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Furcal finds footing at new spot with new team

Owner of first AB in Marlins Park to have first Marlins one in '14 -- as second baseman

Furcal finds footing at new spot with new team

JUPITER, Fla. -- The opening of Marlins Park in 2012 was historic for the Marlins' organization and their fans who endured 19 seasons of weather-impacted games.

The unveiling of the retractable-roof building represented a new beginning and gave the franchise long-term stability in South Florida.

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To celebrate the grand opening, the inaugural game was nationally televised between the Marlins and Cardinals, who were coming off a World Series championship season. A St. Louis player that day is currently making a comeback this year with Miami, and he actually has become the answer to a Marlins history trivia question.

Who was the first player to bat in a regular-season game at Marlins Park?

Answer: Rafael Furcal.

"I remember I got three hits," Furcal said.

Indeed, he did, going 3-for-5 in St. Louis' 4-1 win. Furcal also vividly recalls what he did in the first at-bat at Marlins Park.

"I grounded to short," he added, without having to be reminded.

Facing Josh Johnson in the first inning, Furcal christened baseball at the Marlins' new home, with a routine ground ball to shortstop Jose Reyes, who threw on to Gaby Sanchez at first base for the out.

Now Furcal has switched teams, signing as a free agent with the Marlins in the offseason. And after missing all of last year due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, the 36-year-old is making the transition from shortstop to second base.

The Marlins are building around young talent and a strong pitching staff, and Furcal embraces the opportunity to be part of the team's resurgence.

"I live in Miami," he said. "What I see in this team is a lot of young talent. I think they have a chance. They lost a lot of games last year by one or two runs. I'm coming in as a veteran. I am helping those young guys. I think they're going to be better."

Marlins manager Mike Redmond plans on using Furcal in the leadoff spot.

Barring something unforeseen, Furcal projects to be the first Marlins batter on March 31 in the opener against the Rockies at Marlins Park. He has already launched the new stadium, and now he has a chance to get the new season going.

When Furcal set foot in Marlins Park in 2012, he felt he was in a special place.

"My reaction was, this is one of the most beautiful stadiums I had been in," he said. "It's nice. I think the people of Florida deserve a stadium like that, especially in the summer, when there is a lot of rain. They don't have any more delays."

Furcal broke in with the Braves in 2000, and he dealt with rain delays numerous times when he came to South Florida to play the Marlins.

"It was tough when you are ready two or three hours before the game, and then it rains," he said. "This ballpark is beautiful. Florida is one of the states that plays the most baseball in the United States. I'm so happy to be in a stadium like that."

Marlins Park is now Furcal's new home, and he is using Spring Training to get ready to settle into a new position.

Formerly an All-Star shortstop, Furcal has played some second base, but not much: A total of 36 games, with his last action there coming in 2004.

The Marlins envision a seamless transition, and they coveted Furcal's leadership and history of success. In 12 of his 14 seasons, Furcal's team has made the playoffs.

"Everybody who I've talked to said this guy is the best teammate ever," Redmond said. "That says something about a guy. We're excited to have him in there."

Furcal's presence, the club hopes, also will help the development of young shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.

"Rafi is not the kind of guy who just likes to sit in the corner," Redmond said. "He likes to talk. He's not afraid to say something when he needs to say something. That's great. I like those guys. He's going to help with the learning process with a lot of our guys."

Each day, Furcal is getting a crash course about second base from infield coach Perry Hill.

"For me, the infield is the infield," Furcal said. "The only problem at second base is on the double play."

Often on double plays, the second baseman has his back to the runner. So there is some shifty footwork required around the bag to get in position to make the turn as well as avoid serious collisions.

"When you play shortstop, you see what the runner is going to do," Furcal said. "But we have one of the best infield instructors here, and he is showing me a lot of little tricks over there. We're working hard each day."

Other responsibilities for Furcal at second are bunt and relay plays. Otherwise, ground balls are grounders. Fielding them isn't much different, but the throw to first is shorter.

"When you play shortstop for so long, you don't realize how much technique at second base you need," he said. "It's different than at shortstop, but I'm feeling more comfortable every day."

Foremost, Furcal is healthy. His arm is strong, and to keep it that way, he is getting periodic days off from throwing.

"I'm not the first guy who had Tommy John," Furcal said. "There are thousands of players who have had Tommy John, and they come back. They say they throw as hard as they throw before. Right now, I feel my arm is as strong as ever."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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