2003 Marlins champs reunite, marvel at Jose Fernandez

MIAMI — A 10-year anniversary celebration of the 2003 World Series championship enabled one of baseball’s all-time greatest catchers to meet one of the game’s rising young pitchers.

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, say hello to Jose Fernandez.

“He said, ‘I would love just one day to have you behind the plate catching for me,’ ” Rodriguez said after meeting Fernandez for the first time in the Miami Marlins dugout on Sunday.

“I said, ‘Well, you came up a little too late. But I support you 100 percent and I’ll support you in any way that I can. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ “

Rodriguez was among 17 players and coaches from the 2003 Marlins who took part in a on-field ceremony honoring the group’s World Series title before Miami lost to Cleveland 2-0.

Former manager Jack McKeon, 82, was in the house and looking good two months after undergoing heart bypass surgery. Former stars Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Carl Pavano and FOX Sports Florida’s Jeff Conine also were there.

Several players who had significant roles were absent.

Miguel Cabrera, last year’s American League Triple Crown winner, was in Detroit as his Tigers played the Chicago White Sox.

Dontrelle Willis, the “D-Train,” prepared to start Sunday night for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League against the York Revolution and former big league righty Brett Tomko.

Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Josh Beckett, who pitched a World Series-clinching Game 6 complete game, is on the disabled list. He’s recovering from season-ending surgery to relieve pressure on a nerve in his neck.

Those able to attend clearly enjoyed the gathering.

McKeon offered a few words for the crowd before greeting each 2003 member individually with a handshake, a hug and a gift of champagne. The yet-to-be-handed-off bottles shared a table with the World Series trophy.

The Marlins Park video screen in center played a taped greeting from Cabrera, as well as brief short highlights clip from that unforgettable championship season.

Afterward, there were plenty of topics to rehash: McKeon’s hiring to replace Jeff Torborg in May of that season; the Steve Bartman play at Wrigley Field during Game 6 of the National League Championship Series; the bond created between players after beating the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the World Series.

Fernandez also was a popular topic, especially when being compared to Willis, whose unbelievable season that year earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

McKeon said Fernandez was Miami’s best pitching prospect since the baseball lifer joined the organization as manager.

“Nobody’s even in his class,” McKeon said. “I saw that at (Class A) Greensboro last year. The guy’s mature. He’s been throughout the mill. He’s a fighter, he’s a competitor.

“He reminds me of an old timer, the guys that were really dedicated. The (Bob) Gibsons and them kind of guys, who took this game seriously and said, ‘I want to show them I’m good.’ “

Lowell, a close friend of current Marlins manager and 2003 alum Mike Redmond, said he saw a hint off Fernandez’s greatness in spring training.

“I told Red, and I didn’t even see Fernandez in a game, I saw his bullpen session — I just liked his demeanor,” Lowell said. “I liked that he was working to get better. There was a little aura that he knows he’s good — and that’s good.”

Rodriguez, a Marlin for only the one season, has watched the Cuban right-hander on TV.

“He has tremendous talent,” Rodriguez said. “All the pitches he has are plus-plus pitches. To be able to come up in his first year, go to the All-Star Game and dominate and win all these games here is great.

“He looks to me like he knows what he’s doing.”

Pavano cited one notable difference between his Marlins rotation mate Willis and Fernandez.

“We called Dontrelle the ‘Rain Man’ because every time he pitched at home, there was always a delay,” said Pavano, remembering Pro Player Stadium on his first trip to Marlins Park.

If Fernandez continues on his current path, perhaps he’ll be known as “The Reign Man” someday.

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.