This is the third of a three-part series looking back at the 1992 MLB Expansion Draft, when the Colorado Rockies and then-Florida Marlins mined their competitors’ rosters to launch their respective organizations. Click here to read Part 1; click here to read Part 2.
Two different approaches starting from Day One. Two different philosophies – both in the short-term and the long run.
But the goals were the same: To put a representative team on the field right off the bat, and to win sooner than later.
When they arrived in New York City for the November 1992 expansion draft, Colorado Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard and his Florida Marlins counterpart, Dave Dombrowski, finally were able to start assembling their rosters.
For Gebhard, the mandate was pretty simple; he knew he had a limited budget in constructing the Rockies for their inaugural season. His task was to amass a group that hopefully would have some staying power – along with finding pitchers that could handle the high altitude of Denver.
Meanwhile, Dombrowski was operating with a bigger budget and the lure of having a team in sunny South Florida. The expansion draft created the first batch of players coming his way, but they were by no means the only players he had to work with.
While the Marlins made more deals in New York City – and only had Jeff Conine for any real length of time with them via the expansion draft – the Rockies selected a core group of players that had extended stays in Denver.
“We felt confident in so many of the players that we got,” Gebhard explained. “We wanted to keep them and see how they would fit in on an expansion club. It was all pretty interesting to see how it went.
“Not all of the selections worked out, as you would expect. We were happy with David Nied. He certainly was going to be everything we expected until he hurt his arm. But there were some surprises in there.
“Eric Young turned out to be a heckuva ball player. Vinny Castilla turned out to be an All-Star. So we made some good selections – as did David (Dombrowski). David had a little different agenda because he had more money to spend, and some of his selections we could not have made because of the contract that would have come with the player.
“We drafted some guys that played for us awhile and were with us in ’95 when we went to the playoffs. So it wasn’t just a one-day flash-in-the-plan type of draft. We wanted players that would hopefully be Rockies for a number of years.”
From Dombrowski’s perspective, it was all about building a foundation – whether the players were Marlins for a single day or for an extended period.
“At times, I’ve looked back and commended our scouts for the job that they did,” he said. “The reality is, there were some good players that were taken by the organization that were around for a long time – either with our organization or traded. A guy like Jeff Conine became ‘Mr. Marlin’ and was there for a long time. Frank Wren was the guy who scouted the Kansas City organization and really liked him a great deal.
“Even in the second round, we got guys like Carl Everett – who had a long major league career. The scouts did a great job. I think there were a lot of good selections that were made.”
Looking back, Dombrowski has the dual gratification of knowing his inaugural team was competitive on the field – and the organization was only five years away from a World Series win in part to some trades that were made involving players selected in the expansion draft. The biggest, of course, was sending Trevor Hoffman (No. 8 overall), Jose Martinez (No. 4) and Andres Berumen (No. 45) to San Diego to land Gary Sheffield midway through the 1993 campaign.
“But don’t forget about Cris Carpenter. He was a prime example of the type of guy we were looking for,” Dombrowski said of the setup man, who was selected at No. 37. “Colorado had a better record than us that first year, and a lot was made of it at the time. But we kept saying, ‘That’s not really important.’ Cris Carpenter and Bryan Harvey were probably as good of 8th- and 9th-inning guys as there were in the league for the first half of the year. But Texas was looking for a setup guy, and we ended up trading them Carpenter. Who did we get? We not only acquired Kurt Miller (who pitched in parts of three seasons for the Marlins), but we got Robb Nen in that trade – who was the closer on our world championship club.
“So there were so many moves. The foundation was really there to help us move along for the future.”
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One doesn’t have to look any further than Opening Day 1993 to see the different styles deployed by the Marlins and the Rockies.
Florida’ first-ever Opening Day lineup included:
- Two players selected in the first round of the expansion draft: Bret Barberie and Jeff Conine;
- Junior Felix, who was a third-round selection (No. 59 overall);
- Walt Weiss, who was acquired from Oakland on the day of the expansion draft;
- Scott Pose, who was selected in the December 1992 Rule 5 draft;
- Orestes Destrade, a free agent who had spent the previous four years with the Seibu Lions in Japan;
- and veteran free agents Benito Santiago, Dave Magadan and Charlie Hough – the 45-year-old knuckleballer who was the Marlins’ Opening Day starter.
Colorado’s Opening Day lineup consisted of:
- Andres Galarraga, who was signed as a free agent – and the club’s first player – the day before the expansion draft;
- Dante Bichette, who was acquired from Milwaukee in a draft-day deal;
- six players selected in the first round of the draft (Eric Young, Alex Cole, Jerald Clark, Charlie Hayes, Joe Girardi and David Nied);
- and Freddie Benavides, the club’s first pick in the second round.
Of the Rockies’ 36 expansion draft-day selections, 27 appeared in at least one game for Colorado during the team’s inaugural campaign.
In fact, when the Rockies went to the postseason in 1995 in just their third year of existence, 12 players on the roster were acquired by Gebhard during his draft excursion to New York (Galarraga, Bichette, Young, Girardi, Vinny Castilla, Jayhawk Owens, Darren Holmes, Curtis Leskanic, Lance Painter, Steve Reed, Armando Reynoso and Kevin Ritz). In addition, two members of Colorado’s first amateur draft class in 1992 were on the postseason roster – second-round pick Mark Thompson and seventh-round selection Jason Bates.
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It was mid-February 1993, and the Rockies began reporting to spring training in Tucson, Ariz.
The site was Hi Corbett Field – the same location where, just a few years earlier, the movie Major League was filmed. There was a little bit of irony in having an expansion club in that setting.
The Rockies might not have had Willie Mays Hayes on their roster, but “yeah, it was a lot different than other spring trainings,” said Don Baylor, who was running a big league camp as a manager for the first time. “Now all of a sudden you’re there, and you have these purple tops running everywhere.”
To learn about managing an expansion team, Baylor reached out to Gene Mauch – the Montreal Expos’ first skipper – and leaned on guidance from his own bench coach, former big league manager Don Zimmer, who was an infielder with the first-year New York Mets in 1962.
“Playing at 5,280 altitude, we knew we would have to be in better condition than most people,” Baylor said. “We did a lot of wind sprints and a lot of long-distance running. I knew that they were all in when guys like Bichette and Galarraga were doing it.
“But we also knew we had to lighten it up a little bit. For some guys during that camp, it was life-or-death. ‘If I don’t make this expansion team, I might be through as a player.’ So we lightened it up a little bit so guys could have some fun.”
As Joe Girardi recalled, “We actually put on ‘Hello My Name Is’ tags as we went out for spring training. That camp … it was kind of like being signed and walking into a clubhouse for the first time, because you really didn’t know anybody. You played against them, and I was familiar with some of the faces that were in that draft, but I hadn’t really played with any of these guys.”
According to Eric Young, “What was good about that first camp was that we all knew we had a chance to make it happen for our careers. We just knew we had a chance, and you’ll never know what happens. Put a bunch of castaways together, and maybe they’ll win one day. We were just so hungry. Each guy wanted to go to work with no complaints. Everybody had the attitude that ‘I can play’ and ‘I can play every day’ – which was really good.”
While the Rockies were getting ready in the Valley of the Sun, the Marlins had set up shop for their first Grapefruit League spring in Cocoa, Fla.
Rene Lachemann was in his third tour of duty as a major league manager, having spent three years with the Seattle Mariners (1981-1983) and one with the Milwaukee Brewers (1984). He then was a big league coach for an extended run with postseason teams, coaching in Boston (1985-1986) and Oakland (1987-1992). The Red Sox went to the World Series in 1986; the Athletics went to three straight World Series, winning the title in 1989.
“I was looking forward to this new challenge,” Lachemann said. “I knew it was going to take time. I knew I had to have patience. I knew we were going to take beatings at times.
“I basically used the stuff I learned from being on four World Series teams – knowing what it takes to get to that point. It’s the basic fundamentals of playing the game hard and playing the game right. I remember telling them, ‘I know we are going to be outmanned at certain times, but I could go to a 7-11 store to find guys who play the game hard and run the ball out – but to play the game right is something different. You have to know what to do in certain situations, when to hit cutoff men, how to run bases. Those are things that are part of playing the game right, and that ends up helping you win ball games. You guys have been given a chance to perform at the major league level. The biggest thing is doing those things. You do those things and we won’t have any problems. That’s what I’m looking at.’
“It was a challenge at times and we took our lumps, but they went out and gave a lot of effort.”
Lachemann found a big backer in Jeff Conine, who had spent his professional career in the Kansas City organization before being taken in the expansion draft.
“I love Lach. He was great,” Conine said. “He kept it light, but at the same time, he commanded hard work and performance. I think he was the perfect guy in that situation – with the perfect personality – to get all of us together and create this major league team.
“Spring training overall was a bit bizarre. At first, I really didn’t know anyone from any other teams. When you go to your school team for the first time or when you get to your first minor league team, you don’t know anybody else. It was kind of like that. It just felt different, because this was the big leagues; this was the real deal. And it seemed out of place not to be able to know all your teammates before you go into a major league season.”
A player with previous ties to Lachemann was Walt Weiss, who had come over from Oakland after the expansion draft in a prearranged deal. Weiss had been a member of the Athletics for their back-to-back-to-back World Series appearances and was looking to resurrect his career. The shortstop was one of several veterans the Marlins brought in for their opening campaign.
“Like a lot of teams in that situation, we labeled ourselves the ‘Island of Misfit Toys.’ We were castoffs from all teams,” Weiss said. “That certainly creates a bond, because everyone for the most part is in the same boat. In one way or another, you’ve been cast off from another team, and you’re in this environment where there was a lot of excitement – being the first team in franchise history and the first big league team in Florida. It was an exciting year, but definitely a 180 from what I was used to in Oakland, where we had a very established club and a championship-caliber club every year that I was there. But at the time, I welcomed that.”
Weiss has a unique perspective on the whole expansion process. Not only was he a first-year Marlin in 1993, but he then signed with the Rockies as a free agent for the 1994 campaign.
“In Florida, it seemed like, that first year, there were some established stars on that team,” Weiss said. “Benito Santiago … we traded for Gary Sheffield … Orestes Destrade was a star that came over from Japan … Charlie Hough … Bryan Harvey – he was one of the best closers in the game at that time. So we had some All-Star players.
“In Colorado, it seemed like they built more for the long haul. I don’t know what the philosophies were when they were putting their teams together, but on the surface, that’s what it seemed like to me.
“I got to Colorado their second year, but it was the same type of feel. Guys came from other organizations and you have that immediate bond. They made some nice free agent signings like Larry Walker and Billy Swift. It was a fun team to be a part of … those early years with the Rockies. It was almost like playing on your college team again. We had a tight-knit group, and that team grew close very quickly.
“I signed there for a couple years, and after two years signed for a couple more. I ended up laying down family roots there. All my children were born and raised there, and I’m still there to this day. It was really a life-changing move going to Colorado that second year.”
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On April 5, 1993, it became real for both franchises.
While the Rockies began their first campaign on the road, the Marlins played host to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Joe Robbie Stadium. Sandwiched in the lineup between veterans Santiago and Weiss, Conine went 4-for-4 in the 6-3 victory – including three singles off Orel Hershiser.
“It was surreal. I had never played in front of a crowd that large before,” Conine said. “We had made huge strides as far as getting to know each other in spring training. Now, we were a team. We were feeling good. We get out there on Opening Day, and everyone was talking about Joe Robbie being a converted football stadium – but I thought they did a great job of turning it into a baseball facility. There were 44,000 people in the stands and Charlie Hough was on the mound.
“And then at the end of the game, you look up at the scoreboard and you’re batting 1.000. My parents were there to see it. I don’t think you could have scripted a better Opening Day for a franchise than what we had that day.”
Conine quickly became a fan favorite – and was the only member of the Marlins’ expansion draft class to remain with the team for the 1997 World Series run. He later returned to Florida in 2003 – picking up a second World Series ring. Along the way, he picked up the moniker “Mr. Marlin.”
“At first, I didn’t embrace the nickname. I didn’t understand it … I was just doing my job,” said Conine – who spent eight total seasons as a Marlins player and is now in his ninth year with the club as a special assistant to the president. “As time has worn on, it’s a term of endearment that associates me with this franchise and this city. I definitely embrace it now and appreciate it – and appreciate all the fans that still call me that because of what we did during my time here.”
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The Rockies began their maiden voyage with two games against the Mets at Shea Stadium.
“We happened to face Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen,” Gebhard said, laughing, “so by the time we came home, we were 0-2. We were pretty excited to finally bring the team to Denver.”
In the franchise opener, Colorado managed just four singles in a 3-0 loss. Young, the first batter in Rockies history, immediately got the managerial eye roll from Baylor when he bunted into an out on the season’s fourth pitch.
“I told him, ‘You’re not starting a franchise by bunting for a base hit,’” Baylor said.
“He gave me that look,” Young said. “(Baylor) didn’t know what was going through my head at the time. He didn’t realize that when Dwight Gooden threw that first pitch at 96, I said ‘Oh, man, I’m going to have trouble with this. Let me see if I can just put it down.’ That’s why I bunted. That first pitch of the game got on me so quick, I backed up. All I was thinking was that I couldn’t strike out that first at-bat.
“I made sure I didn’t bunt that first game at home, though.”
Let’s set the scene: Opening Day at Mile High Stadium (April 9) … bottom of the first inning … Young was at the plate facing Montreal’s Kent Bottenfield … all of Denver was watching – or so it seemed – with a major league-record 80,277 in the ballpark … Young worked the count to 3-2, then became a Rockies legend when he went deep … the home run was the first blow in the club’s 11-4 victory.
“All I was thinking the whole at-bat was to get on base and jump-start the offense,” Young said. “We scored only one run in the two-game series in New York, and my job was to get the offense started.
“So when I connected, I said to myself, ‘Oh, man, I think I got under it a little bit.’ It was a high fastball. I didn’t know about the mile high effect and the thin air; I didn’t know about that then. But I’ll tell you what … 80,000 rose to their feet, and it just seemed like they lifted that ball over the fence. It was just magical – just the roar when I connected. And then the roar of it going over … it was unbelievable. I can use all the adjectives, but you can’t even describe ever having a feeling like that. And it won’t ever happen in a major league ballpark, because you’ll never get 80,000 people in one stadium for a baseball game. It was electrifying; the whole stadium was shaking like it was going to come down.”
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After going 67-95 in 1993, the Rockies were only 11 games under .500 when the 1994 season was cut short by a labor dispute. Colorado then went 77-67 in 1995 – going to the postseason as the National League’s Wild Card club.
“We certainly wanted to do better than they did the first year, and I guess we did,” Gebhard said. “We didn’t lose as many games. We were in the playoffs in just our third year, which was unheard of at that point in time. They, in turn, won the World Series in their fifth year.
“But to put that club together … that ranks right up there with winning two World Series in Minnesota. Those three baseball-wise were the three biggest thrills in my life – to be with Minnesota in ’87 and ’91 when we won, and to having the opportunity to put together an expansion club. I’ve always said that every lifetime baseball administrator should have that opportunity once – but only once – because it wears you down.”
The Marlins went 64-98 their first year. After seeing steady increases in their winning percentages – from .443 in 1994 to .469 in 1995 to .494 in 1996 – they went 92-70 in 1997 and shocked the baseball world in winning the World Series.
“We put a representative team on the field that first year,” Dombrowski said. “We didn’t go out there and get shellacked on a regular basis. There were some times in which we played some very competitive baseball.
“Looking back, it was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences I’ve been involved in. The ability to start an organization from Day One, and being in a position where you can put in your own philosophies and bring in your own personnel, and then be in a position where you grow that organization … eventually, we grew the organization and won a world championship together. So to me, it was one of the most rewarding experiences. Probably short of winning a world championship, but the experience of starting an expansion team is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”
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Chuck Wasserstrom spent 25 years in the Chicago Cubs’ front office – 16 in Media Relations and nine in Baseball Operations. Now a freelance writer, his behind-the-scenes stories of his time in a big league front office can be found on www.chuckblogerstrom.com.