As a soft rain fell, 53,857 ticket-holders found their seats at sundown Friday and wiped them dry. It was the largest crowd--and biggest game--for a baseball team here, although thousands of faithful South Florida fans remained indoors with their televisions off, more faithful to the observance of Yom Kippur.
In the hours before Charles Johnson's three-run double resulted in a victory, 5-2, over the Atlanta Braves, some of those devoted to the Florida Marlins must have felt a need for their own kind of quiet contemplation. Why, when everything had been so good, had the ballclub's luck suddenly turned so bad?
An ace pitcher, Alex Fernandez, had blown out his arm in Game 2. The team's best run-producer, Moises Alou, was unable to start Games 2 and 3 because of a sore wrist. An even better pitcher, Kevin Brown, came to the park before Game 3 complaining of stomach flu, and will need to skip Game 4.
Florida's players were having a test of faith.
"We didn't let it get us down," said Johnson, the all-star Marlin catcher. "Things happen for a reason."
They were rewarded with a stroke of luck on a big swing by Johnson, who drove a ball to the gap--literally, to The Gap's billboard in left-center--beyond the reach of a belly-flopping Ryan Klesko in the sixth inning. It broke up a 2-2 game and gave the Braves a bases-loaded jolt, from which they never did recover.
Up to that point, things were working in mysterious ways. Bad breaks for the Marlins kept accumulating, like storm clouds over Broward County. A strange play occurred in the top of the fourth inning that had Marlin players muttering to themselves, while their manager angrily declared that his team was now playing the game under protest.
Florida's rookie pitcher, Tony Saunders, called it "one of the weirder plays I've seen."
He had just been touched by Kenny Lofton for a single. Saunders then threw a pitch to Jeff Blauser (that looked like a strike) that was called ball four, unbeknownst to Lofton, who broke for second base, was tagged and was called out (though he looked safe). Lofton stepped off the base. He was tagged again. But he was permitted to go back, because of umpire Eric Gregg's mistake, not realizing that the pitch was ball four.
A rule (7.08 in the handbook) makes a runner responsible for his own mistake.
(" . . . even though an out is called, the ball remains in play . . . ")
Leyland popped his cork. He took his beef to the crew chief, Bruce Froemming, who took the Marlin manager's beef to the National League's president, Len Coleman, who happened to be in the stands. Froemming even entered a dugout and made a phone call. Everyone was consulted but Janet Reno.
"Leyland's argument wasn't that Eric corrected his mistake," Froemming explained, "but that you could not call time in that situation and that play had to continue. It was excellent officiating on Eric's part to be able to correct his mistake on the spot. Leyland has the right to protest. That ended the argument at that point, so the game could move on."
What could happen to the Marlins next?
One play later, their second baseman dropped an easy throw, right to him. That's what happened next. And then a run scored on Fred McGriff's sacrifice fly, which didn't make Leyland's mood any better. His team was now trailing, 1-0, even though his pitcher had surrendered only two hits.
A team in search of a break, Florida came to bat in the sixth, still down by a run, 2-1. Gary Sheffield had hit a mighty home run, but the way the Marlins' luck was running, they felt lucky that a umpire didn't nullify it. Some loophole could have been found, perhaps a Sheffield Fly Rule.
They needed a sign. Something to indicate that the Marlins' luck was about to change.
"Yes, I think so," Sheffield said. "With everything that's going on . . . Alex being out, Kevin being sick, being down to the Braves, the best team in the world . . . "
When would something good happen?
In the sixth inning, that's when.
Darren Daulton drilled a ball to right that Andruw Jones lost in the lights for a double. That was the first good sign. Then, up stepped Johnson, to bat against John Smoltz with the bases full. Johnson was 0 for 12 against Smoltz lifetime, with eight strikeouts. If having faith meant crossing your fingers, Marlin fans had faith.
"C.J.," teammate Jim Eisenreich said to Johnson before the at-bat, "just relax. Don't let your emotions take over."
The count went to a ball and two strikes. Johnson fouled a pitch back. And then, with 53,857 on their feet, Johnson smoked a Smoltz slider to the gap. Fans held their breath as Klesko made a dive, looking not unlike a mammal at Sea World. The ball fell beyond his reach.
Johnson's reaction afterward?
"Outstanding," he said. "I was thankful Klesko missed it."
Hey, you gotta believe.