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After a long winter of waiting, a new baseball season is finally upon us.  The level of excitement surrounding the Miami Marlins is something that baseball fans in South Florida aren’t accustomed to as the team has struggled during the majority of its existence.  The Marlins franchise has made the playoffs just two times in 22 seasons, but both times it made it to the postseason it won the World Series.

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Heading into Miami’s 23rd Opening Day, hopes are high that the Marlins may finally have built a team that will not only succeed in the current season, but for several more to come.  The team has been built through youth, with highly touted prospects turning into everyday players that have become extremely productive.  Add in a few veterans to fill out the lineup and the Marlins are poised to be one of the better teams in the National League.

Over the years there have been plenty of Opening Day moments and memories that Marlins fans can look back on, and though not all of them have been pleasant there are certainly enough to go around.  While one game on a schedule of 162 isn’t going to make or break a season, it’s always nice to get off to a good start after months of anticipation and excitement. With all that in mind, here are the top Opening Day’s in Florida/Miami Marlins history.

April 5, 1993: Marlins 6 Dodgers 3

There may never be an Opening Day as special as the first one in Florida Marlins franchise history. Veteran knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough got the nod as the first ever Marlins starter and threw a strike past Dodgers shortstop Jose Offerman to get things off on the right foot.  Hough and the Marlins would get the win, beating Hall of Famer Orel Hershiser by the score of 6-3.

Jeff Conine, the man who would become known as Mr. Marlin, paced the team by going 4 for 4 at the plate and scoring a pair of runs while Scott Pose and Walt Weiss each collected a pair of RBI’s.  Hough went six innings, giving up three runs while striking out four, and Bryan Harvey collected the first save in Marlins history to close out the win in front of 42,334 fans at Joe Robbie Stadium.

April 1, 1997: Marlins 4 Cubs 2

Opening Day in 1997 was the first time in the Florida Marlins brief history that the team was thought of as one of the better ones in the National League.  Following a strong 1996 season in which the Marlins won a then team-high 80 games, baseball minds saw the young franchise as a possible playoff contender.  Owner H. Wayne Huizenga wanted a winning team and opened his wallet to bring in more talented players, such as Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Alex Fernandez while giving slugger Gary Sheffield a huge contract extension following a big year in ‘96.

Huizenga also spent big to bring in one of the top managers in baseball, Jim Leyland, to lead his high-priced troops to the promised land.  Things got off to great start as Florida swept its opening series against Chicago, and the first game provided a glimpse into what the future would hold. Alou opened the scoring with a home run in the 2nd inning and starting pitcher Kevin Brown went seven scoreless innings, giving up just one hit while striking out eight Cubs.  The Marlins went on to win 92 games and defeated the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

March 31, 1998: Marlins 11 Cubs 6

This Opening Day isn’t memorable for the game itself, but for everything that happened between the Marlins win in the World Series and their following season as defending champions. Huizenga got his title in the fall of ’97 but didn’t reach his ultimate goal which was a new stadium deal for his baseball franchise.  He knew mid-way through the previous season that a new ballpark was not forthcoming and had already make it known that he intended to sell the team.

After their win in the World Series, Huizenga began dumping players left and right. Brown, Alou, Conine, Al Leiter and Robb Nen were all gone before the ’98 season began, and soon after there was a monster trade with the Dodgers that shipped off Sheffield, Bonilla and Charles Johnson (amongst others) in exchange for Mike Piazza and Todd Ziele, both of whom were also traded away soon after.

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Slightly easing the pain was a strong showing on Opening Day, led by a six-run first inning that included a 3-run homer by Sheffield and an RBI triple by World Series hero Craig Counsell. Johnson also homered for the Marlins, and young Cuban playoff standout Livan Hernandez got the win despite giving up five runs and seven hits in 5.1 innings.  Marlins fans wouldn’t have long to enjoy the win though, as the team would go on to lose their next 11 games en route to an awful 54-108 record, the worst in franchise history.

April 6, 2004: Marlins 4 Expos 3

Following the Marlins improbable victory in the 2003 World Series there was once again excitement surrounding South Florida’s baseball team.  Unlike the ’98 opener in which Florida’s starting lineup was far different than the one that won the World Series the past October, this time around the Marlins retained the majority of their championship team.

Florida’s ’04 Opening Day roster featured seven players that were also in the lineup for the World Series the year before, but ironically enough it was one of the two newcomers that had the biggest impact that day. The Marlins acquired first baseman Hee-Seop Choi in the trade that sent Derrick Lee to Chicago and it was Choi that led the team to victory, finishing with a home run and three RBI’s including the one that broke an 8th inning tie to put Florida up for good.  While they didn’t make the playoffs that year, the Marlins stayed in contention for most of the season and finished with a strong 83-79 record.

April 6, 2009: Marlins 12 Nationals 6

After coming up 5.5 games short of a Wild Card spot in 2008, the Marlins came back in ’09 ready to make a serious run at the postseason.  There isn’t anything particularly special about this game or this season, but anyone who remembers this Opening Day knows how much fun it was.  Already leading the game 2-0, the Marlins added another four runs in the 3rd inning thanks to a pair of home runs by Jorge Cantu and Jeremy Hermida. That wasn’t the high point of this game though.

The most memorable part of this season opener came an inning later, with Florida now holding a 6-2 lead.  Newly acquired Emilio Bonifacio had played all of 60 games in the majors before batting leadoff for the Marlins on Opening Day.  He smacked the ball over the head of Washington center fielder Lastings Milledge and was off to the races, speeding around the bases for a 2-run inside-the-park home run. It was the first Opening Day inside-the-park homer since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Red Sox in 1968.  The Marlins ended up winning three more games in 2009 than they did the year before but they still fell short of the playoffs, this time by 5 games.

April 4, 2012: Cardinals 4 Marlins 1

While the game itself was nothing to write home about, Opening Day in 2012 had a lot of meaning for the now-Miami Marlins. The team had one of the busiest and most exciting offseasons in its history, only adding to the hype surrounding the franchise.  Owner Jeffrey Loria opened up his wallet and the team went on a spending spree, adding several big name players such as Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and manager Ozzie Guillen.

The biggest thing about this Opening Day, both literally and figuratively, was the Marlins brand new ballpark that was built in the heart of Miami.  Between the stadium, the new team name, logo and colors, not to mention all the new players, there was a lot of hope and excitement around the team in 2012.  Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as hoped for the Marlins.  The new players didn’t come close to meeting expectations and were gone the following year, as was Guillen.

There was a silver lining on the mess that was the Marlins 2012 season though. The team learned some valuable lessons and went to work rebuilding the franchise, shipping off the big names for talented youngsters and working hard to develop that talent.  Now here we are, three years later, and it appears that the Marlins are once again ready to chase a playoff spot.  This time around however, it seems they’ve done it right.

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