(Photo above: Marlins newcomer Jesus Aguilar, seen in spring training, has emerged as a team leader and power force with three home runs.)
They have always been the Bizarro Marlins. A franchise that began with a knuckleball has taken more screwball turns than a runaway rollercoaster.
From two unlikely World Series championships without ever finishing first in their division, wholesale selloffs of their best players and a manager praising a dictator despised by the community to an ownership swap, contentious ballpark deal and the rise and heartbreaking fall of Jose Fernandez, the Miami (nee Florida) Marlins have always operated in an orbit off-kilter from the rest of MLB.
But we’ve never seen anything like Team Corona.
Stuck in a Philadelphia hotel under COVID house arrest for more than a week because more than half the team caught the virus. Throwing balled-up socks against mattresses to keep their arms from atrophying.
Somehow those who remained unscathed joined up with a ragtag collection of castoffs and prospects to sweep a four-game series from the Orioles in Baltimore this week to stake an unlikely claim atop the National League East.
Details on the Marlins’ sweep of the Orioles at Fivereasonssports.com
They did it with cardboard cutouts of the teammates who are in COVID-19 quarantine occupying seats near the visitors’ dugout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Well spaced, of course, for social distancing.
Only the Marlins.
They are 6-1 going into Friday’s series opener against the Mets in New York, with a winning percentage of .857 that leads MLB as what was supposed to be a six-day trip will stretch into more than three weeks. It won’t end until they play Tuesday and Wednesday in Buffalo, of all places, against the orphaned Toronto Blue Jays.
The Marlins were mercilessly pilloried by social media and national media for the outbreak, especially after an unsubstantiated report that players had been out nightclubbing in Atlanta. That proved false, though mistakes in judgment were made that led to infections.
Some people were a whole lot more upset with the action of a baseball team than the inaction of many government officials throughout this pandemic. The reaction has been more understanding about the St. Louis Cardinals, one of baseball’s sacred cows, being similarly stymied by the virus.
In truth, this Marlins misadventure is at essence a human experience, just as the pandemic has been for all of us.
“We’re human beings, not just baseball players,” shortstop and team leader Miguel Rojas said in a virtual group chat. “We’re suffering from this virus. … This has to bring awareness. Not just to our team but to everybody throughout the league.”
Haters will hate. So hell with ‘em, right?
If you can’t appreciate what this team has been though — is still going through with 18 players quarantined in South Florida — and what it’s doing now, by all means go back to posting conspiracy theories on Facebook to drive friends and family batty.
If sports have any value amid a world-wide crisis, the Marlins are providing a pleasant diversion.
“Through all this, we’d like our story to be that we persevered through this, learned from it and moved forward,” manager Don Mattingly said.
How can you not admire this patchwork quilt of a ballclub?
They lost eight of 12 relief pitchers to COVID-19 and had to sign a bunch of retreads Mattingly hadn’t even met before he had to start calling them into games. Yet the bullpen was impeccable in the sweep in Baltimore, including preserving three one-run wins.
They had a 30-year-old Olympic speedskating medalist make his major-league debut by starting in the doubleheader win at two different infield positions. Miami native Eddy Alvarez was already an inspiring story when he went to the 2014 Winter Games following surgery on both knees to repair 12 tears in his patella tendons.
Eddy The Jet is a perfect fit with these resilient Marlins.
As The Associated Press reported, they are the first team to win at least six of its first seven games after losing 105 or more the previous year since the St. Louis Perfectos began 7-0 in 1899.
Can they keep it up? The deck is stacked against them with a grueling schedule to make up for lost time, including finishing with 27 games in 23 days. They also have a stretch with four doubleheaders in 10 days.
For what it’s worth, esteemed NBC6 meteorologist and Marlins fan John Morales @JohnMoralesNBC6 likes the Marlins’ chances better than South Florida’s in this hurricane season.
“I think this Marlins thing has legs. The lull in the Atlantic does not,” Morales tweeted.
Whether the team continues to soar in rarefied air or reality yanks them back to earth isn’t even the point.
What is already apparent is that the long downtrodden Marlins are finally on the way up. A depth of talent that has been long missing is evident in responding to losing half the roster with four consecutive wins.
Circumstances afforded the opportunity for several players to make big-league debuts, notably outfielder Monte Harrison and pitcher Jorge Guzman.
Harrison, acquired in the Christian Yelich trade, is finding his way at the plate but has already impressed with his speed and defense. Guzman, a flamethrower who came in the Giancarlo Stanton deal, was impressive in a 1-2-3 debut inning, then gave up back-to-back homers in the next.
Meanwhile, most of the top prospects are still playing Intrasquad games in Jupiter — hitters like JJ Bleday, Jesus Sanchez, Lewin Diaz and Jazz Chisholm as well as a potential future starting rotation.
Right now the Marlins’ rotation is Pablo Lopez, Elieser Hernandez (both splendid in their Baltimore starts) and Who Are Those Guys as top three starters Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith and Jose Urena continue to recover from the virus.
They summoned 23-year-old right-hander Humberto Mejia, who hasn’t pitched above the High-A level, to start Friday in New York (Guzman was sent down). A cast of barely recognizable relievers is sure to follow.
“I’m going to have to write a book after this,” Mattingly said after the Marlins completed their first four-game sweep since 2016 and in the process made Mattingly the franchise leader in wins with 282 in his fifth season.
Mattingly noted that the team recognized the achievement with “a nice little bottle of bubbly for a train ride [to New York] you’re not allowed to eat or drink on. You don’t want to drink because you can spread the particles in the air. It was a nice gesture on behalf of the organization.”
Could only happen with the Marlins in the time of coronavirus.
Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Marlins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns