The Marlins Should Move into the Future by Honoring Their Past

Jeff Conine has meant the world to the Marlins and their fans. (via Sportech, Jared & Michelle Jay)

The Jeffrey Loria era is officially over for the Miami Marlins. In his letter to Marlins fans when his new ownership group took over, Derek Jeter said the owners believe in Miami as a market, and they are committed to bringing the fan base back to the ballpark. As Miami comes out of its eighth consecutive losing season, many fans are wondering what these new owners will mean for a franchise that has never had the committed ownership it deserves.

In a place where ownership typically has disrespected fans and lost their loyalty by dismantling every winning team they’ve had (think post-1997 and -2003 championships), it’s not hard to commit to doing differently. Looking to the future, one thing this new group can do to show respect for the market and the fans who have been there since the beginning is to look to the past; the Marlins have never retired a player’s number in their 24 years as a team. The franchise has two World Series championships. Loria told reporters last year that they planned to retire Jose Fernandez’s number 16, after he died in a boating accident during the 2016 season, but that has not officially happened.

One other player stands out in the talk of number retirement for the Marlins franchise: Jeff Conine. Known as Mr. Marlin, Conine has worked as a pre- and postgame analyst for Fox Sports Florida, as well in the Marlins front office as a special assistant to (now former) team president David Samson. It was rumored that Jeter had fired Conine, but then he changed his mind and wants to retain him.

The 2018 season will mark a decade since Conine retired, which seems like the perfect year to honor him with a retired number 19. (Or would it be 18, which he wore when he returned to the Marlins for the 2003 season and Mike Lowell was wearing 19?) If Jeter does indeed have “a deep interest and appreciation for history,” as he reportedly has claimed, this seems like it would fit right into that frame.

I know Conine seems an unlikely candidate for a number retirement, but hear me out. Conine is the only player to have appeared in the opening game of the Marlins’ inaugural season in 1993 and on both the 1997 and 2003 championship teams. (Both Luis Castillo and Rick Helling appeared in the regular season for both the 1997 and 2003 Marlins, but neither Castillo nor Helling played in the 1997 postseason). Conine was a two-time All-Star as well the All-Star Game MVP in 1995. Over his eight seasons with the Marlins, Conine’s line was .290/.358/.455. He has over 1,000 hits with the organization. He also holds the franchise record for grand slams, with six. Conine had 31 hits in the postseason for the Marlins, most in team history.

And while Conine is not someone who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he was clearly a very important part of the Marlins organization. He still is. Sure, he doesn’t occupy the rarefied air that Giancarlo Stanton does, and his regular-season contributions don’t match those of Hanley Ramirez, Castillo or Miguel Cabrera, Conine was there during the important moments.

On a Marlins team that included Mike Lowell, Ivan Rodriguez and Castillo, Conine stood out in the 2003 postseason. During the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs, Conine batted .458 with three runs batted in and a home run. In Game 7, in Chicago, Conine reached base in every plate appearance. He went 3-for-3 with a walk, and scored the eventual winning run. In the World Series against the New York Yankees, he batted .333, and after reaching via error in the sixth inning of Game 6, would come around to score the winning run of that decisive game as well. In 2008, he signed a one-day contract with the Marlins so he could retire with them because the team meant that much to him.

For a player’s number to be retired, he usually either has to have recently died (sometimes, unfortunately, tragically), been inducted into the Hall of Fame, or is widely understood as a future honoree in Cooperstown. That said, we can look to the expansion teams of the 1960s and 1970s to see if there is precedent for someone like Conine tohave his number retired. In in examining the numbers retired by the teams that began in 1961 (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Texas Rangers), 1962 (Houston Astros and New York Mets), 1969 (Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres and Seattle Pilots/Milwaukee Brewers), and 1977 (Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays), two players stand out as potential precedents. Both had their numbers retired by the Padres.

The first is Steve Garvey, whose number was retired by the Padres in 1988, the season after he retired. His numbers are far beyond what Conine accomplished, but I want to focus on just his numbers with the Padres, because the implication of a team retiring a number is that this was an important player in franchise history. He played for San Diego from 1983 to 1987. While with the team, he was the NLCS MVP in 1984 against the Cubs and was a two-time All-Star. His career triple-slash line was .294/.329/.446; with the Padres it was .275/.309/.409, a nearly 60-point drop in OPS.

The second player is Randy Jones, whose number was retired in 1997. He was with the Padres for most of his career, from 1973 through 1980. He is harder to compare because he was a pitcher. He was a two-time All-Star and the Cy Young Award winner in 1976. He tossed 315.1 innings that season, and it would be his high-water mark. He would manage to string two good seasons together in 1978 and ’79, but he was only able to toss 147.1 innings in ’77 following his Cy Young campaign. He was done with the Padres at age 30, and out of baseball after his age-32 season. His career strikeout percentage of 9.1 percent is incredibly low by today’s standards.

Another retired number that could provide a precedent for Conine is Larry Dierker, whose number was retired by the Houston Astros in 2002. Dierker was Houston’s first 20-game winner, a two-time All-Star, and he managed the team from 1997 to 2003. He was named NL Manager of the Year during that time. He is one of the best managers in Astros history, though Bill Virdon accumulated more than 100 more total wins than Dierker and currently, A.J. Hinch has a better winning percentage. And while Dierker managed the Astros to four postseason berths in five years, they were all short stays, as the team’s record in those four postseasons was 2-12. Like Conine, Dierker has worked as a broadcaster. Dierker was on Astros broadcasts for almost 20 years.

We also can look at the other team that began in 1993, the Colorado Rockies. They retired their first number in 2014 with career Rockie Todd Helton’s 17. His career numbers are far above anything Conine put up for the Marlins, there’s no question about that. But in terms of what he meant to the team and organization, I’d argue the intangibles are similar for both players.

One player who definitely didn’t contribute as much to his franchise’s lore was Wade Boggs. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays retired his number in 2000, the year after he retired, in what basically amounted to a publicity stunt. It wasn’t the only one Boggs and the Rays orchestrated. The team struck a deal with Boggs to go into the Hall of Fame with a Devil Rays cap on. The Hall of Fame had to take the players’ right to choose the cap on his plaque in order to avoid the embarrassment. That was probably Boggs’ biggest contribution to Rays’ history. While he was a decent facsimile of himself when he played for the teams’ inaugural seasons, he wasn’t anything special there, nor were those teams.

Stats and numbers are great, and they often make a convincing case for whom this game honors and remembers. But there’s always going to be that part of baseball that can’t be quantified, the part that exists in the hearts of the fans and the players. That unquantifiable heart matters, too, and shouldn’t be discounted when we talk about baseball history. And it’s heart that puts Conine above just being a very good player for the Marlins franchise and makes him someone who deserves to be honored. They don’t call him Mr. Marlin for nothing.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, and VICE Sports, among others. She is a recovered alcoholic, and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.
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5 years ago

You forget that Wade Boggs is from Tampa, was a HS baseball legend there.

5 years ago

Wait, did the Rays pay Boggs to go in as a Devil Ray? I had never heard about that and if so that’s amazing!

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

i guess you could call it the Ed Kranepool Award.

Paul G.member
5 years ago

It is not a bad idea. What every team needs to do is decide what the standards are for a number retirement and go with it. Conine was a good player, but not someone normally you would consider for the honor unless he was something special to the franchise like an announcer for 30 years or if he singlehanded won them a World Series or something.

One of the drawbacks to retiring his number now is it reminds the fan base of all the better players that were on the Marlins which were sold off in salary dumps and/or were mercenaries to begin with. Normally, I would say wait another 10-20 years and then retire the number as a sort of lifetime achievement.