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Marlins draw the dotted line

The Florida Marlins don't look anything like they did in their expansion year of 1993. They bear little resemblance to the toddling 1994 and 1995 clubs. There are only a few significant points of comparison to last year's squad.

These Marlins are 5 years old and they're done playing kids' games. They want to win. Better yet, they expect to win. Crazier yet, they need

to win.

"I think everyone on this team knows what our potential is," said first baseman Jeff Conine, one of just two remaining original Marlins. "I think everyone is looking forward to contending, if not for the division title at least for a playoff spot."

To get from where they were _ a fourth straight sub-.500 record and third-place finish _ to where they hope to be, the Marlins spent liberally. They doled out more than $90-million to bring in manager Jim Leyland and sign six free agents to multiyear deals, including Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Alex Fernandez, and raised their 1997 payroll from $32-million to about $48.5-million.

"It was just like going to a brand new team," star rightfielder Gary Sheffield said. "A brand new team with a lot of talent."

For an organization that, much like the Devil Rays, says it is committed to scouting and player development, that seemed a quantum leap in theory. But the Marlins maintain they have not changed direction, just accelerated the pace.

"Our long-term philosophy was player development and scouting, and we're still committed to that," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "We knew when we got into the position to win we'd have to add players to the big-league payroll. The thing is we lost our honeymoon period. It may be that that expedited the addition of players."

Dombrowski and team president Don Smiley think the 1994-1995 players strike is to blame. When the stoppage happened toward the end of the Marlins' second season, they were averaging 34,000 fans. In the two years since, just 23,000.

But, Dombrowski allowed, there might have been other reasons fans in South Florida stopped caring so quickly. "Was it people becoming impatient quicker than we thought? Perhaps. Was it that other clubs like Colorado made the playoffs? Perhaps. Was it a combination of those things? Perhaps. But to me, basically, a lot can be traced to the strike.

"We felt we need to rejuvenate interest. So perhaps we spent more money on free agents than we would have anticipated at that time."

In the process they turned this season into a referendum on baseball in South Florida. Season-ticket sales, which bottomed at 12,500 last season, are up, but only to about 15,000. Opening Day and a couple of the interleague dates with the Yankees are sold out, but despite a big advertising blitz and a big push into the Hispanic community, plenty of good seats are available for other nights.

According to Smiley, and thus owner H. Wayne Huizenga, it has

to work this season. What would he consider a success?

"We have to generally compete in our division and sell enough tickets to demonstrate that support for the ballclub is there in South Florida for us," Smiley said. "They really go hand in hand. That's why we did what we did in the off-season. We needed to get the number of wins to sell enough tickets to gauge the support. We had to get veteran players, and unfortunately that's what veteran players cost these days."

And if it doesn't work?

"We want to wait and see what happens," Smiley said. The idea that Huizenga would sell the team has been floated. So has the call for a new _ and domed _ stadium.

The push to win this year is so strong that the front office is even pushing the idea of spring training wins, which the team has produced with a major-league best 18-4 record. "From the baseball perspective you can't do anything to risk injury and you can't run guys into the ground," Smiley said. "However, if we can follow our spring training regimen and still come out with wins, that certainly helps as far as the business side goes. It certainly helps sell tickets."

All the hype and all the expectations make Leyland's job a little more difficult. While some fans _ and South Florida media _ are convinced the Marlins are easily going to dispatch the Braves, Leyland knows better. Much better.

"We're in the same division as the Braves, but we're not in the same class yet," Leyland said. "We haven't done anything yet. They have the Cy Young winners. They have the model organization, in my opinion. They have the best team in baseball the last five years, without a doubt.

"I'm kind of walking a tightrope. I don't want to dampen the enthusiasm in South Florida. But I don't want the players to be lulled into a false sense of security."

His caution is warranted. As any fan of the New York Yankees knows, it is not easy to buy a pennant.

Leyland says the group actually has meshed a little more quickly than he would have thought. Conine said there has been "no problem with the so-called jelling."

But other players admit there is work to be done. "You still have to come together and play as a team, no matter how much talent you have," catcher Charles Johnson said. "We still have a long ways to go as far as everybody getting to know everybody real well. We have to be patient."

There are other concerns. While Fernandez is a strong addition to the rotation, the Marlins are expecting major contributions from Kevin Brown (17-11, 1.89 ERA) and Al Leiter (16-12, 2.93), who many baseball observers think had career years in 1996.

"It wasn't an accident last year," Marlins pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "Their stuff was equal to how they performed. Any hitter in the National League will tell you that."

The defense, especially with Bonilla at third, could be a little shaky. And while Robb Nen emerged last season as an overpowering closer, middle relief is still a bit in question.

But when you can start a team that includes five All-Stars (Devon White, Sheffield and Alou in the outfield; Bonilla and Conine, who moves to first, in the infield); a Gold Glove winner behind the plate (Johnson); two potential young superstars in the middle of the infield (Edgar Renteria and Luis Castillo); three strong starters and an effective closer; and a deep, veteran bench, you have a chance. And that's more than they've had.

"I knew they were going to improve the team," Conine said. "I didn't know they were going to do it this much."

All grown up

Here is the Marlins' 1993 Opening Day lineup and their projected 1997 lineup:

1993 1997

Scott Pose, centerfield Luis Castillo, second base

Bret Barberie, second base Edgar Renteria, shortstop

Junior Felix, rightfield Gary Sheffield, rightfield

Orestes Destrade, first base Bobby Bonilla, third base

Dave Magadan, third base Moises Alou, leftfield

Benito Santiago, catcher Devon White, centerfield

Jeff Conine, leftfield Jeff Conine, first base

Walt Weiss, shortstop Charles Johnson, catcher

Charlie Hough, pitcher Kevin Brown, pitcher