the following Miami-related sports events taking place this summer, which would you choose?

Shaquille O'Neal, the newest member of the NBA Heat, arrives at the team's arena in an 18-wheeler in mid-July, douses fans with a water cannon, then walks up a red carpet to the arena for his introductory press conference. There Shaq vows to walk naked on the beach in South Florida, and compares himself to toilet paper, toothpaste and other utilitarian household items.

Ricky Williams suddenly retires at 27, leaving the Dolphins with a void at running back and prompting South Florida talk-show callers to speculate, "What the heck was he thinking?"

As the trade deadline approached, the Marlins were contending in the National League East with a one-man bullpen and shortstop Alex Gonzalez ranking third on the team in RBIs.

As the Marlins passed the 100-game mark, manager Jack McKeon still couldn't pronounce "Hee Seop Choi."

The correct answer: All of the above.

The Challenge Of Repeating

Florida's difficulty in putting together a consistent run substantiates how difficult it is for World Series winners to repeat these days. Even teams with a plan.

The Marlins acted decisively and showed a willingness to make tough choices after their second series win in seven years. They traded Derrek Lee, Mark Redman and Juan Encarnacion to create payroll flexibility, signed Mike Lowell and Luis Castillo to multiyear deals, brought in Armando Benitez to replace Ugueth Urbina as closer and pressed forward with Ramon Castro at catcher after failing to re-sign Pudge Rodriguez.

Some moves worked out better than others. Benitez has been lights-out, but a spring training elbow injury to set-up man Chad Fox was a killer. While Choi has done some nice things as the first-base successor to Lee, he's still a work in progress. And Jeff Conine's first-half funk took a toll on the offense.

The Marlins' biggest miscalculation was behind the plate, where they figured Castro would give them more power than Rodriguez, if not the same average, defense or leadership skills. While Pudge is having an MVP-caliber season as a Tiger, Castro failed to hit Mike Mordecai's weight. He batted .135 in 32 games before going down for the year with a toe injury, prompting his teammates to conclude that he quit on the club.

"Everyone compares this to last year's team, and the main two pieces we lost offensively were Pudge and Derrek," Lowell said. "If people really thought we were going to get the same production losing those two guys, that was unrealistic."

Growing Pains

Florida's pitching staff, so young and talented, is enduring the typical pains of growing up. Willis looks leaner and meaner this year because of a stringent workout regimen, but he's shown the inconsistency one might expect from a 22-year-old. Brad Penny was awesome for two months, then alternately mediocre and lacking in run support. A.J. Burnett came back from Tommy John surgery to throw 97 mph, but received no help from the offense either. And then there's Beckett.

Regardless of how the Fish are pitching, though, they're always fun to watch. One day Beckett might be popping off about the trainer. The next day Burnett is lashing out at club president David Samson and general manager Larry Beinfest for mishandling his rehab. The Marlins don't need a manager, they need a hall monitor.

The Marlins' one true beacon of consistency has been Carl Pavano, who made his first all-star appearance this year and will be a popular man when he files for free agency this winter. Pavano speaks with the wisdom of a worldly, seasoned veteran of 28.

"A lot of pitchers go through adversity, and it's a question of how they handle it," Pavano said. "Some guys fall by the wayside, some guys lay down and get rolled over, and some guys just keep fighting. Eventually, persistence, determination and will are going to get you through all that."

The Marlins will spend September learning if they have the will, and, more important, if they can find the way. Too bad for them there's no home remedy for adversity.

Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to jerrycrasnick@baseballamerica.com.

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