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Schlegel: Pudge does it all with Fish
10/26/2003 1:29 AM ET
NEW YORK -- Pudge Rodriguez threw his catcher's mask so high in the air, it hadn't even come down from the night sky by the time the Marlins had gathered into two joyous scrums and he was buried in one of them.

That this particular catcher's mask landed on the infield at Yankee Stadium while this particular player and his teammates celebrated a World Series title was pure poetry for the one-time wonderkid who became a mentor to a whole new generation of young stars.

Three times while he was with the Texas Rangers, the club he broke into the Majors with at age 19 and played with until this season, the Yankees knocked his team from the playoffs.

This time, Rodriguez was on the side of the conquerors, those irrepressible, unbelievable Florida Marlins, victors over the Yankees in six games of the 2003 World Series.

"I've faced the Yankees in the postseason four times and got eliminated the first three times, so to come here to the World Series and perform the way we performed, it makes me feel great," Rodriguez said.

You could excuse Pudge for soaking in every last drop of this one, especially in Yankee Stadium, site of so much previous postseason heartbreak.

For more than an hour after the game, Rodriguez lingered at home plate, posing for pictures with seemingly hundreds of Marlins friends and family who gathered on the hallowed ground. He shared the now famous smooch with closer Ugueth Urbina, and later went to one knee and shared a prayer in the outfield grass with his family.

"You work your whole career for something like this," Rodriguez said.

Not everybody in the young Marlins clubhouse can understand that so deeply as Rodriguez.

So, hey, let's hear it for the boys, like 23-year-old ace Josh Beckett, 21-year-old Dontrelle Willis, 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera and the rest of that precocious core of the Marlins franchise, present and future. Let's stand in awe of the combination of youth, talent and poise.

But let's hear it for the old men of the Marlins, too. They put their stamp on this team every bit as much as the kids, and they might have an even better appreciation for just how special this is.

Let's hear it for Pudge. He might not be old at 31, but he's old in baseball, having finished his 13th year in the Majors with the pinnacle of his career.

Let's hear it for Jeff Conine, whose quiet determination on the field and in the clubhouse helped those young stars see the way it's done by a true pro.

Late Saturday night, the 37-year-old left fielder stood in the Marlins' clubhouse, his head drenched in champagne, his arms cradling the pennant-encircled World Series trophy like a golden child. He marveled at how the fates of baseball dropped him back into the Florida clubhouse for an eight-week run to his second World Series ring with the Marlins.

"It's amazing -- Mike Lowell gets hurt, and that's why I'm here," said Conine, who was traded over from Baltimore on Aug. 31 and had the joy of sharing this World Series title with a healthy Lowell. "I was brought in here to bridge a gap until the best offensive player on this team could come back, and it turned into this.

"When I really stop to think about it after it's all over with, I know it'll be the wildest ride I've ever had in my life. I've never had so much fun on a baseball field."

And, of course, let's hear it for the really old man of the crew, Jack McKeon. The Marlins simply couldn't have gotten it done without their 72-year-old manager, the crusty, cigar-smoking master of the malaprop, the player of hunches based on a half-century in the game, the man with the golden touch with the younger crowd.

"I took this job with the idea that I can turn this club around and make a winner," McKeon said. "I didn't have any idea that we would win the playoffs or win the Wild Card. I had no idea that we would get to the World Series, and I had no idea that we would win the World Series."

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria certainly had an idea something special was about to happen when he hired the retired baseball man in May to take over his promising but foundering club, a move that raised the eyebrows of many in baseball.

"Jack was an important part of this puzzle," Loria said. "Jack treats everybody the same. He told everybody to leave their egos at the door, leave their stats at the door and come in here and have fun.

"They all thought I was nuts for hiring a 72-year-old man. But, hey, when did it make you nuts for hiring experience?"

Indeed. For all the inexperience and youth this Marlins team possesses, you couldn't beat their experience, either -- from McKeon to Pudge to Conine, three grand men of the game who fit right in with their baby-faced cohorts.

And now all the Marlins -- young and old -- have the experience of being World Series champs, and dancing on the Yankee Stadium turf celebrating that accomplishment.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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