Still Hooked

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A cloud has hovered above the Florida Marlins for as long as they can remember, so dark days are nothing new to this seen-it-all bunch. Players said they have no choice except to try to focus on baseball rather than an uncertain future in the wake of their recent purchase and management purge.

Such is life in the eye of the storm.

"Obviously, there's always something happening around here," said right-hander Ryan Dempster, a 15-game winner last season. "But you get used to it. You just block it out because you have to."

In mid-February, art dealer Jeffrey Loria sold the Montreal Expos to a Major League Baseball partnership for $120 million and acquired the Marlins for $158.5 million--assisted by an unprecedented $38 million loan from the league. Only moments after getting the keys from John Henry, who heads the group that purchased the Boston Red Sox for $660 million, Loria fired 60 baseball-operations employees.

As part of the cost-cutting moves, team President David Samson, Loria's stepson, gutted the scouting and development departments. He replaced most with former Expo employees--among the lowest paid in baseball--who received $5,000 bonuses to follow Loria to Florida.

While rumors of contraction or relocation continue to swirl around the club, there was reason to accentuate the positive on a picturesque day recently at their spring-training complex.

Although long-running plans to build a new ballpark are on hold, the Marlins extended their lease at Pro Player Stadium through next season. Loria has pledged to keep the club's talented roster intact--for now. And their impressive young rotation should be worth watching.

The Marlins have been in a hole since former owner Wayne Huizenga, unable to generate public support for a retractable-roof ballpark, ordered a fire sale after the club's 1997 World Series championship. When Dave Dombrowski, the architect of the title team and current rebuilding project, left in November to become president of the Detroit Tigers, many believed the curtain would soon drop on the Marlins.

Henry also gave up after failing to persuade Florida's voters to contribute to a new baseball-only stadium and negotiated to buy the Angels from the Walt Disney Co. before joining the Red Sox group.

Enter Loria.

There has been speculation that Loria bought the Marlins to move them to Washington, D.C., and that the Expos and another team would be eliminated before the 2003 season. But baseball sources said the Expos are the likelier candidates to move to Washington because owners could sell the club for a huge profit, and the commissioner's office isn't ready to give up on the South Florida market.

Moreover, Loria would have to pay back only $23 million of the $38 million he borrowed from Major League Baseball if he doesn't get a new stadium within five years. Combined with the lease extension, it could all be a sign Loria plans to stay.

"I'm determined to see [that] this team gets returned to championship form," Loria said shortly after purchasing the club.

Loria will maintain the team's current $44-million payroll and is prepared to incur losses, projected at more than $20 million this season, another indication, Samson said, "to let people know we mean what we say."

Loria is developing a plan to attack the stadium issue, but there's no timetable. Attempts to spark community interest in the team's impressive young rotation have so far been met with apathy--something that the players said they find far more distracting than management moves.

"The things that throw me off are the fan support ... it just doesn't feel like home," said outfielder Cliff Floyd, selected to his first All-Star game last season. "When the [Atlanta] Braves come to town, they root for the Braves. When you don't get that support, it tends to wear on you a little bit. You feel good about your day, you feel honored to be wearing this uniform, and then you get out there and you see 1,000 people in the stands. It hurts. You look forward to going on the road, and that shouldn't be."

The Marlins acknowledge that the recent upheaval contributed to their disappointing 76-86 record and fourth-place finish in the National League East. New Manager Jeff Torborg believes the Marlins should expect more of themselves this season--and they do too.

"We had no confidence last year," Floyd said. "We were so caught up on stadium proposals, who would be our manager and all this other off-the-field stuff. With the team we had, there's no way we should have won only 76 games.

"The new coaching staff came in here with a good game plan. They told us we have what we need to win, we just need to change the attitude and forget about all that stuff that's not going to help us on the field."

Torborg, a former Dodger and Angel catcher, replaced Tony Perez, who took over in May for the fired John Boles. The Dodgers hired Boles as a senior advisor to General Manager Dan Evans.

Loria hired Torborg, his longtime friend, in Montreal after he ousted the popular Felipe Alou in May. Torborg, who also managed the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and New York Mets, knew early in the off-season he would be managing the Marlins and was eager to take the reins.

"All winter long, I had one eye on the Expos and the other eye on this club," said Torborg, the 1990 American League manager of the year while with the White Sox. "I was just hoping that nothing was done [with the roster]; just leave 'em alone. If we were going to be here, just let us get in and let us see what we have."

Torborg and his coaches inherited lots of pitching. Dombrowski stocked the roster and farm system with big right-handers who throw in the 90s, providing a solid foundation for the Marlins' future, wherever it occurs.

Starters Dempster, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and heralded rookie Josh Beckett, the No. 2 selection in the 1999 free-agent amateur draft, are all 25 or younger and their fastballs have been clocked at 95 mph or faster.

The starters are determined to be catalysts for a positive change.

"A lot is going to ride on our shoulders," Dempster said. "Hopefully, we can throw everybody on there and just say, 'Let's go.'"

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