Walker Does His Best To One-Up Paxton

Teams can fall a little too in love with their prospects (unless you’re a new GM and those prospects were brought in by the previous regime).  They tend to over-value them in trade negotiations, and give them countless chances they wouldn’t otherwise give free agents on team-friendly, short-term deals.  Fans, well, what’s bigger and more all-encompassing than “love”, because that’s what they’ve got for their team’s prospects.  Shut up!  The Angels should be so lucky to trade us Mike Trout for Stefen Romero!  And so on and so forth.

It’s with good reason, though, as prospects are little nuggets of hope.  With established veterans, you pretty much know what they are, and you pay accordingly.  We’re all aware of the ceilings of guys like Cano, Cruz, and Aoki.  But, with prospects – guys just starting to get their feet wet, all the way up to guys with some experience, but haven’t entrenched themselves in the Bigs – the sky is the limit.  Most of the time, prospects fizzle out.  Sometimes, guys bust through into established roles in the Major Leagues.  And, every once in a great while, guys will hit it big, and it’s in this case where you – as a fan – are so desperate to get in on the ground floor.

Prospects who hit it big are cost-effective superstars, essential to a team’s chances in having a long, sustained run of success.  Even though there’s no salary cap in the MLB, you can’t literally bring in 25 free agents to fill out your roster and expect to win every year.  You need cheap guys under team control to round out your squad, and fill in around them with free agent veterans and the like.

For so many years under Bavasi and Zduriencik, the model failed.  Prospects never developed, and veterans came in and took dumps all over our hearts.  For every winning season, there were at least three losing seasons, and ultimately the model needed a total revamp.

This year, the Mariners seem to have the right mix of veterans, and now they’re starting to see some real potential and production out of their prospects.  There are still plenty of growing pains, but if we can work through those over the course of the next couple months, we might be in for a fun stretch of baseball this fall.

The prime area I’m talking about here is in the starting rotation.  Walker, Karns, and now Paxton, are essentially still prospects, in that I don’t believe any of them have reached their ceilings.  We’re going to need them to pop if we expect to remain in contention, and hopes have never been higher.

Remember the Big 4 of Walker, Paxton, Hultzen, and Maurer?  Remember how they were all together, kicking ass in the minor leagues, and we all pointed to the future of the Mariners’ starting rotation as being in the conversation with those Braves teams of the 1990s?  Well, such is baseball, Hultzen is all but out of the game, Maurer has been converted to a full-time reliever (in another organization, no less), Paxton has spent the majority of his career injured (and the majority of this season in Tacoma), and Walker is still trying to figure out how to transition from a guy who throws electric stuff into an actual pitcher.

Remember the original wave of hotshot pitching prospects the Mariners over-valued, around the turn of the century?  Headed by a still-young Freddy Garcia, we had Gil Meche, Ryan Anderson, Joel Pineiro, and to a lesser extent, Ryan Franklin.  Remember what happened with that group?  Garcia was an okay ace-type pitcher (but far from an elite, Randy Johnson type).  Meche flashed early potential before suffering arm problems, then was sort of mediocre before leaving in free agency.  Ryan Anderson never made the leap to the Bigs, thanks to injuries and general ineffectiveness (the hype of him being touted as “The Little Unit” or whatever trite comparison to Randy Johnson probably didn’t help much either).  Pineiro also flashed a lot of early potential before regressing to mediocre (and then bouncing around the league as a starter/reliever for the later years in his career).  And Franklin had a nice little assortment of pitches, but none of them were top shelf, and he spent the majority of his Mariners career being mediocre before converting to a reliever full time and having a lot of great success in the National League.  The claim to fame for this group is that 4/5 of them (Garcia, Meche, Pineiro, and Franklin) combined with Jamie Moyer in 2003 to be the only starting 5-man rotation in my lifetime, in all of Major League Baseball, to make every single start for a team in a season.  While it amounted to 93 wins (on the back of a still-awesome offense), it didn’t lead to a playoff spot, nor any sustained success going forward (as the Mariners, in 2004, would win 30 fewer games).

So, with that in mind, I don’t want to sit here and make this out to be more than it is.  Hell, earlier this week, I was just bitching about each and every one of these starting pitchers for their recent failures.  But, on the heels of Paxton’s eye-opening performance on Monday, Walker came out last night and pitched 8 shutout innings, with 0 walks and only 3 hits (all singles).  Considering Walker’s been as culpable as any of our starters for this team’s recent struggles, it was nice to see him bounce back against a pretty solid Indians team.

Moreover, don’t think I didn’t notice the timing in all of this.  Granted, the broadcast mentioned a “Get Your Shit Together, Or Else” meeting between the pitching coach and all the starters recently, but I like to think there’s a little friendly rivalry going on between Walker and Paxton, the last two standing from that notorious Big 4.  Walker is a fiery, competitive guy, who wants so desperately to be great.  But, he doesn’t have any peers on this team.  Felix, Iwakuma, and Miley are all veterans.  Karns is new to the team, even if he’s in a similar boat experience-wise.  But, Karns hasn’t had to endure the hardships of a go-nowhere organization like Walker.  Paxton, however, does have that in common.  Paxton is Walker’s true peer and true rival (even though, I highly doubt they’re actually enemies).  There was a lot of heat on Paxton after his most recent start, and I’m sure it didn’t sit well with Walker – who had a tremendous amount of heat on him coming into this season, from local as well as national media types.

I’m not saying I necessarily predicted this or anything.  But, after watching last night’s game, I don’t know how I could’ve missed it.  Walker looked like a man possessed.  We’ve seen him nibble and get too cute with his offspeed stuff, trying to find an appropriate mix-and-match system that works for him, with frequently middling results.  We’ve also seen him snap back into Default-Taijuan mode, where he pumps teams with a crazy percentage of fastballs, controlling the strike zone, and using his overpowering arm to win a game.  But, last night’s game was something else.  He looked like he wanted to throw baseballs THROUGH the opposing team’s bats.  He was focused, in control, and utterly dominant.

Now, if only he could do this every time out, we’d be in business.

Will Paxton’s presence be the spark that keeps Walker on his toes and his head in the game?  Will they together push one another into new realms of greatness we haven’t seen from either guy to date in their careers?  Will Karns take a look at what’s going on and say, “Hey fellas!  Wait up!”?  Will Miley’s shaved-off beard take 99% of the blame for his prior struggles this season, or 100% of the blame?  As you can see, I have no idea how to end this thing, so I’m just going to stop … here.

Are The Mariners (Gulp) Only Built For The Regular Season?

As we cruise into the final days of May, in first place in the division and one of the best teams in all of baseball, it’s only natural to be excited.  PLAYOFF FEVER, COMIN’ ATCHA!

It’s been so, so, SO LONG since we’ve had a baseball team this good, this well built.  It’s not like 2007 or 2009 where the winning was flukey and unsustainable.  It’s not even like 2014, where pretty much everything went right and we STILL came up a game short of vying for the Wild Card.  This is a team, from 1-25, that’s good enough to sustain through the whole season.  Yes, there will be lows, but I’d argue fewer and further between.  With a lineup this good and this veteran; with a rotation that looks pretty steady, and a bullpen that might be better than we thought (though, one might argue, some of these guys were due to regress in the positive direction after having down years in 2015), this team should be able to nip a lot of losing streaks in the bud, before they turn into total calamities.

So, let’s just take that for granted.  And, let’s assume that the team stays reasonably healthy, and doesn’t totally fall apart with injuries.  This, right here, in 2016, will be the Mariners team to take us back to the post-season.

What happens then?

One of my all-time sports regrets – and there are more than a few – is that 2001 Mariners team.  It’s a different feeling than the gut punch that was losing the Sonics, or the two Super Bowl defeats.  It’s even different from the other good Mariners teams who fell short.  In 1995, we were more or less just happy to be there (and just ecstatic to reach the ALCS); in 1997, it didn’t feel like an end of an era so much as the beginning of a long and fruitful stretch of post-season runs with the best core of players in all of baseball (it was, in fact, the end of an era, as Randy, Griffey, and A-Rod would all leave in ensuing losing seasons).

2001 stands alone, because it’s all at once a source of tremendous pride and abject horror.  I look back on that year with fond memories, because we won 116 motherfucking games!  We tied the all-time record!  We even hosted the All Star Game and got to show the world how great Safeco Field was and is!  It might be another 90-something years before we see a 6-month stretch of dominance like that again.  Sure, there will be 100-game winners, but 116?  In the American League?  That feels like a pretty safe number.  I had SO MUCH FUN watching that team day-in and day-out; I never wanted that season to end!

And then it did.  And HOO BOY was I miserable.

When you’re a kid (unless you’re some spoiled brat of a rich kid), you learn pretty early on that life isn’t fair.  You’re not going to get your way, and it’s totally arbitrary, and you don’t understand why, and it sucks, and you’re pissed.  But, in sports, you want to believe that the best team WILL win it.  You root for a team like the Mariners, you pay your dues (for the most part; as much dues paying as you can do when you become a fan in September of 1995), you wait your turn, and then here it is!  2001!  116 wins!  FINALLY!  It’s OUR time!  We are, clearly, far and away, the best team in all of baseball, and this is the year we get our championship trophy to celebrate it!

I didn’t get to root for a lot of successful teams growing up.  The Seahawks were the local turd in the punchbowl for the entire 1990s, I was never into college sports as a child, so I had the Sonics.  The Sonics may or may not have been the best team in 1994 – when they lost in the first round to the Nuggets as a 1-seed – but I find it truly hard to believe that they were the best team, when they couldn’t even beat an 8-seed who was just happy to be there.  That team, even if it managed to find a way to get to the next round, probably would’ve ended up losing to the Rockets or Jazz or Spurs.  It was flawed, and feasted upon all the bad teams, while cleaning up at home.  Then, by 1996, the Sonics were clearly NOT the best team, because they ran into the buzzsaw that was the 72-win Bulls.

Really, in my lifetime, the first team I rooted for that was LEGITIMATELY the best team in that particular sport that particular year was indeed the 2001 Mariners.  And, as such, that’s really the first time I got a taste of not only life not being fair, but sports not being fair.

With a little perspective, you start to throw caveats into the mix.  Sadly, the 2001 Mariners weren’t the best baseball team that year, they were just the best REGULAR SEASON team that year.

For, you see, a team like the Yankees, they won 21 fewer games in the regular season, but they were built for the post-season.  Our lineup was good, theirs was a little bit better.  Our pitching feasted upon all the run support they were given, their pitching was battle tested.  Their starting rotation was dynamic – with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Orlando Hernandez.  Our starting rotation was entirely unremarkable – with Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, and Paul Abbott.  Their bullpen featured the greatest closer of all time in Mariano Rivera; our bullpen relied on a closer in Kaz Sasaki with a nothing fastball, who needed pinpoint command of both his pitches – especially his splitter – to get the job done.

In the end, what happened?  Well, the Mariners lost in 5 games, and didn’t score more than 3 runs in any of their defeats.  Likewise, an over-worked bullpen in the regular season ended up faltering in key moments late in the 50/50 games of that series, giving the Yankees a decided advantage.  We were a team built for the regular season.  Guys like Sele and Garcia absolutely thrived until the spotlight shone too brightly and they were forced to truly bear down.  And the hitting, solid up and down the lineup, simply couldn’t find a way to push runners home when they had the opportunities.

So, with all of this as preamble, I say again, if the 2016 Mariners make the post-season, as we’re all starting to expect they will, what happens when we get there?

In an ideal world, I’d just be sitting here enjoying the ride.  Let Future Steven worry about what happens in October; this is May!  October is MONTHS away!

But, I can’t help it.  I see a team like the Red Sox, and they look really poised to do well in the playoffs.  They’ve got an ace, just like we’ve got an ace, but they’ve got a couple starters behind their ace that look pretty great.  The Cubs and White Sox, shit, they’re ALL pitching!  The Royals have been there before, and you figure they’ve got another run in them to get back into contention.

The Mariners, you can tell right now, are going to need a lot of help if they end up making the post-season.

I like Felix, but I’m not sure about ANYONE after him.  That includes Taijuan Walker, who can be dominating, but is still young, and is still finding himself.  Kuma is not the rock-solid #2 starter we all remember from 2013.  Wade Miley is the epitome of a guy built for the regular season.  And Karns?  Who knows if he’ll still be pitching, or if he’ll run into an innings limit?  Sure, we’ve got Paxton down in Tacoma, just waiting for his opportunity to prove he’s got what it takes, but I think we can all agree, if this team is going to make a bunch of noise in the playoffs, it is GOING to need another dominant starter after Felix.

With Felix and Ace #2, I think I could be okay with Taijuan Walker holding the fort as our third starter.  Now, whether or not the team will go with him, or the more veteran Iwakuma, is up for debate.  We’ll have to see where those guys are by season’s end.  If Walker proves he has what it takes to really lock things up in the important games in September, I could see him supplanting Kuma.  But, if not, then you’re looking at Walker as your 4th starter, which means you probably don’t need him until the ALCS (although, I’d be PRETTY interested to see Walker out of the ‘pen in the ALDS, just to get some work in, throwing in the upper-90s, with his awesome change-up as an equalizer).

If we’re unable to make that deal for another ace, then you gotta really hang onto your butts and hope the hitting lineup has enough juice.  With no other incoming starting pitcher, we’re probably forced to go with Miley in a more prominent role, and that frightens me to no end.

I also don’t think it would hurt to bring in a superstar reliever.  For the regular season, I like our bullpen as is (when you factor in the eventual return of Zych and Furbush).  In the post-season, though, my confidence is wavering.  Cishek strikes me as the type of guy who’s MUCH too volatile in a post-season setting.  Benoit’s got a good, but not great arm.  Nick Vincent has been good against right handed hitters, but I don’t want to see him in a situation where he has to face someone like Big Papi or something.  Right now, I think I’m only REALLY sold on Mike Montgomery, who has looked OUTSTANDING in his bullpen role.  He’s got an additional 3-4 miles per hour on his fastball, he’s good to throw multiple innings, so he can really bridge the gap if a starter needs to be pulled after five innings.  He’s also super strong against lefties, in the event we need to mix & match late in a game.

I’m not saying you completely throw out the bullpen and try to start over with a bunch of deadline trades.  But, I’d like to see us take advantage of some sellers out there.  Maybe bring in another guy with closing experience, in the event Cishek falters down the stretch and we need to go with more of a bullpen by committee approach.  Like, for instance, maybe we’re able to work out a deal for one of the better Yankees relievers?  Maybe we offer them a package that features James Paxton or Nathan Karns as the centerpiece?

Maybe we go all-in on 2016, because let’s face it, there’s no such thing as dynasties in baseball, and you’ve GOT to strike while the iron’s hot, damn the consequences?

If we make the playoffs and look more or less the same in October as we do in May, I’m afraid there are going to be issues.  2016 looks to be the funnest season we’ve had ’round these parts in well over a decade, but just having fun can’t be the only goal.  In years past (and I’ve said this many times), I would have gladly taken a baseball team that’s just entertaining enough, just interesting enough to contend until football season starts, and then go ahead and fall apart if you have to.  But, this year?  When we’ve got Cano, Cruz, and Seager all in their primes, when we’re FINALLY able to make good with King Felix and give him a winner for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, we can’t just crack the ALDS and act like we’re just happy to be there.  We can’t go into this thing ready to say, “Well, there’s always next year.”  If the opportunity arises, and it costs us everything in our God damn farm system, I don’t care, you have to make the moves that transform this team from a Regular Season Dandy into a Post-Season Juggernaut.

Let 2001 be a lesson to you, Mariners.  That team was pretty happy just to be there.  That team was CONVINCED there would be plenty more chances to get back to the show and win it all.

That team was the last one in franchise history to make the post-season, in what has become the second-longest playoff drought in all of the major American professional sports, behind the Buffalo Bills.  And you don’t want to be compared to the Buffalo Bills, trust me.

The Long Shadow of the Randy Johnson Trade

I moved this to my Seattle’s Worst Trades, Draft Picks & Free Agent Signings heading HERE.

Ken Griffey Jr., Hall of Famer

I’ve made no secret about it:  I’m one of those insufferable assholes who originally jumped on the Seattle Mariners’ bandwagon during the closing few weeks of the 1995 season.  I would have been 14 years old at the time, which quite honestly is pretty late in the game, as far as getting into a new sport is concerned.  You normally develop those lifelong attachments to your sports teams in your childhood, in the 8-10 years old range.

Ken Griffey’s grotesquely swollen jaw …

At some point in the mid-to-late 80s (I want to say the 1987 range), I started getting into the Seahawks.  By 1988, I was on a 3 packs a week habit (football cards, Topps).  By 1989 and 1990, it was probably closer to 6 packs (Pro Set).  I joined my dad’s work’s NFL Pick ‘Em pool against all the adults and even won some weeks (at $5 per entry per week, that was a solid chunk of change for a kid under 10 years of age).  I was a football lifer, no doubt about it.

In 1993, I started getting heavily into the NBA and the Sonics.  So, maybe they were my gateway drug into other sports.  Regardless, baseball has always been my third sports love, and that’s probably the way it’s always going to be (even though I mostly ignore the NBA now and will continue to do so until Seattle gets a team again).

I was always aware of the Mariners existing, as a kid.  They were consistently losing, so I didn’t really see the point in paying attention.  I didn’t have a parent or other type of older person I looked up to who were baseball fans.  I come from a family of football fans, period.  Any other sports would have to be pursued on my own.

But, in 1995, the Mariners were surging in the standings, and drawing attention all across the nation.  FINALLY, Seattle had winning baseball, and the sports bandwagoners ate it up.

I was also generally aware of Ken Griffey Jr., but I don’t know if I could say he was a hero of mine or anything.  My first sports idol was Steve Largent.  My second and third were, in some order, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.  By the time I started getting into the Mariners, Griffey was more national icon than simply a local superstar.  And, when I was that age, contrarian that I was in my know-it-all teens, I didn’t want to be some mope who went along with the crowd (even though that’s exactly who I was, jumping on the bandwagon when I did).  I was more of a Randy Johnson man, or a Jay Buhner man.

But, that’s not to say I disliked Griffey.  Indeed, I revered him as much as anyone in sports.  He was truly one of the best baseball players alive, and to have him on the Mariners was some sort of good fortune I just took for granted at the time.  With all the stars on the Sonics, and an all-time legend in Largent on the Seahawks, I just figured every team in every sport had at least one superstar and they always would.

Looking back on it now, I sort of wish I’d been a fan from the very beginning of his career.  It’s hard to appreciate the whole arc of his story, when I started somewhere in the middle.  By the time I was paying attention to Griffey, he was the best player on the planet.  So, all I’ve known of him has been the mythology, and the slow fall from grace.

I had about 4.25 good years as a fan of Ken Griffey Jr. before he forced his way out.  Obviously, there was the 1995 miracle finish that came JUST short of a World Series appearance.  At that point, we figured the sky was the limit for the Seattle Mariners, and there would be many MANY consecutive years of playoff appearances.  In 1996, we were cut down by Randy Johnson’s injury, and a pisspoor bullpen.  In 1997, we made it back to the playoffs, but we sold our soul to do it (the Lowe/Varitek trade & the Cruz trade).  And even then, we lost in the first round.  1998 & 1999 were essentially lost seasons, and the beginning of the end of those Mariners teams (it really started with the Tino Martinez trade, but continued with the Randy Johnson trade, and climaxed with the Griffey trade).

So much of being a Mariners fan is being jerked around by ownership and then hoping for the best.  It’s been that way since the very beginning.  In my formative years as a Mariners fan, it was endless penny-pinching by ownership.  We made all those trades in the mid-to-late 90s, one by one stripping this team of all its quality players and superstars, and yet there really wasn’t a noticeable penalty.  By 2000 and 2001, the Mariners were magically one of the best teams in baseball, and you can look at the guys we got in return from some of those trades (Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Mike Cameron) as real building blocks in our rise to prominence.  Those teams didn’t have the flash that the mid-90s teams had, but they were solid, and they got the job done in the regular season.

Yet, you can point to losing Randy Johnson (who would go on to win multiple Cy Young Awards), Tino Martinez & Jeff Nelson (who would go on to win multiple World Series titles with the Yankees), Ken Griffey Jr. (who went on to have moderate, injury-plagued success with the Reds), and later Alex Rodriguez (who took the biggest contract offer he could get, which obviously would never come from this Mariners organization), as the reason why this team never achieved any playoff success whatsoever.

If we focused on building around our stars, instead of shipping them off for adequate role players, maybe we wouldn’t have had some of the regular season successes we had in the early 2000’s, but a team with Randy, Tino, Nelson, Griffey, and A-Rod is sure as shit built for post-season glory.  It’s easy to look back on it now and say, “It’s so simple!”  But, at the time, with the Mariners rocking and rolling for the most part, it was understandable to think the good times would only continue.

When news hit of Griffey demanding a trade, I honestly don’t remember how I felt.  Disappointment, mostly.  I don’t think I really understood what was happening or why it was happening.  We were fed the line of Griffey wanting to be closer to home, closer to family, but I don’t think I entirely bought it then, and I still don’t think I entirely buy it now.  This Mariners organization has always been kind of a mess.  The product on the field always should have had better results.  But, the people in charge of personnel kept screwing things up at every possible turn, and the owners didn’t have the fortitude or the mental capacity to reward their very best players with contracts commensurate to their value on the open market.  On the one hand, you can laud the organization for getting SOMETHING in return for some of these players they shipped off; but on the other hand, God dammit!

My disappointment with the Griffey situation soured a bit when it became public knowledge that he ONLY wanted to be traded to the Reds, which severely limited our ability to negotiate the best possible deal.  Then again, knowing this organization’s track record in major trades, it’s highly probable that whoever they would have traded Griffey to would have seen a return on par with the bust of the century.  I think I let that rage subside when the Mariners managed to improve (helped in large part by Mike Cameron being a fan favorite), while the Reds never really did much.  In the end, I would come to feel sorry for Griffey, as it seemed he could never stay on the field for any prolonged stretch.  He had one quality year on par with his Mariners numbers, in his very first season with the Reds.  After 2000, you’ll see large gaps in his playing time due to injury.  By the time he managed to stay healthy for a full year again, it was 2007, his last All Star season.  In 2008, he was traded to the White Sox for their playoff run (losing in the ALDS), only his third appearance in the post-season (the other two, obviously, being with the Mariners).

In 2009, Jackie Z brought Griffey back on as our primary DH.  It was a way to see if he could prolong his career, while at the same time a nice gesture for the fans.  No one really expected much out of him or the team, but the Mariners managed a winning record against all odds, and Griffey himself had a decent campaign (19 homers in 117 games).  It would be the perfect end to a Hall of Fame career … until everyone got cute and tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice.  2010 was a definite black mark for everyone involved.  On the last day of May, Griffey had one hitless pinch hit at-bat in the 9th inning of a 5-4 loss to the Twins in Safeco Field.  This came after sitting on the bench for a full week, which was probably a sign of things to come.  Instead of milking out the last sour drops of his career, Griffey chose to retire on the spot, driving home to Florida and letting the team know via a phone call on the road.

Being a fan of Griffey was never dull, I’ll say that.  As a Mariner, he was the face of Major League Baseball for a decade; that was pretty cool.  He put up some crazy, insane, cartoon numbers as a hitter; he made some crazy, insane, cartoon plays in the outfield.  He was, without question, the greatest baseball player I’ve ever seen, and probably will ever see.  He has my utmost respect as an athlete, and I’ll always look back fondly on his Mariners career.

One of the great things you can point to with Griffey is that he did it the right way.  Meaning, he didn’t cheat.  He didn’t prolong his career and boost his numbers by ingesting illegal or immoral pharmaceuticals.  Of course, we don’t know that for sure, but I’m not going to sit here and try to make the argument that he might have.  What we know is that his name has never come up in any implications on the topic.  He’s never had the aura of suspicion like Bonds, Clemons, and Sosa.  He’s also never outright admitted it, like McGwire, A-Rod, Palmeiro and the like.  We do know that he saw most of the latter half of his career on the DL, as opposed to someone like Bonds, who not only saw most of the latter half of his career in perfect health, but putting up bonkers numbers he never even approached in the first half of his career.  If Bonds had chosen to stay clean, he most likey wouldn’t have broken the home run record, and he most likely wouldn’t have stayed as healthy as he did.  But, he would have been a Hall of Famer, and a first-ballot Hall of Famer at that.  Instead, he cheated, and he’s likely never getting in.

With Griffey, you can simply give him the ol’ eye test.  Knowing what we know – that he was never implicated, that he never admitted to doing anything illicit, that he found himself on the DL more often than not in the second decade of his career – you can watch him age through the years and put a pretty firm assumption down that he wasn’t doing anything wrong.  Griffey aged like a baseball player of his calibre SHOULD age.  He didn’t suddenly put on 40 pounds of muscle and start hitting 50-70 homers a year in his late 30s.  He put on however many pounds of fat, and was left to his natural born gifts to push him through to his 23 years in the Major Leagues.  That’s what it means by doing it the “right way”.  That’s why he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and why he received the highest percentage of votes for a first year nominee in the history of the Hall of Fame (all but 3 voters selecting Griffey).  In an era where the cheaters outnumbered the clean, Griffey stayed clean and STILL crushed everything in his path.

I don’t have a particular Griffey-centric moment that stands out above all others, except obviously I do, and it’s of him scoring the go-ahead run from first base against the New York Yankees in the fifth game of the ALDS in 1995.  It’s that, and obviously, it’s that iconic picture of him underneath Bob Wolcott and all the other Mariners mobbing him at home plate.  I don’t totally think it’s fair, though, because they call that moment “The Double” because that’s really Edgar’s moment more than it is Griffey’s or anyone else’s.  If I had to pick a moment that was just Griffey’s, I don’t think I could.  Because my memory has gone to shit, and because – again – I wasn’t a fan until that stretch run in 1995.  I didn’t see him play with his dad and hit back-to-back homers with Ken Griffey Sr.  I didn’t see him blossom into the superstar he would become.  Hell, I didn’t even see him break his hand while making that catch against the wall that kept him out of the majority of the 1995 season!

You know what weirdly stands out?  It’s not even a particular moment, per se.  But, in 1996, the Mariners were playing out a string of meaningless games, with no chance of making the playoffs.  There was a series in Cleveland, and one of the games was rained out (another had to be pushed back to a Day/Night Doubleheader).  In one of the rainout games, Griffey hit a homer, but since it was rained out and never finished (and since it didn’t go past the 5th inning), the game never counted.  The game was never made up, because it wouldn’t have made a difference for either team’s placement in the standings (the Mariners were out of it, and the Indians were so far ahead in their division that it didn’t matter).  So, essentially, the Mariners only played 161 games in 1996.  And, as a result of that game being rained out, taking away one of his home runs, Ken Griffey Jr. finished the season one homer shy of his first 50-homer season.  I remember thinking how much that SUCKED, as reaching that 50-homer plateau was truly meaningful to me back then.  Obviously, Griffey would go on to have back-to-back 56-homer seasons the next two years, but how cool would it have been to see him with three straight 50-homer seasons?

Ehh, maybe less cool, knowing what we know about that era and all the insane homer totals that were inflated by a bunch of cheating tools.  Nevertheless, Ken Griffey Jr. is our shining beacon of hope in an otherwise dark period for Major League Baseball.

Mariners Tidbit 26: Happy Felix Day Indeed!

I’ve been to some big/odd/random professional baseball games in my day.  My very first game ever was in 1996 against the California Angels, on April 15th.  The Mariners were down 9-1 in the top of the fourth inning and ended up coming back to win 11-10; at the time, it was the greatest Mariners comeback in franchise history.  A-Rod hit a homer out of the 9-hole, Norm Charlton pitched 2 innings to get the win.  It was an amazing game, just me and my dad (I think, I was 15 at the time, so who knows how good my memory is).

The most important game I ever went to was on September 23, 1997, against the Anaheim Angels.  The Mariners jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the first thanks to an A-Rod single and a Jay Buhner 3-run bomb.  Randy Johnson was on the mound and would give up two more runs – three in total – over 8 innings.  In the ninth, Heathcliff Slocumb gave up a leadoff single as the Mariners clung to their 4-3 lead, then got a fly ball out and struck out the next two guys to lock down the save.  What made this game different is that it was the game that officially locked the Mariners in as A.L. West Champions.  Randy’s record went to 19-4 and we were going back to the playoffs for the second time (in franchise history) in three years.

In Cheney Stadium, in early August, 1998, I saw the first start for Freddy Garcia in a Rainiers uniform.  I was somehow graced with seats right behind the catcher thanks to a family member, and we were amazed at the kid as he spun 7 innings of 1-run gold.  The trading of Randy Johnson was universally panned (as it should have been), but no one could deny the Mariners got some talented prospects in return.

I also saw Ken Cloude’s first start in a Mariners uniform (August 9, 1997).  Now, you may be wondering why this is such a big deal; well, I’ll tell you.  It was a 5-2 defeat to James Baldwin and the Chicago White Sox, dropping the Mariners to merely 15-games over .500 (GOD, those were the days).  Ken Cloude was a prospect from the minors we were all hoping would settle down the back-end of the rotation (when guys like Bob Wolcott, Scott Sanders, and Dennis Martinez were failing terribly).  In the end, Cloude didn’t add up to much, and his Major League career was very short lived.

But, on August 9, 1997, he got the closest I’ve ever seen to a perfect game/no hitter (IN PERSON) in my entire life.  Ever since I first got into baseball – and specifically getting into keeping score while at a baseball game – it’s been my dream to one day keep score of a no hitter by a Mariners pitcher.  Oddly enough, the closest I’ve ever gotten in person was at a Rainiers game, as Derek Lowe (yeah, THAT Derek Lowe) pitched a no hitter into the 8th inning (but that’s neither here nor there).  Cloude ended up perfect through 5 innings (with the Mariners clinging to a 1-0 lead at the time).  He gave up a walk in the 6th, but still had a no hitter going into the 7th.  It’s unfortunate the Mariners couldn’t play add-on in this situation, as he gave up a single/walk/single to lead off the 7th.  Paul Spoljaric came in and gave up all three of Cloude’s runs that he inherited.  We went on to pull to within 3-2, but for some reason Lou left Bobby Ayala in there for 2.1 innings.  He was actually solid until the 9th, when he gave up a 2-run homer to seal it.

So, Ken Cloude is my high-water mark of pitching perfection.  Obviously, I’ve seen better-pitched games (any number of Randy Johnson and Felix Hernandez games will attest to that).  But, no one is touching Cloude for the 18 outs he got before giving up a hit.

Last night, I thought Felix might’ve had a shot.  To be fair, I ALWAYS think Felix has a shot at perfection, because Felix is perfect in every way.  But, as soon as he struck out the side in the top of the first without much fuss, I knew we were on to something.  He was perfect through 14 batters, until Trevor Plouffe knocked a solid single into right field.  So, the dream continues.  No perfect scorecard for me, but I’ll keep trying.

Doesn’t mean the game wasn’t a rousing success!  How about this:  both pitchers went the distance!  When was the last time we’ve seen that?  Phil Hughes was solid, but obviously not good enough as he gave up a monster bomb to Nelson Cruz in the second, and the first extra base hit of the year to LoMo in the form of a solo homer in the fifth.  The first homer would be all Felix needed, as he got the 9-inning shutout.  He was dynamic.  We’ve seen stuff like this from him before, but it seems to be so rare when he’s this economical.  He ended up with 102 pitches total.

A sight for sore eyes, I’ll say that much.  The day started out on kind of a bummer with Iwakuma going on the DL.  We’ll have to wait to see if he’s able to turn his career around; for the record, I STRONGLY doubt he’s had this issue with his trap muscle dating back to late last season.  But, if he did, and this is what’s caused the majority of his problems, then I say Get Well Soon.

In the meantime, I’m going to be day-dreaming of this Felix start for the rest of the weekend.

The Last Great Mariners Rebuild

The Seattle Mariners played their first season in 1977.  From 1977 through 1994, the Mariners were varying degrees of terrible.  Sometimes Two times, “terrible” came with a winning record (1991 & 1993), but no post-season appearance.  Then, in 1995, the Mariners broke on through with an AL West title and a legend was made.  People still talk about those 1995 Mariners in a reverential tone and for good reason.  Baseball fans in the northwest starving for the sweet taste of success finally had something to hang their hats on.

From 1995 through 2003, the Mariners were varying degrees of successful.  Those nine seasons saw the Mariners make the playoffs four times, winning three division titles.  Seven of those nine seasons saw the Mariners with winning records.  Two insanely good A’s teams prevented two 93-win Mariners teams from going to the playoffs four straight years from 2000-2003.  These were the good times.  Everything abruptly fell apart in 2004 and the team was blown up.

From 2004 through present day, the Mariners have returned to their varying degrees of terrible.  In the nine full seasons from 2004-2012, the Mariners have had a winning record twice.  They’ve finished last in the AL West seven times.  It’s been one rebuild after another, with no end in sight.  Just a continuation of the cycle of losing, ad infinitum.

Of course, if the Mariners could do it once, SURELY the Mariners can do it again.  It took until their 19th year of existence before the Mariners made the playoffs; if it feels hopeless now, just imagine what it must have felt like for Mariners fans in the early 1990s.  They say something about learning from history or being doomed to repeat it, but what if in this case we take a look at something that went RIGHT for the Mariners in their history and seeing if we can repeat THAT?

As fans, we have to believe that a turnaround is right around the corner.  I know I’m on here quite a bit, bitching about how nothing is ever going to get any better (because why would we think that?  What is trending well enough for us to deserve the luxury of hope?), but if I truly felt that way, why would I continue to follow this team?  I’m not a baseball fan, per se; I’m a Mariners fan.  I don’t sit around watching random baseball games in my spare time; I watch Mariners games.  If the Mariners moved to Oklahoma City, I would stop watching baseball, the same as I have stopped watching professional basketball.  If the Mariners had never existed, I never would have started watching baseball in the first place (you get the idea).  So, since it’s been established that I’m a Mariners fan, it should also be established that yes, I do hope they’re able to turn things around sooner rather than later.  I’m not 100% cynical.  I’m just beaten down and broken, but all that can change if a few things fucking broke right for the Mariners for once!

The one thing Jackie Z has done right in his tenure as general manager is:  he’s re-stocked the farm system with an abundance of talented prospects.  Of course, none of that talent (save Kyle Seager and a couple bullpen arms) has panned out at the Major League level, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

There is no “right way” to rebuild.  It’s a combination of youth and veterans.  It’s a combination of draft picks, trades, and free agent signings.  It’s a combination of luck, strategy, and luck again.  In an ideal world, your Major League roster would be riddled with your own draft picks still playing on rookie deals.  Every trade you made would work out splendidly for you and would tank for your trade partner.  Every free agent signing would be a “buy-low” situation where they immediately turned their careers around.

Or, if you like concrete examples:  every draft pick would be Ken Griffey Jr., every trade would net you Jay Buhner in return, and every free agent would be Bret Boone circa 2000/2001.

So, in an attempt to try and forget the miseries of our present-day situation, I’d like to go back to a simpler time where a team comprised of a mix of youth and veterans shocked the world by winning their very first division title in the most dramatic of fashions.  How was THAT team built?  What can we learn from how that team did what it did?  And how did that team evolve into the greatest regular season team in baseball history?

***

1995 Seattle Mariners

Rebuilds don’t happen overnight.  A lot of these guys were brought into the fold well before everything magically came together in 1995.  I’m not going to get into every single player, but I’ll go over the highlights.

Dan Wilson (catcher) was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 in the first round.  That was the same year Lou Pinella signed on to manage those very same Reds.  That was also the same year the Reds won the World Series and wrote Lou’s ticket as an elite baseball manager for the next couple decades.  Sweet Lou hitched his wagon to the Seattle Mariners in 1993 with the task of turning around the worst franchise in baseball.  Dan Wilson got his first taste of the majors in a September cup of coffee in 1992.  Wilson got some more playing time in 1993, but was then traded along with Bobby Ayala to be reunited with Pinella before the 1994 season.  Wilson played considerably in ’94, earned the starting job in ’95, and never looked back.

Tino Martinez (first base) was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 1988 in the first round.  He received his cup of coffee in 1990 and didn’t play a whole lot in the Majors through 1991.  Martinez was mediocre (but played a lot more) from 1992-1994, then finally had his breakout season in 1995 (.293/.369/.551).

Joey Cora (second base) was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 1985 in the first round.  Cora didn’t start earning regular playing time until after he’d been traded to the White Sox in 1991.  His numbers weren’t particularly impressive, but he was improving as he played regularly through the 1994 season.  Then, in April of 1995, Cora signed as a free agent with the Mariners.  In spite of what we choose to remember about Little Joey Cora, I think many of us forget just how productive he was as a Mariner.  From 1995 through August of 1998, Cora had a slash line of .293/.355/.406.  He was traded at the August trade deadline in 1998, then abruptly retired to go into coaching after the end of the season.

Mike Blowers (third base) was originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 1984 but did not sign.  He would go on to be drafted three more times before he finally signed with the Montreal Expos in 1986.  He would be traded to the Yankees in August of 1989, then traded to the Mariners in May of 1991.  Blowers originally broke into the Majors with the Yankees in 1989, but he wouldn’t become a starter in the Majors until 1993 with the Mariners.  He would go on to be traded by the Mariners after that historic 1995 season, but would later come back on one-year free agent deals in 1997 and again in 1999 before retiring after that 1999 season.

Ken Griffey Jr. (center field) was originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners with the #1 overall pick in the 1987 draft.  He would become a starter in the 1989 season and would not look back.  In February of 2000, the Mariners would trade him to the Reds.  They brought him back as a free agent in February of 2009 before he retired in June of 2010.

Jay Buhner (right field) was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in January of 1984.  In December of that very same year, Buhner was traded to the Yankees.  Buhner got his cup of coffee with the Yankees in September of 1987, played a bit more in 1988, then was traded at that year’s deadline to the Seattle Mariners for Ken Phelps.  Buhner became an everyday player in 1991 and was a core piece of the Mariners’ offense for the next decade.

Edgar Martinez (designated hitter) signed as an amateur free agent with the Seattle Mariners in December of 1982.  He didn’t break into the Majors until 1987 and didn’t become an everyday player until 1990.  He would go on to become the greatest designated hitter in baseball history.

Randy Johnson (starting pitcher) was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1985 in the second round.  The Big Unit got his cup of coffee in September of 1988, making four starts.  He was traded in May of 1989 to the Seattle Mariners for Mark Langston.  He became an immediate starter for the Mariners and progressively got better until he broke out in 1993, coming in second in the AL Cy Young race.  Johnson would go on to win that award in 1995, leading the Mariners to their best playoff finish in franchise history.  He would go on to be dealt to the Astros at the 1998 trade deadline and never return.

I’ll spare you Tim Belcher‘s long history for the most part:  he was drafted in 1984 and kicked around with four different teams before he signed with the Reds in May of 1995, where he was promptly traded to the Mariners two weeks later without ever throwing a pitch for the Reds that season.  Belcher made 28 starts for the Mariners that season, going 10-12.  He would not be retained by the Mariners beyond 1995.

Chris Bosio (starting pitcher) was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982 in the second round.  He had a good career with the Brewers over 7 seasons, then signed with the Seattle Mariners as a free agent in December of 1992.  In 1993, Bosio pitched the second-ever Mariners no-hitter.  In 1995, Bosio started 31 games and went 10-8.  He hung around to start the 1996 season, struggled mightily, and retired at season’s end.

The Mariners traded for Andy Benes from the San Diego Padres at the July deadline in 1995.  He would go on to make 12 starts down the stretch, going 7-2.  He would sign a free agent deal with St. Louis before the 1996 season and would never be heard from again.

The bullpen was a piece of work, anchored by Bobby Ayala (came over in the Dan Wilson trade in 1993), who appeared in 63 games.  Norm Charlton was originally traded by the Reds to the Mariners prior to the 1993 season, but he would be injured, lose all of the 1994 season to injury, and eventually sign with the Phillies in 1995.  He was released by the Phillies in July of 1995 and signed on with the Mariners four days later.  Jeff Nelson was originally drafted by the Dodgers in 1984, but then was drafted by the Mariners from the Dodgers in something called a “minor league draft” in 1986.  He became a regular reliever in 1992 and was consistently productive thereafter.

That, more or less, is the 1995 Mariners.  Obviously, there were lots of bench players and fill-ins (Rich Amaral & Alex Diaz filling in admirably for an injured Junior), and a lot of players who were tried out as starters in the rotation, but the players I listed comprised the core.  Seven guys brought over in trade, three free agents, and four guys who were drafted by the Mariners (well, three guys and Edgar, who was an amateur free agent and played his entire career under the same organization).

1996 Seattle Mariners

With the base already in place, I shouldn’t have to keep re-hashing the core group that remains.  The first big misstep in what would become a long line of soul-crushing missteps by the organization came on December 7, 1995, when the Mariners traded Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson to the New York Yankees.  In return, they received a starting third baseman in Russ Davis, and a starting pitcher in Sterling Hitchcock.

Davis was the most error-prone third baseman I’ve ever seen.  He was supposed to make up for that with his bat, but in the four years he wore a Mariners uniform, he never surpassed 21 homers in a season, with a Mariners career slash line of .256/.309/.446.  Tino Martinez would go on to have an outstanding career with the Yankees, hitting 175 homers and 180 doubles over the next six seasons.  Jeff Nelson would go on to be a fabulous bullpen presence for the Yankees over the next five seasons, before returning as a free agent to the Mariners prior to the 2001 season.  Sterling Hitchcock, meanwhile, lasted one season with the Mariners (1996) where he sucked.  Then, he was traded to the Padres for Scott Sanders, who also sucked.  Sanders lasted one season with the Mariners (1997) before being traded for two guys who did nothing.  Suffice it to say, the Mariners lost the SHIT out of this trade.

All was not totally lost for this 1996 team, though.  The Mariners signed Paul Sorrento (first base) as a free agent before the season started.  Sorrento was an okay veteran who had played in 7 regular seasons with two different teams before coming to the Kingdome where he would mash the hell out of the ball for the 1996 and 1997 seasons.  We let him go after 1997 and he signed with Tampa Bay where he would finish out his career.

Alex Rodriguez (short stop) was drafted with the #1 overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in 1993.  He got his cup of coffee in 1994, and mostly rode the pine in 1995 before earning the everyday short stop job in 1996.  He would put up MVP-type numbers in this season, yet be denied his rightful honor thanks to the idiots who voted for the MVP award that season (they picked Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers who had a markedly inferior season).  A-Rod would be a Mariners favorite from 1996 through the 2000 season before taking the money and running to the Rangers in 2001.

Rich Amaral (left field) was signed as a free agent before the 1991 season before ever playing a game in the Majors.  Amaral earned a lot of playing time in 1995 after Griffey went down with injury that cost him a majority of the season.  As a reward for doing such a good job, Amaral earned the left field job in 1996.  He would go on to stick around (mostly as a bench player) through the 1998 season before signing as a free agent with the Orioles and ending his career in Baltimore.

So, the ’96 lineup had new additions Sorrento & Davis with holdovers in Amaral, A-Rod, Wilson, Cora, Griffey, Buhner, and Edgar.  Pretty fucking good … until you get to the pitching staff …

Hitchcock became the de facto pitching ace for this team after Randy Johnson went down in May with his back injury.  He would return in August as a reliever and never started a game for the Mariners the rest of the season.

Bob Wolcott was a Mariners draft pick from 1992 in the second round.  He made his first starts in the Majors in 1995 in August and earned himself a playoff roster spot that netted him the start in Game 1 of the ALCS (as the rotation had been spent just trying to get past the Yankees in five games of the ALDS).  From that ALCS victory, Wolcott earned himself a rotation spot in 1996.  He mostly underwhelmed.  He played one more season in Seattle (1997) and was lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the expansion draft of 1997.

Jamie Moyer was drafted back in 1984 by the Chicago Cubs.  He had played in 10 Major League seasons with five different teams (Cubs, Rangers, Cardinals, Orioles, Red Sox) before he was traded by the Red Sox to the Mariners at the 1996 deadline.  Moyer would go on to play 11 years with the Mariners and end up one of the best pitchers in team history.

Terry Mulholland, on the other hand, would NOT go down as one of the best pitchers in team history.  The 1996 Mariners were enjoying unprecedented offensive success, but injuries had throttled their pitching staff.  Mulholland, like Moyer, was a veteran of a million other teams before he was traded to the Mariners at the 1996 deadline.  He came in and did okay, but it would prove to be a fruitless endeavor as the Mariners – while above .500 – failed to make the playoffs.  Mulholland would never pitch for the Mariners beyond this season.

The primary bullpen addition (with Charlton and Ayala leading the way for the most part) was Michael Jackson.  He was another longtime vet who the Mariners brought in on a 1-year deal prior to the 1996 season.  He had pitched with the Mariners early in the 90s and was a quality arm in the bullpen who locked down the 8th inning and didn’t get nearly enough save opportunities.

1997 Seattle Mariners

The batting lineup was almost exactly the same in 1997.  Rich Amaral even enjoyed his usual 89 games of stellar fill-in duty.  The only major change in this year was the tantalizing tease that was Jose Cruz Jr.  He was drafted by the Mariners with the #3 overall pick in the 1995 draft and was brought up by the Mariners in 1997 to start in left field effective May 31st.  In his 49 games, Cruz had 12 homers and 12 doubles.  Along with Griffey and A-Rod, he was looking like another can’t-miss first round prospect who would go on to have a Hall of Fame type career.

Of course, this Mariners team couldn’t afford to live with their Pie in the Sky dreams of future glory; they had to strike NOW, while the iron was hot!  This was a good baseball team, with another massively impressive offense, and little in the way of pitching (especially bullpen pitching).

So, at the trade deadline, the Mariners made the two trades that will forever be a black mark on this organization.  On the same day, the Mariners sent Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek (two minor leaguers with incredible promise) to the Boston Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb.  Slocumb was immediately inserted into the closer’s role because Norm Charlton had officially hit the wall in his career.  The other trade was one Jose Cruz Jr., who was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric.  Both of those two were inserted into the regular bullpen rotation.  Timlin was okay, Spoljaric was a lefty and not that good.  This mishmash of a bullpen, with a surprising resurgence by Bobby Ayala, managed to get the job done enough to get the Mariners into the playoffs, but it was a hefty price to pay that ultimately never did pay off in a World Series Championship as intended.

Lost in the shuffle of the 1997 season was actually one of the better trades in Mariners history.  In October of 1996, the Mariners traded a bunch of scrubs to the Expos for Jeff Fassero.  He fit in quite nicely with our rotation stalwarts of Randy Johnson (back and better than ever from his injury-plagued 1996 season) and Jamie Moyer.  Fassero rounded out our Big Three for the 1997 & 1998 seasons before falling off the cliff in 1999 and being traded away to the Rangers.

The Mariners plugged in some draft picks (Lowe, pre-trade, and Ken Cloude) as well as some veterans (Dennis Martinez, signed as a free agent; and Omar Olivares, who was brought over when the team dealt Scott Sanders to the Tigers) into the back-end of their rotation, but no one really stuck.  For this season or long-term.

1998 Seattle Mariners

The primary addition to the starting lineup was David Segui (first base) who was signed as a free agent.  The team had let Paul Sorrento walk and needed some kind of production.  Segui was a solid, if unspectacular contributor who had a nice year and a half with the Mariners before being traded at the 1999 deadline.

The 1998 Mariners continued their revolving door at left field, with no one of import taking the bull by the horns.

The ’98 Mariners had what amounted to a stable starting rotation, shock of shocks.  After the Big Three, Ken Cloude was granted one of the final two spots.  He was drafted by the Mariners in the sixth round in 1993 and made his first Major League start in 1997.  He would start 30 games in 1998, but his ERA would be over 6 and he would go only 8-10.  Cloude was primarily a bullpen pitcher, with a few spot starts here and there in 1999, then his career would be over.

Grabbing the final rotation spot was veteran Bill Swift.  Swifty was drafted by the Mariners in the first round in 1984, but was traded away in 1991 and bounced around for a while before signing as a free agent in February of 1998.  He would go 11-9 with a 5.85 ERA in 1998 and then he would retire.

The 1998 Mariners were the first team of this era to end the season with a losing record.  I’ll be damned if I know how that’s possible with an offense this stacked, but let’s go ahead and start with Randy Johnson.  This was a contract year for him and he was pretty much blowing it.  He was 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in his 23 starts before the trade deadline.  The Mariners as an organization had balked at the notion of re-signing him to a long-term extension, citing the 1996 season and his back injury as a reason to be cautious.  Tensions grew from there and by the trade deadline, the team knew it wasn’t going to be able to retain him beyond the season.  They felt they had to trade him to get some kind of value back in return.  So, he was dealt to the Astros (where he proceeded to dominate the shit out of the National League with a 10-1 record and a sub-2 ERA) for prospects.

One could also blame the 1998 misfortunes on the bullpen.  They managed only 31 saves as a unit, with Bobby Ayala returning to his absolute nadir (a 1-10 record with a 7.29 ERA and more blown saves – 9 – than regular saves – 8).  Ayala would be traded prior to the 1999 season and we would never have to see his punk-ass again.  Mike Timlin did an admirable job stepping up and doing what he could, but everyone else from Spoljaric to Slocumb to Bob Wells on down all stunk the joint up.  Our five primary bullpen guys went a combined 12-26; take from that what you will.  At least no more major trades were made that could blow up in our faces later.

1999 Seattle Mariners

A bit of a lineup shake-up here, with Joey Cora moving on and being replaced by David Bell (second base) who we received for Cora in a 1998 trade deadline deal with the Indians.  Bell would never wow you with his bat, but he was a solid infield glove man who would go on in subsequent seasons to lock down third base (and give us all a break from Russ Davis’ stone hands).

Of course, in 1999, Davis was still around.  As was Wilson, Segui, A-Rod, Griffey, Buhner, and Martinez.  The left field circus continued with Brian Hunter, who we received in trade from the Tigers for a couple of nobodies.  Hunter stunk at the plate, but stole 44 bases, so whatever.

The real shakedown happened, of course, with the pitching staff.  Freddy Garcia and John Halama, who we received in the Randy Johnson Trade, made their debuts with the organization in 1999.  Garcia, in fact, made his Major League debut with the Mariners.  Garcia was still a little raw as a rookie, but he was rock solid and would quickly go on to be this team’s ace.  Halama was another soft-tossing lefty in the Jamie Moyer mold.  He was okay in 1999 and would go on to be no better than okay going forward.

As I mentioned before, Jeff Fassero fell apart this season and was dealt away.  Gil Meche rounded out the rotation.  He was drafted in the first round in 1996 and immediately made an impression upon his first start that July.  Yes, it was a loss, and yes, his numbers weren’t very good.  But, he showed a live fastball, a wicked curve, and a whole lotta promise.  People were much higher on Meche than they were on Garcia, but either way, this looked like the beginning of a long run of quality starting baseball from our rotation.

The bullpen was re-tooled prior to the 1999 season, with Jose Mesa being signed on as the closer.  He would play two seasons in Seattle and would not be missed when he left.  Jose Paniagua was signed off of waivers in 1998, where he played in 18 games for the Mariners.  He got the bulk of the 8th inning work in 1999 and was a solid, live-arm guy who would never mature into a closer.

These Mariners also suffered through a sub-.500 season, with growing pains in the rotation (Meche, Halama, and Garcia all in their first full seasons) and Fassero completely losing it.  There just wasn’t enough pitching to hold together this team with all its hitting prowess.

2000 Seattle Mariners

While the first great Mariners rebuild came to fruition in the 1995 season, the last great Mariners rebuild reached its apex in 2000 and 2001.

The core players from that 1995 team that remained on the 2000 Mariners were:  Dan Wilson (catcher), Jay Buhner (right field), and Edgar Martinez (designated hitter).  Yes, A-Rod was on that ’95 team, but he was not a regular.  There’s been quite a bit of turnover leading us up to what would be the zenith for this franchise in 2000 and 2001.

John Olerud was a longtime veteran who signed prior to the 2000 season to replace David Segui (who replaced Paul Sorrento, who replaced Tino Martinez).  Olerud finished his career as a starter in a Mariners uniform, seeing his release in the middle of the 2004 crater of a season.  Olerud would finish his career as a part-time player with the Yankees and Red Sox.

Mark McLemore was another longtime veteran who signed prior to the 2000 season to be a utility player.  He found a home as a second baseman and caught fire as a super utility player in 2001, bouncing around from left field to third base to wherever else they needed him to play to give others days off.  McLemore stuck around through the 2003 season before leaving in free agency to play one final year in Oakland before retiring.

Mike Cameron (center field) was originally drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 1991 draft.  He played in all or parts of four seasons with the White Sox before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds in November of 1998 for Paul Konerko.  He started for one season with the Reds before Ken Griffey Jr. demanded to be traded to Cincinnati and only Cincinnati after the 1999 season.  In return, the Mariners received Cameron (because they no longer needed a center fielder, thanks to Griffey being there), Brett Tomko, and two other guys.  Or, I guess you could say the Mariners received Cameron and three other guys, but that’s neither here nor there.

Mariners fans were a little salty about the whole Griffey thing, especially coming on the heels of the whole Randy Johnson thing (which, if you believe certain reports, is what caused Griffey to sour on the organization in the first place, since the Mariners were not taking care of the veterans who brought them all this success).  Mike Cameron helped fans get over Griffey by being a wizard in the field and not a total disaster at the plate.  He was actually quite productive in his four years with the Mariners.  Cameron left for greener pastures after the 2003 season, signing as a free agent with the Mets, but he will always be accepted as a Mariner for Life thanks to his efforts in Seattle.

The starting rotation featued a combination of six guys.  Aaron Sele signed as a free agent before the season and won 17 games.  Paul Abbott originally signed as a free agent with the Mariners before the 1997 season.  He was primarily a reliever with some spot-start duties.  In 2000, he was forced into action and produced admirably.  John Halama and Freddy Garcia (again, from the Randy Johnson trade) got their share of starts.  Jamie Moyer, the longest-tenured holdover from that trade in 1996, had an injury-plagued 2000 season.  And Gil Meche started off the season in the rotation before leaving with a dead arm in early July.  He would not pitch again in the Majors until the 2003 season.

Kaz Sasaki signed as a free agent from Japan prior to the season, immediately started closing, and won the Rookie of the Year award.  He was the first of back-to-back Japanese Rookies of the Year the Mariners would sign.  Sasaki played in four seasons, went to 2 All Star Games, saved 129 games (the franchise leader), and totally fell apart in 2003.  He would retire after that season and never played in the Majors again.

Jose Mesa and Jose Paniagua stuck on as middle relievers, but the biggest addition (arguably) was Arthur Rhodes, who signed as a free agent before the season.  In his initial tenure with the Mariners, across four seasons, he appeared in 276 games (never fewer than 66 appearances in a season) and had a 3.07 ERA.  He was the left-handed reliever we’d been looking for since 1995 and aside from a couple of nasty innings in the 2000 and 2001 American League Championship Series’ against the Yankees, he was arguably the best reliever this team has ever seen.

With that kind of turnover, the Mariners found the mysterious answer to the equation of how to make the playoffs.  The core had dwindled from what it was in 1995, but with pieces like Olerud, Cameron, Garcia, Rhodes, Moyer, and Sasaki, they had managed to climb that mountain once again.

2001 Seattle Mariners

In 2001, it would only get better.  116 wins, unheard of in the modern era.  There wasn’t a tremendous amount of turnover, but there were two very big names involved that would change the organization forever.

First, there was A-Rod accepting a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers.  He would go on to use steroids and become the most hated former Mariner the world has ever known.  In his place, the team started Carlos Guillen at short stop, who was another gem in what was a surprisingly decent trade for Randy Johnson.  How amazing is it that every piece we got back for Randy in 1998 ended up starting for the Mariners by 2001?  I would argue it’s pretty unheard of.

The other big move was signing Ichiro from Japan and making him our everyday right fielder.  By this point in his career, Jay Buhner was simply a part-time player and he graciously gave way to the incoming Ichiro, who set the world on fire in his rookie season, winning the ROY as well as the MVP award.

A little more under the radar was the Bret Boone signing.  We got him for pennies on the dollar and made him our second baseman.  In return, we got a near-MVP season out of him, and a stud second baseman through 2003 before starting his inevitable decline in 2004 and being traded away in the middle of the 2005 season.

Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez were the only two holdovers from that 1995 team now, with David Bell continuing to man third base, and Mark McLemore platooning with Bell at third and with Al Martin in left field.  Al Martin was supposed to be our big deadline deal in July of 2000 to help bolster our outfield hitting.  He did no such thing and was a total bust.

Freddy Garcia finally made that next step as the ace of the staff in 2001.  Aaron Sele was still oddly productive (in the win/loss department, if not in the actual pitching department) as was Paul Abbott.  Jamie Moyer won 20 games to lead the team.  Our rotation was rounded out with Halama and Joel Pineiro, who was a 12th round draft pick by the Mariners in 1997.  Pineiro would earn full time starting duty in 2002, but would never pan out as we’d hoped.

The bullpen was almost exactly the same as in 2000, except we replaced the dud that was Jose Mesa with the newly signed Jeff Nelson, who was still awesome.  Norm Charlton even made a comeback and was somehow good again; I’m telling you, these 2001 Mariners could do no wrong!  Until the playoffs, that is.

2002 Seattle Mariners

The 2002 Mariners traded David Bell prior to the season because they had previously traded for the hot-hitting Jeff Cirillo from the Colorado Rockies for Jose Paniagua and others.  The hot-hitting Jeff Cirillo never showed up, though.  Instead, his nothing-hitting twin brother showed up and sucked my will to live.  Cirillo played two mediocre seasons before being dumped on the Padres prior to the 2004 season for batting donuts.

Other than the Cirillo hubbub, the starting lineup was pretty much intact, with McLemore earning the starting left field job.

The rotation took some hits, with Halama and Abbott stinking up the joint, when they managed to stay healthy.  Moyer, Garcia, and Pineiro locked down the top three spots, with James Baldwin – a veteran free agent signing – totally crapping the bed.  The rest of the starts were spread out over a bunch of different pitchers, no one of note worth mentioning.

Sasaki, Rhodes, and Nelson locked down the best three-man late innings bullpen unit in baseball, with Shigetoshi Hasegawa signing in free agency to make a good bullpen even better (picking up the slack from losing Paniagua).

As I said before, this team would win 93 games, but it actually managed to finish THIRD in the AL West, with Oakland winning 103 games and Anaheim winning 99 and taking the Wild Card.  That’s just a crusher any way you slice it; 93 games in most years would be enough to get you there!  Not in 2002.

2003 Seattle Mariners

After the 2002 season, Lou Pinella left for another opportunity, this time in Tampa, where he made his offseason home.  The Mariners signed on Bob Melvin and tried to keep the train a-rollin’ with most of the same crew attached.

Same infield:  Wilson, Olerud, Boone, Guillen, Cirillo.  Cammy and Ichiro were still here, along with Edgar Martinez.  New addition:  Randy Winn (left field) who was traded to us by Tampa.  Winn played two and a half years with the Mariners, and they were quality seasons for him, but ultimately he’s a forgotten man for a couple reasons.  He came on too late, without a playoff appearance to his name.  Also, let’s face it, we were spoiled as Mariners fans.  We’d been blessed with this cavalcade of elite power hitters and Winn was anything but.  He was a nice piece, but ultimately not enough to push us over the edge into the post-season.

2003 came with it the oddity of having the same five pitchers start all the games that season.  Again, we had Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, and Joel Pineiro.  Gil Meche returned from the wilderness of Injuryland to grab one of the final spots, with Ryan Franklin bringing up the rear.  Franklin was drafted by the Mariners in 1992, but didn’t sign until May of 1993.  He had his cup of coffee in 1999, then didn’t return to the Majors until 2001 out of the bullpen.  He had a few starts in 2002 and must have shown enough in Spring Training to win a job in 2003, because there he was.  Franklin was never what I would call “good” …

For as steady as our starting rotation was, the bullpen was a bit of a mess.  Sasaki became way too hittable and lost his closer’s job.  Rhodes was losing a bit on his fastball and his ERA suffered for it.  Nelson was still rock solid, and Hasegawa was dy-no-mite as the eventual closer replacement.  Julio Mateo was a bullpen regular with the Mariners after signing as an amateur free agent back in 1996 as a 19 year old, as was Rafael Soriano (also signed in 1996 as an amateur, though as a 16 year old).

In 2003, the A’s again won the AL West, though they only bested the Mariners by 3 games, winning 96.  The Mariners were 2 measly games back of Boston for the Wild Card, so once again they were all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The 2004 Mariners, I think seeing the writing on the wall, tried to reload by signing Raul Ibanez, Scott Spiezio, and Rich Aurilia, but it wouldn’t be enough.  Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, and John Olerud all fell apart.  Dan Wilson was getting up there.  And the young pitching core of Garcia, Meche, Pineiro, and Franklin just weren’t panning out the way we’d all hoped.  The 2004 Mariners bottomed out with 63 wins and it was time to start all over again.

The only piece that would stick long term would be Ichiro, as even Jamie Moyer was traded in the middle of 2006 so he could go to a winner before he retired.  It’s been non-stop rebuilding ever since, and nothing thus far has worked for more than a season before falling apart again.  The 2013 Mariners are well on their way to a fourth place finish with the current regime led by Jackie Z on very thin ice.

What will the next great Mariners rebuild look like?  I haven’t a clue, but I doubt it looks very much like the team we’re watching right now.  Here’s to hoping the mojo returns soon, for the sake of my sanity and yours.

2001 Seattle Mariners: The Best Team To Never Reach A World Series

You can find this post, and others like it, in the menu bar at the top, under “Seattle Playoff Futility”.

Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.  – Vince Lombardi

Remember what Vince Lombardi said:  If you lose, you’re out of the family! – Homer Simpson

What the hell’s going on out here?! – Vince Lombardi

In February, 2012, I wrote the first three posts in the series entitled:  Seattle Playoff Futility.  All three were about the Seattle Mariners, as sort of a prelude to the 2012 season.  I had intended on finishing the brief 4-season volume on the Mariners that very same month, but for whatever reason I put it off.  It has continued to lurk in my To Do list of blog posts to write ever since.  The longer I waited, the more daunting it seemed.

I have to somewhat relive that 2001 season again!  I don’t think anybody wants that!

Nevertheless, it must be done.  What better time to do it than now?  So, without further ado:  the very last time the Seattle Mariners reached the playoffs.

Safeco Field opened in July of 1999.  Going into 2001, the Mariners had endured a season and a half in one of the toughest-to-hit-in parks in all of Major League Baseball.  In their first full season, 2000, the Mariners scored the 7th most runs in all of baseball with 907.  To put that in perspective, a decade later in 2010, the Mariners were dead last, scoring 513 runs.

Well, let’s go one better:  in 2001, the Mariners led ALL of Major League Baseball with 927 runs scored.  To put THAT in perspective, since 1900, the team that scored the most runs in a single season was the 1931 New York Yankees with 1,067.  Legitimately, on paper, we’re talking about one of the greatest baseball teams of all time when we’re talking about the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

I mean, the record speaks for itself:  116-46.  It’s just an astounding figure!  Here’s how the record breaks down by month:

  • April:  20-5
  • May:  20-7
  • June:  18-9
  • July:  18-9
  • August:  20-9
  • Sept/Oct:  20-7

The most losses in any given month was 9!  How insane is that when you’re talking about a team that plays every fucking day?

The Mariners played 52 series of baseball in 2001.  Here’s how it broke down:

  • Series Wins:  42 (15 of which were sweeps)
  • Series Ties:  4
  • Series Losses:  6 (with 1 sweep)

So, there’s just a brief overview.  This team was lethally good.  But why?  Well, let’s take a look at the players involved.

It’s been mentioned before, this was the fourth and final Mariners team to make the playoffs.  The first was back in 1995; it was led by the likes of Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner.  In 1997, you still had those guys, plus a player in Alex Rodriguez who was already putting up MVP-type numbers in only his second full season as a starter.  Slowly but surely, that core was chipped away.  After the 1997 season, Jay Buhner stopped being a full-time player.  Whether it was injury or a down-trending performance at the plate, he saw his number of games decline through the rest of his career, ending in a VERY-diminished bench role in 2001, appearing in only 19 games.  The front office was worried about Randy’s back, so they traded him in 1998 instead of giving him a much-deserved contract extension (he would go on to win four Cy Young Awards and a World Series in 2001, but more on that later).  After the 1999 season, seeing how the Mariners treated their superstars, Ken Griffey Jr. demanded a trade to the Cincinnati Reds (he would go on to play in 9 more injury-plagued seasons with the Reds & White Sox, hitting 213 homers and driving in 620 runs, though only 4 of those seasons saw him have over 500 plate appearances).  After the 2000 season, A-Rod signed the (then-) biggest contract in MLB history, 10 years, $252 million (he would go on to win 3 MVP awards and a World Series in 2009, though he will also go down as largely a disappointment and a steroids-cheat).

By 2001, all that was left was Edgar Martinez.  Yet, somehow the Mariners managed to put enough horses around him to create one of the best teams ever.

Mike Cameron came over in the trade for Ken Griffey Jr. (along with three other stiffs, including Head of the Stiff Brigade Brett Tomko) and was an instant sensation.  While he didn’t exactly approach Griffey’s production at the plate, and he had a super-human amount of strikeouts, he also was a freakish athlete in center field, endearing himself with the types of reckless, against-the-wall catches that made Griffey so special.

Of course, just because he wasn’t a Griffey-level stud at the plate doesn’t mean he was a slouch.  He averaged nearly 22 home runs a season in his four years with the Mariners, along with nearly 29 doubles, 27 stolen bases, and 89 runs scored.  So, you know, he wasn’t any kind of 40/40 man or anything, but for a guy in center, that’s more than solid production.

Another big “get” was Bret Boone.  He began his career in Seattle back in the early 90s, then knocked around with the Reds, Braves, and Padres before re-signing with Seattle in 2001.  A one-year deal for a little over $3 million, essentially we were taking a flyer on a guy on the wrong side of 30 to come in and play second base.  This obviously didn’t please the previous second baseman, Mark McLemore, but in the end it worked out for the best.

Which is a fucking all-time understatement.  For our $3 million investment, we got a guy in Bret Boone who hit .331, 37 homers, 37 doubles, slugged .578, scored 118 runs and hit in 141 RBI.  He finished 3rd in the MVP voting (more on that later).  Mind you, this was a guy whose previous highs over a full season were .267 (in 1995), 24 homers (in 1998), .491 slugging percentage (in 1994), 102 runs (in 1999) and 95 RBI (in 1998).  At no point would you ever point to this guy and say, “Yeah, he’s capable of what he did in 2001.”

Of course, knowing what we know about the era he played in, it’s hard not to wonder, but I’m going to save that argument for another time.  In the end, steroids or no steroids, it’s not like they helped us to a World Series or anything.

Boone, starting in 2001, had a 4-year run for the ages before he started to break down.  He really earned that contract extension going into 2002, and he actually lived up to it.  He would average, per season, from 2001-2004:  30 homers, 112 RBI, 34 doubles, 98 runs, .289 batting average, and a .501 slugging percentage.  In 2005, he was done, and shipped off mid-season, but that was a small price to pay for the best second baseman in the game over that stretch.

John Olerud was signed prior to the 2000 season to anchor first base.  He had long been a standout defensively, with a steady bat that always hit for a high average and moderate power.  From 2000 through 2002, nothing changed.  He averaged nearly 20 homers and 40 doubles per season through those three years, with a batting average close to .300 and an on-base percentage close to .400.  He was nobody’s middle-of-the-order hitter, but then again, on this team, you didn’t need him to be.  He would simply get on base any way he could and wait for others to hit him in.  For one of the slowest runners in baseball, he still scored on average 87 runs per year.  In 2003, he started his quick decline into obscurity, but in that sweet spot, there weren’t many guys I’d rather have.

Of course, I’m saving the best for last.  Ichiro Suzuki was signed by the Seattle Mariners on November 18, 2000.  The Mariners paid a little over $13 million to the Orix Blue Wave, then signed Ichiro himself to a 3-year, $14 million deal.  All told, it was a $27 million investment for three years of the best hitter in Japanese baseball history.  At the time, people wondered if the Mariners paid too much.  Knowing what we know now, I’d say that was the steal of the century.

We all know what Ichiro’s numbers are, so I won’t regurgitate them once again.  But, let’s just think about this:  In 2001 we had a guy who was 3rd in MVP voting and we had the actual MVP himself (as well as the Rookie of the Year) in Ichiro Suzuki!  For anyone who ever wondered how we would manage without the likes of Griffey, A-Rod, and Buhner, look no further.  Ichiro, Boone, Olerud, and Cameron joined a still-in-his-prime Edgar Martinez as the backbone of this record-setting offense.  They were supplemented by quality role players like Dan Wilson (still a defensive wizard and not a total black hole behind the plate), Carlos Guillen at short stop (part of the underrated Randy Johnson trade who would go on to be a much more consistent player with Detroit after the Mariners traded gave him away in 2004), David Bell at third (a player I couldn’t stand at the time, but who I have since grown to appreciate for his solid defense, especially after the adventure that was Russ Davis), and Mark McLemore being an every-man who found his career rejuvenated by playing multiple positions, before eventually supplanting Al Martin in left field down the stretch.

Sometimes, things just come together and work out beyond your wildest dreams.  And we haven’t even touched on the pitching side of things!

***

The 2001 Seattle Mariners averaged 5.72 runs per game.  Think about that.  On average, the Mariners could give up 4-5 runs every game and still win!  Suffice it to say, there were some pretty inflated win/loss records out of this starting rotation.

The Big Three consisted of Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele, and Jamie Moyer.  The Chief came over in the Randy Johnson trade and pitched fairly well in his first two seasons in the Majors.  He was rounding into an Ace quite nicely.  In 2000, he took a big step forward, especially in the playoffs, and essentially earned that #1 pitcher role in 2001.  He didn’t disappoint.  A 3.05 ERA over 34 games (with a career-high 238.2 innings pitched), he struck out 163 batters and netted an 18-6 record.

Sele signed as a free agent before the 2000 season after a solid, if unspectacular 2-year stint in Texas.  He had a fastball around 89-90 miles per hour, straight as an arrow, with a solid curve ball and not much else in his arsenal.  He would throw strikes (only 51 walks vs. 114 strikeouts in 2001), eat up innings (215 over 34 appearances), and he would keep an ERA somewhere around 4 (actually 3.60 in 2001).  Not necessarily the guy you want as your #2 starter, but as a 3 or a 4, you’d take him.  And with this offense behind him, Sele posted a 15-5 record and didn’t really hurt us during the regular season.

Moyer was the most tenured pitcher of the bunch, having arrived at the trade deadline in 1996 from the Boston Red Sox.  Moyer played for the Mariners for about a million years and is generally one of the more beloved pitchers in M’s history.  As just about everyone was having a career year (or a career stretch of years), Moyer was no different.  He posted a 3.43 ERA over 33 starts and 209.2 innings, generating a 20-6 record, doing all kinds of Jamie Moyer things with his slow fastball and even slower change up.

So, Big 3.  53-17 record.  But wait!  There’s more!

The 2001 Mariners had Brett Tomko (Griffey Trade) and John Halama (Randy Trade) as their #4 and #5 starters to kick off the season.  Tomko lasted about three starts in the first month before he was stowed away in the bullpen (where he would remain through May before being sent down to Tacoma) in favor of Paul Abbott.  Abbott made his first start on April 28th and didn’t look back.  He finished the season with a 4.25 ERA over 28 appearances, yet he enjoyed (I believe) the most run-support in all of baseball, so his record ended up being an obscene 17-4.

Halama managed to stick in the rotation through the middle of July, but after the All Star Break, Lou opted to go with a different young pitcher in Joel Pineiro.  Pineiro made 11 starts from late July through late September before going back to the bullpen for the playoff run.  Halama and Pineiro combined for a 16-9 record, going to show that even the bottom of the barrel still managed to win more than they lost.

The bullpen was anchored by 2000 Rookie of the Year Kazuhiro Sasaki.  I think we all remember Sasaki as a decent closer, with a nasty forkball, who always (or almost always) seemed to choke in the biggest of games.  Which isn’t really fair, since his three-year run from 2000 through 2002 was one of the best in all of baseball.  In 2001, Kaz saved 45 games, but he blew 7.  In other words, he was no Mariano Rivera, but he was still pretty damn good.

The best relievers, actually, were behind him, in the 7th and 8th innings.  Jeff Nelson and Arthur Rhodes were the epitome of stellar in 2001.  Rhodes posted a 1.72 ERA in 71 appearances, with only 4 blown leads all year.  Nelson posted a 2.76 ERA in 69 appearances, with only 1 blown lead all year.  With these three guys, all the starters REALLY had to do was keep a lead through 6 innings and most of the time that would equal a Mariners victory.

Rounding out the bullpen were guys like Jose Paniagua, who was okay in 60 appearances (after all, you can’t ALWAYS use your three best guys), Norm Charlton, who managed to bounce back with a pretty good season in 44 games of spot relief, and Ryan Franklin, who manned the long relief role for most of the year with adequate results.

I don’t know if this team was built with the intention of winning 116 games, but as things shook out, this team was most certainly built to CRUSH the regular season.

***

There was some amount of good luck on this team, but I wouldn’t by any stretch say they were defined by their luck.  This was a solidly-built roster from top to bottom, with a good mix of old and young.  Everyone fit in their roles and played the hell out of them.

The 2001 Mariners were 26-12 in 1-run games.  Obviously, that’s not a sustainable figure, but it goes a long way in explaining how the Mariners won so many games.  They absolutely beat up on the Angels and Rangers, posting a combined record of 30-9.  As stated above, there was never really a lull with this team.  Their longest losing streak was 4 games.  Their longest winning streak was 15.  Maybe not so obvious was the fact that this team indeed went wire-to-wire.  They had a 0.5 game lead after the first game (over the Angels, who had yet to play a game), then they were tied for first over the subsequent two days (with a 1-1 and a 2-1 record), then they absolutely ran away with this thing.

At the end of April, the Mariners had a 9-game lead in the AL West.  At the end of May, that lead was up to 14 games.  At the end of June, it was a 20-game lead (with a season-high lead of 21-games a few days later).  At the end of July, the lead was still 19 games.  At the end of August, the lead was 17 games as the A’s started their annual late-season push towards glory.

When 9/11 happened, the Mariners were 104-40.  Now, I’m not going to place ALL of the blame for the Mariners not making it to the World Series on 9/11, but let’s just say it was a poorly-timed event for everyone involved (and no, that’s probably certainly NOT the most horrible thing I’ve ever said or written in my life).  Up to that point, the Mariners were winning at a .722 clip.  The Mariners ended their season on a 12-6 run (after an 8-day layoff of sports).  Was the layoff to blame?  Did it give other teams a chance to rest while somehow also stifling our momentum?  I mean, one would think that if rest is good for the Yankees, then odds are it was also good for the Mariners; but, was it more helpful to them in the long run?  We’ll never know, but it’s an argument.

Another argument is the record itself.  116 wins, the most ever in a single season.  That was the prize the Mariners had their eyes on.  Did the pressure to get to 116 catch up to them?  It finally happened, after game 161.  The Seattle Mariners were tied with the 1906 Chicago Cubs, with one game to go to potentially hold the record outright.  In the end, that 162nd game of the season was ultimately a microcosm of the playoffs to come:  a sub-par starting effort, a somewhat pathetic effort from the bats, and a usually stout bullpen arm blowing it in the late innings.  This game had it all, and should’ve given us great pause about this team.

Nevertheless, the team had the record, and with it a new kind of pressure.  If you’re a team that has the most wins in MLB history and you DON’T go to the World Series and win it all, then can you truly be considered a great team?  Or are you just a footnote?

You have to believe that notion was weighing on the minds of everyone on this team.  And that pressure HAS to be what ultimately led to this team’s undoing.

***

The 116-win Mariners were to host the 91-71 Cleveland Indians, while the 95-65 New York Yankees were forced to tangle with the 102-60 Oakland A’s.  Those same A’s who finished the season a mind-boggling 29-4 to lock down the Wild Card.  A rematch of the 2000 ALDS where the A’s took the Yankees to 5-games before finally blowing it.  The Mariners, meanwhile, were embroiled in a rematch of the 1995 ALCS.  Only, this was a very different Indians team.

The 2001 Mariners played the Indians 7 times in the regular season.  Four games in Cleveland in early August, three games in Seattle in late August.  The Mariners were 5-2 in those seven games.  But, if you’re any kind of Mariners fan at all, there is one game between the Indians and the Mariners you will never forget.

Game 111.

Sunday, August 5th, 2001.  The third game of a four-game series, the Mariners had won the first two games with relative ease.  And it looked no different for much of the third.

The game started off innocently enough:  through one inning, no score.  Then, in the top of the 2nd, the Mariners busted out to a 4-0 lead thanks to a few doubles and a well-timed 2-RBI single by Ichiro.  Through two, starter Aaron Sele was cruising:  two hits and a walk, but no runs scored.

Then, things got downright NASTY in the third:  three straight singles to lead off the inning knocked the starter out of the game.  Seven of the next eight batters reached base either by hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, or error (and that lone out turned into an RBI sac fly).  Sele gave up another lone single in the bottom half and after three innings, the score was Mariners 12, Indians 0.

In the bottom of the fourth, Jim Thome hit a two-run home run, but in the top of the fifth, the M’s got two more on a flurry of hits to take a 14-2 lead.  Sele held that lead through the bottom half and at that point the Mariners had a 100% win expectancy.  The score stayed the same until the bottom of the seventh, when shit started hitting the fan.

A solo home run by a young Russell Branyan.  Two quick outs, then a single followed by two walks knocked Sele out of the game.  John Halama came in and immediately gave up a 2-run single before getting out of the jam.  14-5, Mariners.

Bottom of the eighth, leadoff homer by Thome.  14-6, Mariners.  A hit-by-pitch and another homer.  14-8, Mariners.  A groundout and two singles knocked Halama from the game.  Enter:  Norm Charlton.  An RBI double made it 14-9, Mariners.  Charlton ended the damage, then came back for the ninth.

A single, two outs, and a double kicked off the start of the ninth before Charlton was replaced by Jeff Nelson.  Mind you:  14-9, Mariners, one out away from victory, runners on 2nd and 3rd.  Nelson promptly gave up a walk and a 2-RBI single.  14-11, Mariners.  Enter Kaz Sasaki for now what has become a save situation.  A Kenny Lofton single loaded the bases, bringing up Little-O, who cleared the bases with a triple.  Game tied.  An out later and we’re in extras.

At this point, the Mariners haven’t scored a run since the 5th inning.  Ichiro, Edgar, and Olerud had all been replaced, because who would’ve thought that a 12-run lead could be blown so spectacularly?  Of course, the Indians replaced four of their starters, including Juan Gonzalez and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar.

Anyway, the 10th inning came and went without a run scored.  Jose Paniagua came in, got a pop-out, then gave up three consecutive singles to lose us the game in the bottom of the 11th.  15-14, Indians.  One of THE worst games I’ve ever seen in my life.  Just an absolute back-breaker.

So, when we saw that the Indians were going to be our ALDS matchup, you can understand why everyone kept talking about Game 111.  Even though the Mariners did what they did in 2001, winning 116 games, dominating in every facet of the game, there were chinks in the armor that could easily be exposed.  Like, say, in a 5- or 7-game series.

***

Game 1 happened on October 9th.  Ace vs. Ace, Bartolo Colon vs. Freddy Garcia.  Colon was in his 5th season and actually just had a so-so year.  Very up and down.  He was only 14-12 with a 4.09 ERA, but he was clearly the best pitcher they had.  On any given day, he could absolutely shut down an opposing offense.  And, it just so happened October 9th was one of those days.

8 innings, 6 hits, 2 walks, 10 strikeouts, 0 runs.  A Cleveland 5-0 victory to steal game one in Seattle.  Ominous start, to be sure.

However, the Mariners came right back two days later to dominate in a 5-1 affair, with Jamie Moyer out-duelling Chuck Finley.  Moyer went six, giving up 1, and the bullpen went 1-2-3 with Nelson, Rhodes, Sasaki.  The exact blueprint for most 2001 Mariners victories.  The offense only generated 6 hits, but made them all count, with Cammy and Edgar each knocking in 2 RBI apiece.

Game 3 took place on the 13th in Cleveland, with a rookie C.C. Sabathia taking the hill against Seattle’s number three Aaron Sele.  Sabathia won 17 games as a rookie and began his reign of kicking Seattle’s everloving ass every time he took the mound.

Only, this game wasn’t about Sabathia.  He was just okay, going 6 innings, giving up 2 runs, walking 5 and striking out 5.  No, this was about it being the Beginning of the End for Aaron Sele.  He had been pretty steady throughout the year, but what had been a sub-3 ERA going into June was approaching 4 by the end of the year.  In this game, he was a God-damned trainwreck.  He lasted only 2 innings before Lou yanked him out of there in favor of Paul Abbott.  Of course, Abbott was unbelievably worse!  He ended up giving up 8 runs over the next 3 innings!  The cherry on top was Jose Paniagua in the 8th inning.  In one inning of work, he managed to give up FIVE runs!  A 17-2 drubbing like nothing I’ve ever seen.

All of a sudden, the 116-game winners were one game away from elimination, with another game to go in Cleveland:  a rematch of Game 1, where Bartolo Colon torched us.

Things were pretty grim, but fortunately Colon wasn’t the same world-beater.  The Mariners knocked around 11 hits and brought the series back to Seattle.  Edgar was the big hero here with a double and a homer.

Game 5 was a carbon copy of game two, right on down to the brilliance of Moyer and the usage of the Big 3 in the bullpen:  Nelson, Rhodes, Sasaki.  The Mariners would go on to once again face the Yankees in the ALCS; a rematch of 2000 where the Yankees won in six games.

Like in 2000, the A’s once again took the Yankees to a deciding 5th game.  Unlike 2000, where the Yankees and A’s split the first two games in Oakland, in 2001 the A’s swept the first two games IN NEW YORK.  Are you kidding me???

I shit you not.  But, that’s when the Yankees’ pitching decided to flat out dominate.  Mike Mussina spun a 1-0 shutout in game three (going 7, with Rivera getting the 2-inning save).  El Duque, Orlando Hernandez proved what a big-game pitcher he could be by dominating in game four.  And Clemens led off the fifth game where the bullpen really sealed the deal.

***

Game 1 of the ALCS kicked off in Safeco on October 17th.  Andy Pettitte vs. Aaron Sele.  Hold on a second while I pull the gun out of my mouth …

This game was a 4-2 snoozer where the Yankees flat out dominated us.  Pettitte went 8, giving up 1 run off of 3 hits.  Meanwhile, Sele wasn’t terrible.  He only gave up 3 runs in 6 innings, but we just had no chance.  Our offense went AWOL.

Game 2 was also in Seattle, and WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT!  Mike Mussina, dealing once again.  Freddy Garcia gave up 3 runs in the second inning; Mussina gave up 2 runs in the fourth inning (thank you Stan Javier 2-run jack), and that was it for the scoring.  The series went back to New York with the Mariners down 2-0.  10 hits in the first two games for Seattle.  Four runs scored.  Hold on a second while I finish tying this noose …

Game 3 showcased Jamie Moyer vs. El Duque.  GREAT!  Only the guy who murdered us in the ALCS in 2000, what joy!

Except, hold on a second!  The Mariners promptly gave up 2 runs in the bottom of the first, and held that 2-0 score through four, but THEN … POW!  A whole SHITLOAD of runs!  2 in the fifth, 7 in the sixth, 2 in the seventh, 1 in the eighth, 2 in the ninth.  A 14-3 DISMANTLING of the Bronx Bombers!  Where was THIS the first two games?  Ho HO, the offense is BACK, BABY!

Yeah, yeah no.  Mees-sir Superman no here.

Remember Game 4 in 2000, when it was Paul Abbott vs. Roger Clemens in Safeco Field, where Clemens threw probably the greatest post-season game in the history of ever?  Well, guess who the starting pitchers were in Game 4 of 2001.  Would Seattle be able to turn the tables?

Hold on a second while I finish lighting this bundle of dynamite strapped to my chest …

To be fair, Abbott and Clemens each went 5 innings, each giving up 0 runs.  So, there’s that.  In fact, in the top of the 8th, Bret Boone crushed a solo homer to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead.

SIX OUTS!  Six measly fucking outs.  And here comes Arthur Rhodes!  Yes, he was one of many goats (but probably the most high-profile goat) in 2000, but he was also coming off a career-best season!  He was, for all intents and purposes, our very best pitcher in 2001.  And look at THIS!  David Justice!  Remember?  Remember how he killed us in 2000?  Well, what would you say if I told you … that Arthur Rhodes struck his fucking ass out!?!  Because that’s what happened!  Five measly fucking outs!

But, then Bernie Williams decided to come in and become the hero.  Slam.  Homer.  Tie game.  Rhodes got out of it two batters later, but the damage was done.

The M’s went down in order in the top of the 9th, and Lou decided to bring in Sasaki, our closer, even though this wasn’t a save situation.  You know what they say about bringing in closers in non-save situations, don’t you?  You don’t?  Well, essentially, what they say is:  don’t.  Don’t bring in closers in non-save situations.  Unless you want that closer to fuck your shit up but good.

He gave up a 2-run missile to a young Alfonso Soriano (playing second base, remember that?  When he was a second baseman?) with only one out in the 9th and that was the ball game and PLEASE fucking hold on while I finish swallowing this bottle of skull & crossbones poison …

So, I don’t know about y’all, but that was the final straw for me.  Ever since, I have hated-slash-never again trusted either Arthur Rhodes or Kaz Sasaki.  Which probably isn’t fair, because outside of that anomaly of a Game 3 where they scored 14 runs, the offense REALLY screwed the damn pooch here!  Two years in a row!

Game 5 featured Pettitte and Sele again and a bunch of terrible defense and I think you know where this is going.  YEP, you know where this is going:  Sele got torched, the bullpen sucked dick, the offense sucked many bags of dicks, and the Yankees won 12-3.

The all-time winningest team in the regular season … sigh … lost in the ALCS in five games.  One game WORSE than the 2000 Mariners, when all is said and done (who at least took the ALCS to six games).  If you wanted to expend the energy, I GUESS you could call bullshit on the whole 2-3-2 playoff format.  The team with the supposed home-field advantage had to play three straight games in Yankee Stadium a month after 9/11 … but I’m not going to sit here and blame that on the Mariners losing.  Fuck, man, this was a team effort and they would’ve gotten their shit kicked in no matter WHERE they played these games!

The team with the number one offense hit .211.  The team with the best bullpen in the game saw that very same bullpen give up 12 earned runs in 14 innings.  Aaron Sele, who had been, as I said, so steady, went 0-2 and looked miserable doing so.

The only solace I can take away from this crushingest of blows in a long, endless line of crushing blows, is the fact that the New York Yankees lost in the World Series in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, with Mariano Rivera blowing the final game and Randy Johnson winning in relief.  He shared World Series MVP honors with Curt Schilling, and he couldn’t have been more deserving.  The same guy whose back was too fragile to re-sign to a long contract extension (if you even consider four years a “long” time, which was his initial contract with them) was World Series MVP on a team in its fourth year of existence.

The Seattle Mariners, meanwhile, have been around for 36-going-on-37 years.  The Seattle Mariners are one of two teams who have never been to a World Series (the other being the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals).  The Seattle Mariners have not been back to the playoffs since 2001 (thanks to those fucking Moneyball A’s in 2002 and 2003; God I hate Brad Pitt SO MUCH; I’m GLAD YOU FUCKING LOST AT THE END OF THAT SHITTY MOVIE [email protected]!!!2).

Saying So Long To Ichiro

I decided to go to the M’s game last night, figuring it’s probably the last time I’m going to watch Ichiro play this year.  Of course, the M’s go to New York in just over a week … but who knows if I’ll be around a TV with cable in just over a week?

It was strange, to say the least.  Seeing Ichiro in another uniform.  Seeing Ichiro warm up before his at-bat on the wrong side of the field.  Seeing Ichiro do his weird stretching exercises in the outfield while the Mariners were up to bat.

Anyway, I got to give him a Standing O before his first at-bat (much less poignant, I’m sure, than Monday’s Standing O), I got to see him hit a rocket of a double off of Felix, but most importantly, I got to see him do not a whole lot of damage against the Mariners, because obviously I still want the Mariners to win.

And win they did.  Felix wasn’t the Felix we saw ten days prior against the Rangers, but he was still effective.  This is exactly the kind of Felix we saw in 2010 when he won the Cy Young Award.  Seemingly every game with him going 7+ innings, giving up 2 or fewer runs.  When he’s got it, he’s electric; when he’s wild, he still finds a way to be effective (even against the best lineups, like the one the Yankees trot out).  If you’re tired of going to Safeco to watch the Mariners lose, then just start going to Felix games.  You’re bound to be rewarded more often than not.

I’ll have to admit, once Felix was pulled (after hitting three of five batters, starting with a slider that nipped Ichiro on the foot and finishing with a change that broke A-Rod’s hand), I thought we were doomed.  Either, Luetge was going to give up the tying run and this game would go to extras, or Luetge would give up the lead and we would lose in regulation.  Obviously, since I went on a Tuesday, I knew I was sacrificing some sleep before work on Wednesday (where I’m up at 6am); the last thing I wanted to have happen was for the game to go into overtime.

Of course, I didn’t have to worry about that, because Luetge looked from being totally lost to totally in control over the course of a single at-bat.  And, of course, I still did have to worry about that, because Joe Girardi is a God damn son of a bitch!

Seriously?  Freddy Garcia had retired 15 batters in a row when he struck out Brendan Ryan in the 8th.  HIS PITCH COUNT WAS AT FUCKING 89!  Are you KIDDING me?  Girardi is a fucking moron!  He put four different relievers into that 8th inning, playing the lefty-righty-lefty-righty matchups to the fucking extreme, easily costing me an extra fucking half hour … when he could have just left The Chief in there and we all could have gotten home a lot sooner.  The Chief was MOWING us down, I can’t stress that enough!  Junkballer, 88 mph fastballer Freddy Fucking Garcia was the best pitcher in that game last night.  And Girardi had to dick around with him like the New York Douchebag that he is.

I’m naming my bloodshot eyes Joe and Girardi this morning, that’s what I’m trying to say.

Anyway, once we got it into the 9th inning, I was pretty confident we had it in the bag.  Wilhelmsen had about an hour to warm up, so you knew he’d be coming in on fire.  Sure enough, his first fastball was 97 miles per hour.  But, his off-speed stuff really owned the night, as he struck out pinch hitter Russell Martin looking to close off the night.

In spite of the 8th inning (where the M’s could only muster a single run, on a check swing single by Kyle Seager with the bases loaded), I had a good time.  I decided to splurge with $90 seats.  You know what $90 gets you in Safeco?  Behind home plate, two rows behind the Diamond Club.  I was in Row 10, just to the left of home plate (looking at home plate from where I was sitting).  I didn’t realize seats that close were so cheap.  I also didn’t realize how awesome it is to be in the Diamond Club!  Yeah, it’s going to cost you somewhere around $300, but you get unlimited free alcohol, they have a buffet in a little underground room, they have people bringing you food – all of this is free.  You also get parking AND padded seats.  And a bouncer sitting on the steps to keep out the riffraff (no joke, you can’t even walk past Row 8 to take a picture of the field pre-game; and they’ve got a little black light where they check to see if you’ve got your wrist stamp for re-entry).  I’m telling you, if I ever got Diamond Club seats, I would get SO shitfaced …

2000 Seattle Mariners: The Team That Time Forgot

Is it just me, or is this 2000 team one of the more forgettable Mariners teams?  Considering this is only one of FOUR Mariners teams to make the playoffs, I would say that’s a ridiculous statement.  But, you have to admit, it’s easily overshadowed by the other three.  The 1995 team is, of course, the be-all end-all of baseball teams.  The 1997 team still had all that star power (and all of that unresolved promise).  And the 2001 team CLEARLY overshadows the 2000 squad because of its 116 regular season wins (and its 4 post-season wins).

The 2000 team actually had better success than the 2001 team; it lost to the Yankees in 6 games while the 2001 Mariners lost in 5.  But, for whatever reason, the 2000 Mariners feels like a poorly-written, unfunny sequel to a movie that didn’t need to be made in the first place (and the 2000 team came FIRST!).

For those of you who have trouble remembering the 2000 Mariners, I’ll give you a couple of names that will hopefully jog your memory:  Al Martin and Arthur Rhodes (it would be a LONG couple of post-seasons for Mr. Rhodes).

You can’t talk about the 2000 Mariners without first talking about the Oakland A’s.  They were a team on the rise, thanks to Billy Beane and his bullshit.  In 1998, they were a bottom-feeder in the AL West.  In 1999, they leap-frogged the Angels and Mariners to nab a winning record and 2nd place in the AL West.  Maybe we should’ve suspected something there; sure, those ’99 A’s missed out on the Wild Card by 7 games, but clearly they were doing something special down there.  Those 2000 A’s finally figured it all out; not-so-coincidentally, this was Barry Zito’s first Major League season.  And the reign of The Big Three was born.

The 2000 Mariners, much like the 2001 Mariners, were built for the regular season.  We had A-Rod & Edgar in their primes, we had a very-productive John Olerud locking down first base, we had Jay Buhner in the downswing of his career, and we had a nice glut of complementary players to round out our roster.  On the pitching side of things, I don’t think I can say anything about Aaron Sele, Jamie Moyer, Paul Abbott, or John Halama that you don’t already know.  Those were nice players at the time, but there wasn’t an ace amongst ’em.  Freddy Garcia – in his 2nd Major League season after the Randy Johnson trade – could’ve been that guy for us (and, indeed he was in the post-season), but he was still quite young and he ended up missing two months to injury in May & June which had to have set him back some.  We also could’ve had Gil Meche – also in his 2nd Major League season, and starting for us out of Spring Training – be that guy for us, but he ended up losing his season to an arm injury at the end of June.

So, there we were.  Four months of Freddy Garcia and full seasons out of four soft-tossing righties & lefties.  That could easily be made up by a quality bullpen, right?

Well, as chance would have it, there was this 32 year old rookie out of Japan named Kazuhiro Sasaki who – if I’m not mistaken – was Japan’s saves leader at the time of his signing.  Boy did HE show up in the nick of time!  Because the rest of this ‘pen was an absolute BALLSACK!  Of course, it didn’t require much to steal the closer job from Jose Mesa (chickenfucker), but since this was the Mariners, it’s not like we could just cut Joe Table free (not the Mariners:  the cheapest winning franchise in Major League Baseball).  So, of course Mesa got his 66 appearances.  As did Jose Paniagua (who actually wasn’t totally worthless this season), and Arthur Rhodes (who pretty much did what he was supposed to do until the ALCS).

This bullpen was by no means stellar, but they did help us to 91 wins.  91 wins, by the by, was the same number of wins as the Oakland A’s, but apparently they had this crazy tiebreaker known as “Head-to-Head Matchup”.  Since the A’s were 9-4 against the Mariners in the regular season, the A’s never had to play their make-up game, and thus were awarded the AL West title (while the Mariners were awarded the Wild Card).

It could’ve been different!  The Mariners were leading in the AL West by a season-high 7 games after the game on August 11th.  We were 69-47, then proceeded to lose our next 8 games, clinging to a 2-game advantage over the A’s.  In fact, during that stretch, we went 3-15 before we sort of levelled off.  However, never at any point did we lose our lead in the AL West, which is God damned mind-boggling.

We had a 3-game lead over the A’s going into a 4-game series starting on September 21st.  We were 10 games away from clinching!  So, of course the A’s won the first three games to pull to a tie, before the Mariners somehow took that fourth game 3-2.  The A’s had 7 games remaining (against the Angels & Rangers) and went 6-1.  The Mariners had 6 games remaining (against the same teams, in reverse order) and went 4-2.

And THAT, my friends, is how you go from a 3-game lead with 10 games to play, to losing your division by 0.5 games.

The Big, Bad Yankees, meanwhile, had the regular season’s 5th best record (losing 15 of their final 18 regular season games, if you can believe that).  But, they won the AL East and you could easily make the case that, while the Mariners were built for the Regular Season, the Yankees were built for the post-season and were just trying anything in their power to make it in.  The Chicago White Sox ended up having the BEST record in the American League.  One would think, if you were going by record, that the best team would play the worst team in the first round of the playoffs, but MLB has always had this rule about teams in the same division not playing one another.  Ergo, the White Sox were forced to play the Mariners and the A’s had to play the Yankees.

You gotta wonder how things would’ve been different.  For instance, Orlando Hernandez was fucking Mariner kryptonite (as Freddy Garcia was Yankee kryptonite) in that ALCS.  What would’ve happened if we won the AL West, faced the Yankees in the first round, and DIDN’T have to face El Duque twice in the same series?  Hell, what would’ve happened had we won the AL West and actually had Home Field Advantage EVER?  Maybe some of those David Justice extra-base hits would’ve been long flyball outs.

Of course, it could’ve ended with a similar amount of heartbreak.  I don’t think the White Sox were very good in 2000; the A’s would’ve made mincemeat with ’em in a 5-game series.  Remember that 9-4 record the A’s were lording over us; I could’ve easily seen them sweeping us away in that ALCS.

Anyway, as I alluded to, the Mariners beat the White Sox pretty handily in the ALDS, 3 games to 0.

The first game was damned exciting, though.  Freddy Garcia could seemingly do no right, but he left in that 4th inning with the Mariners only down 4-3.  The bullpen put things on lockdown while the Mariner bats finally came alive in the 7th inning.  Bone started us off with a walk, followed by a David Bell double (Bone to third).  Al Martin promptly came up to pinch hit and was worthless.  Mark McLemore, however, walked to load the bases with only one out.  Stan Javier – a solid contributer off the bench – ended up striking out looking.  But, that just meant White Sox Killer Mike Cameron could come in to save the day!

Actually, he just got a single to tie it (David Bell was thrown out at home, but who could fault him for aggressiveness in such a situation), but that carried us into extra innings where in the 10th, back-to-back homers by Edgar and Olerud gave us a 3-run advantage that would seal the deal.

Game 2 was also in Comiskey as the Seattle Mariners Seattle Mariners’d their way to another 3-run victory.  This time, Paul Abbott got the best of Mike Sirotka, and the Mariners’ bullpen was again flawless over 3.1 innings.  As the game was tied 2-2, Buhner hit a solo homer in the 4th, A-Rod scored Rickey Henderson on a groundout (thanks to Rickey’s walk, his sacrifice to 2nd, and his steal of 3rd … just what we brought him onto this team to do) in the 5th, and Cammy hit an RBI single in the 9th.

With Games 3 & potentially 4 in Safeco, and the Mariners having a 2-0 series lead, things never felt better for Mariners fans.  The A’s and Yankees were locked into a grudge match that would surely go all 5 games … what more could you ask for?  Ordinarily, this would be the point where the Mariners would lose their final three games to really twist the knife into the hearts of Mariners fans everywhere.  But, as chance would have it, NOT THIS TIME!

Game 3 was an absolute BEAUT!  That is, if you like low-scoring pitchers’ duels.  Aaron Sele vs. James Baldwin.  Sele went 7.1 innings of 1-run ball, Baldwin went 6 innings of 1-run ball.  Neither were all that impressive, but they managed – for the most part – to keep the offenses off the bases.  It was 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th when Olerud led us off with an infield single that was poorly thrown by the pitcher, which allowed Olerud to scamper over to 2nd base.  Mr. Henderson promptly pinch-ran as Stan Javier bunted him over to third base with 1 out.  David Bell was walked (I want to say intentionally, to set up the double play), which led to Carlos Guillen’s iconic bunt single to score a hard-charging Henderson from third.  Game over!  M’s win!  M’s win!

Granted, it’s not The Double or anything, but don’t forget:  this was only the second time in team history where the Mariners won a playoff series.  Watching that M’s team jump around the field in triumph still gives me chills to this day.

That was October 6th.  The A’s & Yankees did indeed go the full five games, so their series ended on October 8th.  It was truly a back-and-forth affair:  the A’s took Game 1, handling Roger Clemens; the Yankees took the next two, with El Duque continuing his fucking mastery of all things holding bats; the A’s came back to absolutely CRUSH Roger Clemens in Game 4; but it was not to be as the Yankees thumped the A’s in the final game to take the series.

Where did that leave things?  The ALCS started on October 10th.  On the one hand:  fuck, the Yankees have been playing this whole time while the Mariners have been sitting around tugging at their own wieners for four days.  On the other hand:  the Mariners were “rested” while the Yankees were “tired”.  I tend to not buy that crap, because look at it logistically:  both teams have played nearly 170 games that matter (not taking into account a month’s worth of Spring Training games).  “Rested” and “Tired” are the most relative terms you’re ever going to see in the realm of sports.

One thing, in theory, the Mariners had going for them is that they had their starters lined up exactly how they wanted them.  Garcia, Halama (because Moyer was lost for the rest of the post-season to injury), Sele, and if necessary, Abbott.  Meanwhile, the Yankees had to run Denny Neagle out there in Game 1.

Let me just say this about Game 1:  Neagle wasn’t terrible!  He did give up 2 runs and take the loss, but he still got his team into the 6th inning with a chance to win.  Freddy was just that much better, going 6.2 innings of shutout ball.  Our bullpen remained on lockdown, and that was the end of that:  a 2-0 victory in Game 1.

At this point in our Mariners post-season, our bullpen had thrown 14.0 innings across 4 games.  They gave up 0 runs in those four games, all victories.  I would like to keep that in mind as we go forward:  it LOOKED like not only was this team unstoppable, but that this bullpen was getting hot at the right time.

I would also like to point out that while we were working our magic, Ken Griffey Jr. was sitting at his home in Orlando watching us on television.  His Reds ended the season 10 games behind division-winning St. Louis.  Also, Randy Johnson was on his ass in his home, as his Arizona Diamondbacks ended their season 12 games behind the San Francisco Giants.  We were doing ALL of this with smoke & mirrors & A-Rod & Edgar!  This 2000 Mariners team was truly a blessing in disguise.

But, oh how much better they could’ve been.

Remember those two names I told you should jog your memory?  Al Martin was a lot of things – a reserve outfielder, a left-handed bat, a worthless pile of crap – but he was NOTHING if he wasn’t our little Scapegoat.

It wasn’t his fault.  First of all, it’s not like we gave up some studs to bring him in here (in other words, this wasn’t Woody Woodward in the 1997 season trying to bolster a nothing bullpen).  We traded John Mabry (who I hated anyway) and Tom Davey (who I couldn’t pick out of a lineup if you offered me a million dollars) at the Trade Deadline to the Padres to get him.  For the Padres, in 93 games, he hit .306 with decent power (13 doubles, 11 homers).  Could a guy like that help us out from the left side of the plate in Safeco?  Sure, why not?  Did he?  His numbers with the Mariners:

42 games, .231 average, 2 doubles, 4 homers, 31 strikeouts, .678 OPS.

Those are GREAT numbers, if you’re talking about the 2010 and 2011 Mariners (well, not great, but at least they blend in nicely), but not for the 2000 Mariners who REALLY needed a big bat to pull them through the dog days and into the playoffs.

So, yeah, Al Martin was a scapegoat because he was terrible in a Mariners uniform, but he was also a scapegoat for the organization’s front office shortcomings.

It’s difficult to say who’s more at fault:  the owners for not opening up their wallets at the trade deadline to let Gillick trade for someone of quality; or Gillick himself for being so God damned unwilling to trade any of our top-tier prospect talent.  I’ll tell you this much:  we could’ve gotten a fucking king’s ransom had we traded guys like Gil Meche (before he went down with injury), Joel Pineiro, or Ryan Anderson.

Now, would the 2000 Steven A. Taylor have flipped his shit at the thought of trading our future like that?  Abso-fucking-lutely!  That’s simply because I saw how our trades back in 1997 were working out so well for other teams!  If we didn’t screw the damn pooch back then, maybe we would’ve been more willing in 2000 to trade top prospects for top talent!  The Steven A. Taylor with hindsight on his side can clearly see we were a few pieces away from winning it all in both 2000 and 2001.  Maybe one of those guys nets us a bonafide Number 1 starter to go along with Garcia.  Maybe another one of those guys gets us the kind of bat we needed down the stretch to put us over the top.  MAYBE we also get some bullpen relief in the form of a left-hander who won’t implode at the first sight of pinstripes!

Of course, while we’re playing the What If game, what if this team hadn’t been so stingy and had decided to keep Randy Johnson as he was entering the Cy Young bonanza phase of his career with the Diamondbacks?  What if by this small gesture, Ken Griffey Jr. wouldn’t have thought so poorly of the organization that he forced his trade to the Reds (because, I’m telling you, don’t believe that crap about him wanting to be closer to his family; he saw this team selling off its best assets – Randy, Tino, Jeff Nelson, etc. – and getting next-to-nothing back in return)?  Wouldn’t Randy and Griffey (and Tino and Nelson) have been AMAZING on this 2000 team?

Everyone likes to look back on the 2000 & 2001 teams as the embodiment of “Fuck You” to greedy assholes like Griffey, Randy & A-Rod.  But, if this Mariners team had been willing to take care of its stars, maybe these 2000 & 2001 teams would’ve been championship-winning.

But, whatever.  You can’t change the past.  And, as of October 11, 2000, the Mariners had a 1-0 ALCS lead over the Yankees.  And, in Game 2, these same Mariners had a 1-0 lead over those Yankees going into the bottom of the 8th inning.  This was 1995 all over again!  The Yankees couldn’t break the spell we had over them!  A 2-0 series lead going back to Safeco was 6 outs away!

Enter Arthur Rhodes.  David Justice leads off with a double.  Bernie Williams follows with a game-tying RBI single.  It might as well have been two pitches; before we could blink, the game was tied.  And it was all downhill from there.  Tino Martinez singles, Jorge Posada singles in Williams for the 2-1 lead.  Paul O’Neill hits a deep fly to score Tino.  1 out.  3-1 Yankees.

Enter Jose Mesa.  Luis Sojo singles, Posada is thrown out trying to steal home.  2 outs, still 3-1 Yankees.  Jose Vizcaino then doubled to score Sojo.  Then, a passed ball moves Vizcaino over to 3rd before he’s scored by a Chuck Knoblauch single.  Derek Jeter jacks a home run to make it 7-1 Yankees before David Justice – who led off the inning – mercifully flew out to center.

Just like that, the demons had been slain.  The Yankees – behind 8 strong innings from El Duque (who would’ve been their third or fourth starter had their rotation been set properly) – took back control of the series.  Yes, it was still tied 1-1, but you couldn’t help but think that this 8th inning implosion was the straw breaking the camel’s back on our season.

Game 3 was just a crusher.  An 8-2 defeat behind Aaron Sele’s Turning Back Into A Pumpkin Act.  He went 4 innings, gave up 4 runs (off of 9 hits, two of which were home runs), and our bullpen gave up the other 4 runs as it too found the clock had struck midnight.

Game 4 is where we needed to right the ship.  Unfortunately, we ran into the buzzsaw that was Roger Clemens at the height of his alleged steroids prime.  He tossed what has stood as one of the very finest post-season performances of any pitcher in Major League Baseball history.  9 innings, 1 hit (thank you Al Martin … ow, my pride), 2 walks, and 15 strikeouts.

I don’t even know what to say.  As I sit here right now, I’m impossibly angry and depressed all at the same time, and this was over 11 years ago!  Fucking Roger Piece Of Shit Clemens.  I’ll never forget how I felt on that night because I still feel that way to this day.  This was the same feeling I had back in 1996 when the Sonics lost Game 3 in the Finals to the Bulls to go down 0-3 in the series.  You’re SO CLOSE to what you want more than anything else in the world, but there’s this thing called Mount Everest standing there in your way.

The Mariners were down 3-1 in the series, losers of three straight including two at home.  The final home game took place the very next day and all I can say is thank Christ for Freddy Garcia (or, more accurately, thank Christ for Denny Neagle).  We won that game 5-2 in a very Mariners-type of fashion.  Our bullpen returned to fight the good fight, giving up 0 runs over the final 4 innings.  And we got some timely hitting out of our best hitters (A-Rod, Edgar & Olerud).  Nevertheless, you couldn’t help but feel that doom was right around the corner.

Game 6, two days later, in Yankee Stadium.  Once again, we had to face El Duque.  THIS time, however, our bats came to play.  Unfortunately, this time, so did theirs.

We jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to back-to-back RBI doubles in the first inning by A-Rod & Edgar.  The lead was extended to 4-0 thanks to a 2-run bomb off the bat of Carlos Guillen in the 4th.  Hey HEY!  This isn’t so bad!  Maybe we WILL see a 7th game!  Halama is coasting, our offense is on fire, El Duque is showing his age (what was it, like 50?).

Of course, promptly in the bottom of the 4th, Halama gave them three runs right back before he was relieved by Brett Tomko (he thinks he’s people).  This score stood for a while.  It was nail-biting time, to be sure, but there was still a chance.  9 outs away from a Game 7.

Bottom of the 7th inning.  Jose Paniagua relieves a surprisingly-effective Tomko.  He immediately gives up a single, then a sacrifice bunt, then another single.  1 out, runners on the corners, Mariners hanging onto a 4-3 lead.  Lou Pinella comes out of the dugout & points towards the bullpen with his left arm.

Enter Arthur Rhodes.  Boy, doesn’t THIS sound familiar?

Annnnnnnd:  David Justice, 3-run homer.  Fuck.  A single, double, intentional walk, and 2-RBI single later, he’s replaced by Jose Mesa (is this a re-run?  Where’s the TV Guide?!).  Joe Table let another run slide across home plate and there you have it.  A tailor-made 6-run inning late in the game for the fucking Yankees.

The Mariners managed to make it a little interesting in the top of the 8th with a solo homer by A-Rod, followed by a 2-RBI double by McLemore, but Mariano Rivera was in there, and it was shut-down time.  In the top of the 9th, the Mariners had a single by A-Rod to put the tying run at the plate in Edgar Martinez, but this wasn’t 1995 and this wasn’t Jack McDowell on the mound.  A 6-3 put-out ended the game in regulation.

A 6-3 put-out ended our season.

We’d come so far, we played so well, but a couple of monster innings punctuated by David Justice facing Arthur Rhodes sealed our fate.  That’s all it takes.  Sometimes, it’s just that one small factor that dictates your entire season.

The Mariners would come back bigger and beefier than ever the following season, but as both you and I know, the results were ultimately the same.  Ending in humiliating defeat, as so many other Seattle playoff seasons have ended.

All Time Mariners Greats, Part II – The Pitchers

I kinda lollygagged on finishing this post, but here’s Part I for reference.

Just as the Starting 9 was pretty easy, so is the Starting 5 in the pitching realm.  Here they are, in order:

  1. Randy Johnson
  2. Felix Hernandez
  3. Jamie Moyer
  4. Freddy Garcia
  5. Mark Langston

My initial draft had Cliff Lee in there as the 5th starter, but REALLY that’s kinda cheating.  Nevertheless, if the rules are:  must have been a Mariner at one time, then why WOULDN’T I go with Cliff Lee’s two months?  They were a GREAT two months!  But, I’m going to be reasonable on this one.

I like this rotation mostly because it shakes out with a lefty-righty-lefty rotation, which I guess most managers find important.  I also like it because, look at it!  Randy in his prime, Felix in his prime, Jamie in his prime, Freddy in his prime, Langston in his prime.  Granted, those last two names aren’t all THAT impressive – if you compare them to some other organization’s All Time Greats – but in a 5-game series, I’ll take what I’ve got here all day long.

In lieu of going on and on about how much I like these guys, I’ll just start listing numbers until you’re bored out of your mind.

Randy Johnson – 10 years, 274 games, 266 games started, 130-74 record, 3.42 ERA, 51 complete games, 19 shutouts, 2 saves, 2,162 strikeouts, 10.6 K/9IP, 5 All Star Games, 1 Cy Young Award.

Felix Hernandez – 7 years (and counting), 205 games started, 85-67 record, 3.24 ERA, 18 complete games, 4 shutouts, 1,264 strikeouts, 8.2 K/9IP, 2 All Star Games, 1 Cy Young Award.

Jamie Moyer – 11 years, 324 games, 323 games started, 145-87 record, 3.97 ERA, 20 complete games, 6 shutouts, 1,239 strikeouts, 5.3 K/9IP, 1 All Star Game.

Freddy Garcia – 6 years, 170 games, 169 games started, 76-50 record, 3.89 ERA, 9 complete games, 4 shutouts, 819 strikeouts, 6.7 K/9IP, 2 All Star Games, came in 2nd in Rookie of the Year balloting in 1999.

Mark Langston – 6 years, 176 games, 173 games started, 74-67 record, 4.01 ERA, 41 complete games, 9 shutouts, 1,078 strikeouts, 8.1 K/9IP, 1 All Star Game, came in 2nd in Rookie of the Year balloting in 1984, won 2 Gold Gloves.

And, fuck it, for good measure, my 6th starter:

Cliff Lee – 2 months (with an extra month on the DL), 13 games started, 8-3 record, 2.34 ERA, 5 complete games, 1 shutout, 89 strikeouts, 7.7 K/9IP, 1 All Star Game (traded to Rangers before the game).

Now, where things have really screwed me here are the relievers.  I’ll start with the list and I’ll tell you why I did it as such.

Closer – J.J. Putz
8th Inning Set-Up (Righty) – Jeff Nelson
7th/8th Inning Set-Up (Lefty) – Arthur Rhodes
7th Inning Set-Up (Righty) – Mike Jackson
Other – Brandon League

So, the main reason why I didn’t pick the All-Time Mariners leader in saves for my closer (Kaz Sasaki) is because I could never STAND that guy (Kaz Sasaki).  That guy was a junk artist with one good pitch!  But, when that pitch is offset by a 90 mile per hour fastball with no movement, essentially you’re looking at a Blown Save waiting to happen.  He had three good years (out of four total), all three of those good years ended without a World Series title (or, shit, even an APPEARANCE), and that fourth year was some of the worst pitching I’ve ever seen.  So, no, to hell with Sasaki!  J.J. Putz is my guy!

Putz wasn’t quite the guy who replaced our greatest closer ever closer with the most saves, but he replaced the guy who replaced the guy.  Easy Eddie Guardado was the meat in that sandwich, and what all three of those pitchers had in common is all three had great forkballs.  Easy Eddie taught his to J.J. Putz, and J.J. Putz turned around and ran with it.

Putz had the single greatest year a closer has ever had when he absolutely OBLITERATED the American League in 2007:  68 games, 40 saves, 82 strikeouts vs. 13 walks, 37 hits in 71.2 innings pitched, 1.38 ERA, 0.698 WHIP, 10.3 K/9IP, and only 2 blown saves.

And, let’s face it, Putz’s career with the Mariners wasn’t too shabby overall.  He’s 2nd in saves with 101 and his career M’s ERA was just a few hairs over 3.  He blew 24 saves in 125 opportunities for an 81% save percentage.  Granted, Sasaki’s save percentage was 85%, but two things:  first, that percentage went down every year (as he continued to lose MPH on his fastball); and second – this is more of a perception than actual fact – it just SEEMED like Sasaki blew more big games.  Granted, he was involved in more big games, but regardless:  he didn’t get the job done in my book.

Jeff Nelson is the obvious 8th Inning guy for us.  He was absolutely BRILLIANT as a Mariner … and then we foolishly traded him away in a cost-cutting measure to the Yankees because – surprise surprise – the Mariners’ ownership is a piece of shit and always has been.

Arthur Rhodes is the obvious lefty specialist for us, even though all of my memories of him involve giving up home runs to those fucking Yankees in back-to-back ALCS seasons (2000 & 2001).  Still, he was a horse, and I argue that if we didn’t over-work him so bad those years, he wouldn’t have broken down at the end (72 games in 2000, 71 games in 2001).

I don’t know if Mike Jackson was as obvious, but I always liked him.  The Mariners had him in the late 80s/early 90s and let him go, then they got him back in 1996 and he was the ONLY good reliever on a team that was a healthy Randy Johnson away from going back to the playoffs (that 1996 team is my personal favorite, by the way, even though they underachieved something fierce; 1995 was when I found the Mariners, 1996 was when I became obsessed).

As for my final reliever, this is the one that really dogged me.  I didn’t want to pick a lefty just to have another lefty, I didn’t want to pick a closer just to pick a closer, and I didn’t want to pick a reliever who just managed to stick around with the Mariners for a bunch of years.  I eliminated Mike Schooler because he really only had a couple good years.  Same thing with Shigetoshi Hasegawa.  Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala can eat my fucking asshole.  And while Mike Timlin had a season and a half of some pretty good baseball, he’s still and will forever be associated with one of the more unpopular trades in Mariners history.

Then, I thought about Brandon League.  Why NOT Brandon League?  He already stands at Number 9 on the Mariners’ all time saves list (to show you how pathetic that stat has been for the Mariners over the years) and he could quite possibly climb into the Top 5 before he’s traded for prospects at the Trade Deadline later this summer.  He’s got wicked-good stuff (a plus fastball with movement, and a plus out-pitch in his split finger), and if we’re only asking him to get a few 7th inning outs every few days, what’s the harm?

So, League is my final reliever (not counting Cliff Lee, who’s my long man), and anyone who disagrees can bite me.

In conclusion, here’s my 25-man roster in all its Mariners glory:

  1. Ken Griffey Jr.
  2. Edgar Martinez
  3. Randy Johnson
  4. Ichiro
  5. Felix Hernandez
  6. Jamie Moyer
  7. Alex Rodriguez
  8. Alvin Davis
  9. Jay Buhner
  10. Dan Wilson
  11. J.J. Putz
  12. Freddy Garcia
  13. Adrian Beltre
  14. Bret Boone
  15. Jeff Nelson
  16. Arthur Rhodes
  17. Mark Langston
  18. Mike Jackson
  19. Mike Cameron
  20. Raul Ibanez
  21. Cliff Lee
  22. Mark McLemore
  23. Omar Vizquel
  24. Brandon League
  25. Kenji Johjima

Led by Manager Lou Pinella, obviously.