It was May, and things were not going well. The Florida Marlins were 35-39, they had fired manager Jeff Torborg and replaced him with 72-year-old Jack McKeon. Todd Hollandsworth, one of the players the Marlins had brought in hoping for power, was hitting .251 with only two home runs.
So one day Marlins executives went to Hollandsworth and told him the new plan. They were calling up their top prospect. His name was Miguel Cabrera. He was only 20 years old, and he had not played above Double A.
“I think Miguel was just such a moment in that season, when he was called up,” Hollandsworth said. “I do reflect back on that 24-hour period, and it’s so interesting.”
The Marlins entered their June 20 game against the Rays 13 games out of first place. That actually represented an improvement from being 10 games under .500 on May 22.
“I don’t know if they were looking for a spark or looking for answers,” Hollandsworth said. “There may have been people in the front office who said the narrative was, ‘We need to find out more answers about who our young players are. Are we moving in the right direction?’ They may have already given up on the season. That’s the amazing part of the story.”
The Marlins, to that point, had been a group of misfits. They had days where they could hit but not pitch. They had other days when they could pitch but not hit. The roster had its strengths. That offseason, they signed star catcher Iván Rodríguez to a one-year, $10 million deal. Before the Marlins called, the eventual Hall of Famer had been looking into the idea of playing in Japan. In a trade with the Rockies, they added the speedy Juan Pierre to the top of their order. Hollandsworth had dazzled at hitter-friendly Coors Field over the previous few seasons.
But now in May, the Marlins’ rotation was reeling from injuries, the pitching staff at risk of crumbling before summer officially began. And as their top prospect reached the big leagues, their season was on the verge of capsizing.
“Most of us wanted to dismiss April and May,” Hollandsworth said. “We wanted to pick up the story in late May through the end of the season, and what a story it was.”
Twenty years later, the 2003 Florida Marlins are remembered as one of the most magical, fun and truly random World Series winners in history. As the retiring Miguel Cabrera plays his final games this weekend that last link to that 2003 club will disappear from the major leagues, even as the 2023 Marlins try to recapture the spirit of their predecessors and sneak into an unlikely playoff spot.
The story of how they overcame that putrid start, how an atypical combination of veterans and rookies banded together, how a septuagenarian manager helped his underdog group slay dragons in the postseason, can’t be told without appreciating the cast of characters who helped it all come to be.
And in terms of personalities, there were none bigger than Dontrelle Willis.
Willis entered the story May 9, promoted straight from Double A. The Marlins had already lost starting pitcher A.J. Burnett for the season after reconstructive surgery on his elbow. They lost starter Mark Redman when a ball crushed his left thumb on a failed bunt attempt. Now young starter Josh Beckett was joining them on the disabled list, plagued by a right elbow sprain.
Out of options, the Marlins turned to a 21-year-old with a big smile, a crooked hat and a funky windup.
Willis had come to the Marlins’ system via trade from the Cubs one year earlier. On the backfields during the late days of spring training, Cabrera and Willis met for the first time.
Willis remembers their first encounter vividly. Willis was throwing off a mound and heard someone cackling in the background. After his session, he realized the laughter was coming from none other than the Marlins’ most highly-touted prospect. Cabrera was dying at the sight of a 6-foot-2 Willis, long and lanky, launching into his wily delivery.
“I like you man,” Cabrera told him. “You got good stuff.”
More than a year later, when Willis was promoted, Cabrera was alongside him in Double A. Cabrera was a bonus baby with a big international signing check, already driving a Cadillac Escalade. Willis was an eighth-round pick straight from high school.
“He was the guy hugging me,” Willis said. “He gave me some money.”
And before Willis departed for the big leagues, Cabrera told him something else.
“I’m coming. I’m coming behind you,’” Cabrera said, according to Willis.
Willis quickly became an integral part of the team’s turnaround. D-Train, as he would soon be known, posted a 1.98 ERA through his first 12 MLB starts.
More importantly, his infectious energy and unorthodox style became must-see TV.
“Talk about bringing a level of excitement to the ballpark,” backup catcher Mike Redmond said. “He brought it every time he pitched.”
As Willis kept stringing together gems, something else uncanny began happening. The Marlins started winning, and winning in bunches.
‘It was like your grandpa managing you’
On the day Jeff Torborg was fired, Marlins players were shocked and saddened.
“I thought they were joking,” first baseman Derek Lee said at the time. “I didn’t know it was coming.”
“We all loved Torborg,” said Redmond, who would go on to manage the Marlins from 2013-15. “Even now, after I managed there all those years, I never really got an answer of why they made that change.”
The bottom line was the Marlins were underperforming. Team leadership settled on an intriguing choice to take over: the 72-year-old Jack McKeon.
McKeon was a devout Catholic who attended mass every morning and smoked cigars at the ballpark just as religiously. Legend has it that when general manager Larry Beinfest asked McKeon what it would take for him to accept the job, McKeon replied simply: “An ashtray in my office.”
In McKeon’s first appearance in front of the team, he told Marlins players he was not running a babysitting service. He said, “Boys, I don’t need this job. I’m here to help you.”
At one point in the summer, McKeon discovered a small group of players lounging in recliners in an air-conditioned clubhouse during the game. He ripped the TV cord from the wall, then he ordered the clubhouse be locked during games.
“Jack came in, and I think we all give him a lot of credit,” Redmond said. “He was very old school. He was no-nonsense.”
For the youngsters in the clubhouse, it was like McKeon had eyes in the back of his head. He let them have their fun, but he always knew what was going on. There was tough love, but he never forgot that the love part of that phrase mattered most.
“He was the right man for the right spot,” Pierre said. “It was like your grandpa managing you. Walking with his cigar, a lot of old school. I laugh today: All he carried to the dugout was his lineup card. He didn’t need no computer. He managed just like that, and he just knew the pulse of the team.”
On June 20, Miguel Cabrera arrived in Miami for his MLB debut.
“When I got here it was raining. Like always,” Cabrera recalled earlier this year.
Cabrera had come up as an infielder but started that game against the Rays in left field. He had to borrow an outfield glove from Double A teammate Chris Aguila.
His debut started 0-for-4 with a strikeout. But he returned to the plate in the 11th inning of a tied game. Journeyman reliever Al Levine was on the mound.
“Lou Piniella came out, said, ‘We don’t know anything about him. Just throw a fastball, get ahead,’” Levine said in 2021.
Levine threw a first-pitch fastball over the plate, and Cabrera reached out and blasted the ball to center field, clearing the wall at Pro Player Stadium. A walk-off homer in his MLB debut.
“I think we knew from that very, very minute that he was such a special hitter,” Hollandsworth said.
The nudist and the win streak
McKeon brought discipline. Cabrera and Willis brought energy. But the Marlins were still searching for other ways to break out of their struggles.
The date was May 25, the Marlins were 21-29, and it was a sleepy early morning before a day game. That’s when Redmond, the backup to Pudge Rodríguez, decided to do something outlandish. Redmond sauntered out of the clubhouse and toward the batting cage like any other day … with one caveat.
Redmond was wearing only shoes, socks and his batting gloves. Nothing else.
Players filtered into the cage and, one by one, started dying in laughter at their naked teammate. The Marlins won 6-2 that day, and Redmond had two hits.
“The guys needed a good laugh, and they got a good laugh,” Redmond said. “It did exactly what I was trying to do, make the guys relax and have fun.”
When the team returned home, Redmond kept up the bit, even though the team had to tape coverings over the windows outside the Marlins’ batting cage. Their winning streak reached six games.
During a slump later in the season, Redmond brought back the nudist BP act one more time. The Marlins went 21-8 to finish the year.
“I didn’t play a whole lot that year,” Redmond said. “I did a lot of cheering for Pudge. So I guess if I’m known for something to help spark (the turnaround), then that’s cool.”
A turnaround at Fenway
Only six games after Cabrera debuted, the Marlins traveled to Boston and got demolished at Fenway Park in the first of a three-game series. The Red Sox famously sent 19 batters to the plate and scored a record 14 runs in the first inning. Boston went on to win 25-8.
The day after the drubbing, the Red Sox were leading 9-2 in the eighth inning. The Marlins ended up winning, 10-9.
“After that game, something happened,” Pierre said. “If we go to Fenway and do that, get beat like that, then come back and win, we could actually do something.”
As summer went on, the momentum built. On July 30, Willis outdueled Randy Johnson over seven strong innings as the Marlins built a six-game winning streak.
“With Josh Beckett and Brad Penny we had firepower,” Willis said, “and so me and (Cabrera) being the young guns and the young rookies, we fed off each other. We understood we could be impactful. We both talked about it. If we can get going, man … Because as we got going, the team changed.”
As the trade deadline neared, the Marlins sent three prospects to the Rangers in exchange for All-Star closer Ugueth Urbina.
“People were like, ‘Man, they got a hell of a team,’” Willis said. “Those young bucks don’t know what the hell they’re doing, but they’re doing it.”
The return of Jeff Conine
Jeff Conine was on an airplane when the deal went down.
It was Aug. 31, MLB’s waiver trade deadline. Conine’s Orioles were flying back to Baltimore after a day game in Seattle. Conine knew he was likely getting dealt, so he was using the Airfone on his seatback to call his wife, then his agent. He was pulling out his credit card and swiping every 30 minutes for updates.
“Thank God,” Conine said, “they had those things.”
By the time he landed, he knew he was going back to Miami.
Conine had been a Marlins selection in the 1992 expansion draft and went on to be the organization’s first All-Star player. He was part of the club’s 1997 World Series and already had a fond place in the heart of what was still a small Marlins fan base. Team leadership wanted Conine not only for his respected presence but because the team had lost third baseman Mike Lowell, who broke his left hand on Aug. 30 after getting drilled by a fastball.
But when Conine arrived back in Miami well after midnight (and petitioned to play in the next day’s game), the Marlins were as big a mystery to Conine as they were to the rest of the world.
“I knew they were pretty close in the wild-card standings, but I didn’t really know much about the makeup of the team,” Conine said. “Within an hour of entering the clubhouse, I knew that it was gonna be not only special, but fun.”
Conine hit only .238 in his 25 games with the Marlins, but the surface-level stats don’t do his impact justice. As Conine settled in, the kids thrived. A Marlins’ win streak hit seven games on Sept. 13 as Willis dazzled and Cabrera hit a homer and two doubles in an 8-2 win against the Braves in front of a season-high 40,414 fans.
Conine homered in back-to-back games during a crucial series against the Phillies. On Sept. 24, with three games left to play, the Marlins clinched the NL wild card.
The Marlins entered the postseason having gone 75-49 since McKeon took over May 11 — the second best record during that span in MLB.
“We felt like we could compete with just about anyone out there,” Hollandsworth said. “We became the hottest team in baseball, even if everybody didn’t know it.”
2003 NLDS: The Pudge Play
“Just mentioning those moments, the hair is standing up on the back of my neck.”
That’s how Conine described the lasting thrills of the 2003 postseason. The first marquee moment was this: In the NLDS, the Marlins had the 100-win Giants on the verge of elimination. In the bottom of the ninth, the Giants trailed by one and had runners at first and second with two outs when Jeffrey Hammonds poked a ball into left field. Conine, playing deep, raced in.
“It was crazy the way that play unfolded,” Conine said. “It seemed like it took a full minute. In real time it was probably 10 seconds.”
In a heartbeat, a thousand thoughts rushed through Conine’s mind. Diving and risking the ball getting by him was not an option. When the ball bounced and Conine corralled it, he initially thought he was going to throw in to the cutoff man.
“I looked up and I saw where JT Snow was, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s only (rounding third),’” Conine said.
Conine fired home, the throw hopping toward Rodriguez, setting up a dramatic play at the plate.
“As soon as I let the ball go, it was that cliché, everything was in slow motion,” Conine said. “I realized it was going to make it there on one hop. It was a little up the baseline, I know there’s gonna be a collision. All I said was, ‘Hang on Pudge, hang on Pudge.’”
Snow rammed into Rodríguez. Rodríguez landed, flipped on his back and held up the ball in celebration.
The Marlins were moving on to the NLCS.
2003 NLCS: Bartman
What an NLCS it would become. The Marlins trailed the cursed Cubs three games to one before Beckett threw a two-hitter to help the Marlins win Game 5.
And 20 years later, no one can talk about Game 6 without mentioning one name: Steve Bartman.
The Cubs were up 3-0 with one out in the eighth when Castillo hit that infamous lazy fly ball near the seats by Wrigley Field’s left-field line, the one that the Cubs fan Bartman tried to grab, the one that eluded Moises Alou’s glove and set the tone for an eight-run eighth inning.
“I was on second base when it happened,” Pierre said. “I’m thinking about trying to steal third. You watch the (ESPN Films) documentary and it’s like, all that went down?
Even the stuff they talked about in the dugout, I had no clue. I’m trying to read ball in the dirt or steal a base. All this stuff is going around you, but when you’re so locked in, you don’t really see it.”
Per Marlins legend, though, the pitcher Redman spoke up in the dugout soon after Bartman prevented Alou from making the out.
“Bartman has that play happen and we just all said, ‘Let’s make him famous, boys,” Conine said. “Let’s make him famous. And we did.”
The Bartman play — and Álex González’s error on a Cabrera grounder that should have been a double play ball — set up an improbable comeback. Marlins 8, Cubs 3.
“Game 6 is probably one of the most remembered games in the history of our sport,” Hollandsworth said. “People reference it for all sorts of reasons, whether it’s Bartman, whether it’s the play that didn’t get made at short, whether it’s the comeback, whether it was (Mark) Prior, their bullpen, us capitalizing on something that was as improbable as it seemed at the time. But the way baseball works, you catch your breath, you have a nice dinner, you wake up and realize you have to put the uniform right back on again.
“In order for Game 6 to become Game 6, we have to win Game 7.”
That they did, with a Cabrera first-inning home run giving them an early edge in a back-and-forth 9-6 Marlins victory.
“(The NLCS) was a series for the ages,” Hollandsworth said, “when these two teams were slugging each other, and then both guys in the ring are stumbling all over the place. Who’s gonna come up with the knockout blow?
“I think Miggy was the guy who provided that punch. That home run rocked that stadium.”
2003 World Series: Beckett comes of age
Josh Beckett was the best high-school pitcher in the country when a scout approached him with a question.
“Why don’t you throw a slider?”
Beckett looked the scout dead in the eye. “Because I don’t need one,” he said.
That’s the type of pitcher a young Josh Beckett was. Confident, cocky and more than a tad bit stubborn.
After the drama of the NLCS, the World Series against the New York Yankees went by like a blur. The Marlins won a nailbiter in Game 1, González had the winning hit in Game 4 and Penny led the way in a 6-4 win in Game 5. All that came to the forefront before Game 6. The upstart Marlins, with a $54 million payroll, had the Yankees and their $164 million payroll on the brink of elimination.
Rather than start the left-handed Redman, McKeon went for the Yankees’ throat with Beckett, then 23 and in his third season.
Two days before Game 6, McKeon asked Beckett to go throw and report back with how his arm felt. Beckett came back and said he felt great. That meant McKeon was going to give Beckett the ball on only three day’s rest, after Beckett had previously held the Yankees to two runs over 7 1/3 innings in a Game 3 loss.
“At 23 years old,” he said on a Marlins broadcast this season, “I’m not saying anybody can do it, but my body felt fine. I felt great.”
Game 6 was all about Beckett. The young righty shut out the Yankees in a 107-pitch effort.
“It was almost too easy,” Redmond said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Hey, he’s pitching too good.’ There was no real drama in that game. Even though it was tight, it didn’t feel that tight.”
The Marlins sealed the 2-0 victory when Jorge Posada tapped a ball down the first-base line in the ninth. Beckett fielded the ball and tagged Posada for the final out.
“The way it ended, with a slow roller up the first base line, that’s the way that whole game was,” Redmond said.
That was the night Beckett came of age in the major leagues. And that was the night his team finished the unthinkable.
For the 2003 Florida Marlins, that was 20 years ago.
Feels like a lifetime. Feels like yesterday.
“The best group of guys that I got to play with was that ’03 team,” Hollandsworth said. “We may not have liked our circumstances, everything wasn’t hunky-dory all the time, but we respected each other, we loved each other and we grew together. It was almost like a friendship. We were better friends at the end than we were at the beginning. I think that’s what really made us who we were.”
(Top photo of Cabrera: Elsa / Getty Images)