Big night for Mr. Marlin

He is the ghost of Marlins postseasons past. Uh, better make that postseason past.

Updated: September 19, 2003, 6:22 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- He is the ghost of Marlins postseasons past. Uh, better make that postseason past.

Yes, Jeff Conine is to the Florida Marlins kind of what Harmon Killebrew is to the Twins, what Willie Mays is to the Giants, what George Brett is to the Royals.

He can still remember the champagne spraying, the big teal stadium rocking, the Edgar Renteria single that won a World Series six really, really, really long years ago. He can still remember the bizarre feeling of watching his buddies and his teammates -- and himself -- shipped all over the map during the next few weeks, like two dozen United Parcel packages. Heck, Jeff Conine can still remember the 1992 expansion draft.

But on a huge Wednesday night on the road to October, Conine was more than just a walking memory bank for the men with the fish on their hats. He was the difference in an 11-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, a win that inflated the Marlins' lead in the National League wild-card race back to 1 games with 11 to play.

Conine showed up for work with a picturesque .184 batting average (as a Marlin) next to his name on the stat sheets. But he sure did some spectacular renovations to his puny numbers in a hurry.

He doubled in two runs in a three-run first inning. He hit his 100th career home run as a Marlin in the fourth, just moments after a 440-foot Jim Thome homer had tied the score, 3-3.

He made a near-miraculous running, lunging, groping, wall-rattling catch of a Thome laser beam to the track in left-center in the fifth -- a catch that saved at least one run and who knows how many more. Then Conine capped his little one-man repertory performance by throwing out Jimmy Rollins at the plate in the sixth. So that's three runs driven in, one scored, at least two saved. He also walked twice, told amusing stories about the Good Old Days and did some workmanlike amateur hurricane forecasting. ("I admit it," Conine confessed. "I'm a weather geek. I've got the Doplar going on the laptop all day.")

But when the Marlins went out and traded for Conine about 10 seconds before the Aug. 31 waiver-trade deadline, it wasn't because they were interested in having him replace Al Roker. They were interested in finding an emergency RBI man to replace Mike Lowell, who had just broken his left hand. And hey, who better than the man known as Mr. Marlin?

"That's why I'm here," Conine said, after hiking his average 38 points. "I know that. I'm here because Mikey went down. They brought me here to bridge the gap, and I haven't been doing that. Fortunately for my sanity and my health, we've won a lot of games that I didn't come through in. So it was nice to contribute tonight."

He wasn't the only one, of course. A night after a 14-0 wipeout in which the Phillies kept the Juan Pierre-Luis Castillo track team off base for an entire game -- only the fourth time all season that had happened to both of them -- those two boomeranged to reach eight times in 11 trips.

Meanwhile, eight different Marlins scored a run. The bullpen spun four shutout innings. And Pudge Rodriguez even dropped his third successful sacrifice bunt in the last decade. But the biggest plot twist on this momentous evening was Jeff Conine's homecoming bash.

He was 26 years old back in November 1992, the day the Marlins made him their 11th pick in the expansion draft. Among the 10 guys picked before him were the legendary Nigel Wilson, Bret Barberie and Eric Helfand. But only Jeff Conine remains.

He's 37 now. Back when the Fish traded him to the Royals (for the unforgettable Blaine Mull), just three weeks after the '97 Series, he never expected to be back.

But then there he was, not even three weeks ago, on his way to a 100-RBI season in Baltimore, when Orioles GM Jim Beattie took him aside just minutes before he was about to step on an airplane in Seattle. He was going back to Florida, Beattie told him -- but only if he was willing to make a few contract "adjustments."

So as he flew across America, from Seattle to Baltimore, Jeff Conine hung on to his Air Fone, talked to his agent (Michael Watkins), talked to the Orioles, rolled up possibly the biggest Air Fone bill in baseball history and agreed to trade his $4.5-million option year in 2005 for two guaranteed seasons at $3 million a year. And only then, officially, was he a Marlin again.

"It got done at 11:59 p.m., somewhere over Indiana," Conine chuckled. "I haven't seen that Air Fone bill yet, but it'll be a big one. Hmmm. I wonder which team I'm supposed to stick with it?"

Well, if there are many more nights like this one in Conine's immediate future, the Marlins would probably pay his phone bill, his dry-cleaning tab and his mortgage.

The two-run double and the game-turning home run were Conine's finest moments since he hung up his Air Fone. But little did he, or they, know those hits were only the warm-up act for his main attraction.

As the hulking Thome walked to the plate with Mike Lieberthal on first and no outs in the fifth, Conine stationed himself as deep in left field as he could without being required to sell popcorn. But when Thome unleashed a Big Bertha mash toward the gap, just about no one thought it was going to be catchable -- except possibly by a season-ticket holder.

Off raced Conine, though, determined to "try and make that catch no matter what, even if I had to run through the wall." And he almost had to. The pre-hurricane winds were swirling, the baseball was whooshing toward the fence, the 33,761 throats in the place were screaming. And then it happened.

Conine made one final lunge, actually reached behind him, somehow convinced the baseball to stick in his glove, thumped into the green padding and then looked up, stunned, to find Lieberthal about 150 feet away from first base. So instead of an RBI double and a 6-5 game, this was suddenly a double-play ball. And the noise drained out of Vet Stadium like rain through the plastic turf.

"That's as good a catch as I've ever seen," Marlins assistant GM Dan Jennings said. "And I mean that. (Ken) Griffey made a catch like that one night in Seattle and broke his wrist, jumping into the wall. But this one was every bit as good as that one."

"When he jumped up and caught that ball," Pierre added, "I wanted to run over and jump on his back. That's how happy I was."

"Given the importance of the game and the situation," Conine decided, "this was probably the top play I've ever made. I mean, I've taken away home runs before and things like that. But they didn't mean as much as this play."

Then, an inning later, he unleashed a run-saving throw to pull the plug on another Phillies rally. And when he'd finished loping back to the dugout, he found every Florida Marlin in uniform waiting for him -- laughing, yelping, pounding him on the head.

"They're like a Little League team," Conine laughed. "They come out and meet you at home plate after a home run. They come out and slap you five after you make a big play. I've never been on a team like this. This is the most expressive, vocal bunch of guys I've ever played with."

Since 1997, he has bounced from Florida to Kansas City to Baltimore and back. But it isn't just the race that has re-energized him. It is this improbably joyous and resilient team he plays for. Except for Conine and Pudge Rodriguez, none of the main characters has taken this pennant-race ride before. So let's just say they're enjoying all the scenery.

"My first day with this team, I laughed uncontrollably, for like three innings," Conine chuckled, "because of what I heard -- the banter in the infield, in the dugout, with the pitcher. They were ragging on the other team, ragging on their own guys. This is just a fun, good-natured team."

And on the biggest Wednesday night in September in the history of the franchise, Mr. Marlin finally got to join in the fun.

Asked to describe that feeling, to recall the last time he'd done something on a baseball field that made him feel that good, Jeff Conine gave an answer that no other Florida Marlin could possibly give.

"Game 7," he said, and no one even needed to ask which Game 7 he meant. "That's the last time we played a game that meant as much as this game did tonight."

And that's true. They haven't had a winning season since that Game 7, six years deep in the rear-view mirror. They haven't played a big game after Memorial Day. They'd never played a showdown, regular-season series like this, in the 11-year history of the franchise.

So now -- because of that win Wednesday night, because of Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, and especially because of Jeff Conine's magical evening in black and teal -- the Marlins knew they would leave Philadelphia on Thursday night (hurricanes willing) still in control of the wild-card lead. And with two more days off the calendar.

"I guess if you're going to script it," said Mr. Marlin, "that's about as good a script as you're going to write."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com