St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

For disruptive speed, Pierre without peer

JOHN ROMANO
Published October 19, 2003

NEW YORK - The World Series is off and running.

Which may explain New York's poor mood this morning.

The Marlins began Game 1 in a sprint Saturday night and did not stop running until the Yankees understood they may have trouble catching up.

The Marlins did not hit a home run, but they did begin with a bunt single. They did not hit a double, but they stole second base twice. They did not overpower the Yankees, but they surely did beat them.

This is not the way teams are supposed to win. Not in the era of Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Not when fences are coming in and hits keep going out. Not when chicks - and network executives - dig the long ball.

But perhaps this is fitting. The team once on the brink of extinction is now thriving with a style of baseball considered endangered.

"I was hoping maybe," Marlins centerfielder Juan Pierre said, "I could get into their heads."

Not only did he get in their heads, Pierre left tread marks there. Florida did not have much offense, but it did have Pierre. And that, turns out, was enough.

"Pierre's a lot like Ichiro," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. "He runs, puts the ball in play, uses his speed. That's how they win."

The formula is simple. The Marlins win when Pierre and Luis Castillo get on base. This is what the Yankees advance scouts told them. This is what New York manager Joe Torre feared. And still the Yankees were helpless Saturday night.

Pierre began Game 1 with a bunt single that traveled just past pitcher David Wells and right in front of second baseman Alfonso Soriano.

Castillo followed with a bloop single and Ivan Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly to center. Three batters, not a single hard-hit ball, and a 1-0 lead.

"He's a remarkable player," Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "He jump-starts our offense, no question about that. A bunt single gets us a run."

In a way, it also accounted for Florida's second and third runs.

The Marlins had runners on second and third when Pierre came up in the fifth. Mindful of the bunt, the Yankees brought the infield in.

So Pierre lined a single past shortstop Derek Jeter. Hideki Matsui's throw from leftfield might have arrived in time for a play at the plate on the second runner, but third baseman Aaron Boone cut the ball off and threw to first base to keep Pierre from going any farther.

"If it's (Jeff) Conine that gets that base hit, you take a chance of maybe letting (the throw) through if you think it's going to be close," Torre said. "But when you have one of the speed guys, you certainly don't want a merry-go-round."

And this is precisely how the Marlins planned it. This is the team general manager Larry Beinfest envisioned when he tore apart the roster a year ago.

It looked, at first, as if Beinfest was merely dumping salary. He got rid of catcher Charles Johnson and outfielder Preston Wilson in a trade that brought Mike Hampton. Then he dumped Hampton.

It looked as if the Marlins were still in a bargain mode. Getting rid of anyone with salary and getting cheap labor in return. Instead, they were building a lineup around Pierre and Castillo.

It was Pierre who turned out to be the real steal in the trade with the Rockies. Pierre had been a fine leadoff hitter in Colorado but was miscast on a team that was built to hit home runs. No player has as many at-bats at Coors Field (714) without hitting a home run. So the Rockies were happy to let him go and the Marlins were thrilled to take him on.

Wilson may have gone on to lead the National League with 141 RBI, but Pierre revitalized the Florida lineup with his slap-happy hitting style.

"We thought Juan, along with Luis Castillo at the top of the lineup, could really drive this team," Beinfest said. "Especially in the ballpark we play in, which is huge. They could hit the alleys and start flying. You never know exactly how it's going to turn out.

"That deal was highly scrutinized and evaluated and I think it worked well for everybody."

This was the hope in Florida. Since the Marlins could not afford to chase the game's best power hitters, they figured they'd run ahead of the pack.

You see, hitters have slumps. Pitchers have bad outings.

But speed is immune.

It can be a factor in ballparks, small and large. It impacts offense and defense, too. It rattles pitchers and puts pressure on fielders.

"Just to put them uneasy, that's my job. Create a little havoc," Pierre said. "With the bunt, I think they weren't as comfortable the rest of the game."

So the mood has been established. The message has been sent.

The Marlins are off to a running start.

Catch them if you can.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.