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Gene Therapy: Fond memories of Billy the Marlin

Friday, March 28, 2003

It was a sun-splashed Florida afternoon, not sun-dappled, mind you, sun-splashed; let's be clear. It was April 5, 1993, and the Florida Marlins were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers, the significance of which derived from the fact that prior to 040593, the Florida Marlins existed only as part of the ecosystem and the National Audubon Society's Field Guide To North American Game Fish.

But on this day, the Marlins would play an unexpectedly good approximation of major-league baseball, beating the Dodgers, 6-3. I was privileged to be in the press box for the first game in franchise history at then Joe Robbie Stadium, and what I remember as much as anything was the delightful performance of the Marlins' mascot, Billy the Marlin, if only because I really don't know if I can remember anything about it that day, including Billy the Marlin.

Nonetheless, I was stunned and saddened this week to learn that the Marlins released Billy after 10 seasons and planned to replace him with some wet-behind-the-gills hotshot from the sales department.

How could I be making this up?

Two days before the start of the baseball season, I'm trying to give the game every possible psychic free pass. I refuse to dwell on, for example, the roughly $5,400 Randy Johnson will now make per pitch under his re-worked contract ($33 million for two years). I refuse to dwell on the fact that the players union is looking into the notion that owners conspired to keep salaries at something like an average of $2.5 million this off-season. I refuse to dwell on the notion that the umpires, cowed by their own disastrously overplayed union politics the past few years, seem to have regained their ominous truculence. And I'm OK with the fact that the Pirates' first seven games have seven different starting times and that one of them, April 4 at Philadelphia, is scheduled for 1:33 p.m. If that game starts at 1:33, just as was threatened by the old left-hander Jim Rooker, I'll walk home. Though not from Philadelphia certainly.

But how can baseball in its still-queasy public relations posture allow the Marlins to free Billy? I guess this means that ultimately, it's all about winning and losing, and the Marlins have done plenty of losing over the past five years. They're 352-457 over that span, and clearly someone in the front office took a look at things and decided the mascot just wasn't getting it done.

Billy, whose real name is John Routh, at first threatened legal action against the club, but the Marlins said that getting relief from Billy's $75,000 salary had nothing to do with its typically crushing player payroll, which now includes a $10 million, one-year deal for fading catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

"We're looking for someone with more energy," a Marlins spokesman told The Associated Press's Steve Wine in South Florida. "It was time to make a change."

Sounds like the old philosophical differences rationale. The sticking point was that Billy was trying to be entertaining and the Marlins were not.

Wine had lunch recently with Billy, and as the memories flowed forth, it was all too clear that the marginally promising start of this season has already curdled. There'll be no Billy the Marlin to turn up on ESPN's brilliant Sportscenter commercials. There'll be no Billy the Marlin cavorting through the empty stands of Pro Player Stadium, doing the Hokey Pokey with the occasional customer.

"Ya put your dorsal in, ya take your dorsal out ..."

For many of Florida's youngest baseball fans, that was what it's all about.

That summer of '93 seems so long ago to Billy. He reminisced with Wine about his development in a top baseball program at the University of Miami, where he was Sebastian the Ibis. Once, at the Sugar Bowl, a bullet fired in the French Quarter creased Routh's temple, prompting what for my money is the second greatest mascot quote ever: "It's going to take more than a bullet hole in the head to keep me out of this game." (The No. 1 mascot quote of all time remains the San Diego Chicken's "If ya can't stand the heat, get out of the chicken.")

What's a 43-year-old freshly released game fish to do in this world? Billy talked about going back to the minors. Seeing if he could sit in for Hugh Manatee, the Marlins' Class A mascot. Perhaps he could do color on Celebrity Spearfishing. If there were Celebrity Spearfishing.

They can yank off his fish head, but there will always be one thing the Marlins can't take from him. The ring, baby. Thanks to Jim Leyland's 1997 World Series Champion Marlins, Billy the Marlin has a ring. All he's got to do is say it over and over: "I've got a ring and Ernie Banks doesn't ... I've got a ring and Ernie Banks doesn't."


Gene Collier can be contacted at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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