And now they're the World Series champions.
The Florida Marlins overcame a 19-29 start. They won a tight wild-card race, then surprised San Francisco and stunned the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs. And on Saturday they upset the Goliaths of Gotham, beating the New York Yankees 2-0 to win the World Series, four games to two.
``We shocked the world!'' center fielder Juan Pierre shouted while popping a bottle of champagne in the clubhouse. He used the same words to describe the Marlins' victory over the Cubs less than two weeks ago.
``In our mind, this is not an upset at all,'' left fielder Jeff Conine said. ``In everybody else's mind, it's a humongous upset. Nobody gave us a chance.''
The list of Marlins heroes is as long as their roster. It includes Brad Penny, who won Games 1 and 5; light-hitting shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who hit the homer to end Game 4; catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who had 17 postseason RBIs and several pivotal defensive plays; and brash young Josh Beckett, who pitched a five-hit shutout Saturday on three days' rest and was named World Series MVP.
Perhaps the most improbable hero for the improbable champions is 72-year-old manager Jack McKeon, who was hired in May and orchestrated a turnaround that revitalized baseball in South Florida. McKeon often mangles the names of his players, but he batted almost 1.000 in October with a series of daring, unconventional moves such as sending Beckett to the mound on short rest for Game 6.
``Jack's credo from the beginning was to go out and have fun,'' Conine said. ``That's what we did.''
The cigar-smoking McKeon tossed aside a match at the ballpark the other day, and when it landed on a piece of trash, he briefly feared he had started a fire.
``That's just what I need to burn down Yankee Stadium,'' he said.
For New Yorkers, what McKeon and the Marlins did was almost that disastrous, given that Florida ($54 million payroll) defeated the most celebrated team in sports ($164 million payroll).
The upset will be called outlandish and farfetched, and it makes Miami Heat coach Pat Riley's abrupt resignation only the second-biggest surprise out of Florida this week. The Marlins won the series even though they were outscored 21-17.
But it's no fluke. The Marlins have baseball's best record since May 23, and they're a loose, confident, resilient, smart, speedy, balanced team with a bunch of hard-throwing young pitchers and knack for dramatic finishes. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Derek Jeter and their teammates can attest to that.
The young, thrifty Marlins made the Yankees look old and overpaid. By the final game they had Andy Pettitte shouting angrily into his glove and Jeter muttering to himself. And when Beckett tagged Jorge Posada for the final out, the Marlins became the first visiting team to celebrate a World Series title at Yankee Stadium since the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981.
Joining in the jubilation was general manager Larry Beinfest, whose midseason moves gave the Marlins momentum, and owner Jeffrey Loria, a New York art dealer who revived a moribund Florida franchise after he bought it February 2002.
Now the Marlins are the talk of baseball, in part because of the way they won. They overcame deficits in seven of their 11 postseason victories. They were on the verge of elimination when they won three consecutive games to beat the Cubs in the NL championship series, and they also won their final three games against New York.
``We always believe in ourselves,'' said Rodriguez, the Marlins' playoff hero. ``The Yankees are a great team, but we played better.''
The Marlins improved to 6-0 in postseason series. The only winning seasons in their 11-year history were in 1997 and 2003, and both times they won the World Series.
That still leaves them 24 titles behind the Yankees, which is small consolation to New Yorkers.