|For Marlins' Gonzalez, it's a `home' opener|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 05 April 2007 07:36|
New manager Fredi Gonzalez - a Miami native - will be nostalgic for different reasons.
The Marlins have put together an elaborate pregame ceremony for Friday's first home game of the year, against Philadelphia. Infielders Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Miguel Cabrera will be honored for awards they won last season, and Alex Fernandez will throw out the ceremonial first pitch to Charles Johnson - two former Marlins back to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the team's 1997 World Series victory.
Gonzalez's mind will probably be drifting back even farther. The Cuban-born, Miami-raised Gonzalez was the first coach ever hired by the organization 15 years ago, one season before it opened play in the major leagues. Now 43, Gonzalez left his job as Atlanta's third-base coach to take over the Marlins after Florida fired Joe Girardi - last year's NL Manager of the Year.
``On opening day, if you don't get chills whether it's on the road or home, you're in the wrong sport,'' Gonzalez said. ``That's what it's all about. The flyovers, all kinds of special things going. It's just a fun day.''
And it's been a fun start for Gonzalez, whose Marlins took two of three games in Washington to open the season. Widely picked to lose more than 100 games last season, Florida surprised most observers by staying in the NL wild-card race into late September, and the Marlins have virtually their entire roster back.
Now, even with another rookie manager, some are tabbing the Marlins a playoff contender.
``There's a lot of energy here and terrific camaraderie,'' owner Jeffrey Loria said. ``I'm really happy. I'm very excited about what I've seen going forward.''
Gonzalez's family settled in Miami after leaving Cuba in 1967. He was a star player at Miami Southridge High, where he met his eventual wife. Even his first managerial job came in Miami 17 years ago, when he led the Florida State League's Miami Miracle.
He'll have plenty of family and friends with him Friday.
``My family has done a pretty good job keeping me insulated a little bit,'' Gonzalez said. ``They get the phone calls. 'Can you have your brother get me a Dontrelle Willis autograph?' Nope. They're doing a good job. It's going to be tough because I've known a lot of people who've lived there, shoot, my whole life.
``My family has gotten extended by about 15,000 people,'' he quickly added. ``And I hope they all come out to the stadium.''
So do the Marlins.
Getting big crowds for opening day never has been a problem. It's the other 80 games that are somewhat troublesome: Florida averaged a major league-low 14,384 at home last season.
But the combination of a competitive club with a charismatic native son as manager could entice more South Floridians to show up at the ballpark.
``This is a team a lot of people are just going to fall in love with,'' Loria said. ``They just need some dates.''
Gonzalez has a first date Friday night, one he'll never forget.
``It's a special thing,'' Gonzalez said. ``I'm at home.''