The Long Shadow of the Randy Johnson Trade

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

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 EATADICKANDDIEYOUFUCKSBLARGLFLARGLMARGLESPARGLE@!!!2).

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.

1997 Seattle Mariners: A Wasteland Of Unfulfilled Promise

The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes – Benjamin Disraeli

I don’t know who Benjamin Disraeli is, but I happened upon that quote just now and thought it perfectly encapsulates every halfway decent, contending Mariners team there’s ever been (and I thought it was a just pretentious-enough way to start a post like this).

The Seattle Mariners had some wildly talented teams between 1995 and 2003, but they were never SUCCESSFUL because they never took advantage of the opportunities they created.  The 1997 team is a great example.

You might be able to argue (and I might be willing to believe) that the 1995 Mariners – while sickeningly talented – were too raw and inexperienced to succeed in their first brush with greatness.  But, with this 1997 team, there was just no excuse!

The 1997 Mariners were like the 1995 Mariners on steroids (pun somewhat intended).  This team led the league with 925 runs scored, they broke the Major League record with 264 home runs, AND they seemingly shored up their starting pitching woes by bringing in a couple of veteran starters who were more-than-capable while our veterans in 1995 ultimately weren’t.

Before I get into the pitching, would you LOOK at this offense?

Ken Griffey Jr. – 56 homers, 34 doubles, 147 RBI, 125 runs scored, 1.028 OPS
Edgar Martinez – 28 homers, 35 doubles, 108 RBI, 104 runs scored, 1.009 OPS
Jay Buhner – 40 homers, 18 doubles, 109 RBI, 104 runs scored, .889 OPS
Alex Rodriguez – 23 homers, 40 doubles, 84 RBI, 100 runs scored, .846 OPS

I mean, it’s just up and down the damn lineup!  Anyone remember Paul Sorrento?  Even HE had 31 homers and 19 doubles!  Not counting left field (which was a wasteland of stop-gaps), 7 of our 8 regular hitters had an OPS over .800 (the lone guy under .800 was Dan Wilson, who in 1997 had himself 15 homes and 31 doubles)!  To put that in perspective, the 2011 Mariners only had one guy (Justin Smoak) who played in over 100 games have an OPS over .700!  Ruminate on THAT and tell me it doesn’t make you sick!  Five guys in 1997 scored over 100 runs each!  Three guys in 2011 scored over 50 runs each!

I could go on and on.  The point is, that 1997 lineup was fucking loaded like you wouldn’t believe.  No major injuries, no major slumps.  Just power, power, power til the cows came home.

On the pitching side, we had a legitimate Big Three going.  Randy Johnson bounced back from his lost 1996 season with a 20-4 record in 30 starts; good for 2nd in the Cy Young to Roger Clemons in spite of these numbers:  2.28 ERA, 213 innings pitched, 291 strikeouts, (12.3 K/9IP).  The team was 22-8 in his starts.  In those 6 no-decisions, 5 of them were Quality Starts that either got blown by the bullpen, or were shot by late-blossoming offense.  Either way, that’s pretty amazing (to look at Roger Clemons’ roided-out numbers from that year is an easy way to burst a blood vessel in my brain, so I’m not even going to go there).

Backing up The Big Unit, we had Jamie Moyer in his first full season as a Mariner (we traded for him at the deadline in 1996 for Darren Bragg – who? – exactly).  Moyer only went out and posted a 17-5 record with a 3.86 ERA.  No big deal.  And, as a legitimate third starter, we had Jeff Fassero, who we acquired from Montreal before the season for a big ol’ bag of nothing (admittedly, one of our more successful trades, until he fell apart in the 1999 season and we had to unload him).  Fassero ended up 16-9 with a 3.61 ERA.

Between our Big Three, they were 53-18.  The rest of the Mariners’ pitchers that year gave us a 37-54.  And boy did they earn every one of those 54 losses!

The 1997 season will always be remembered for one thing:  The Trade Deadline.  Specifically:  Jose Cruz Jr. for Mike Timlin & Paul Spoljaric, and Derek Lowe & Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb.  Not only were these trades two of the least popular (losing Cruz Jr. at the time, and losing Lowe & Varitek retroactively when we realized how great they’d become) and least successful, but you could argue that they didn’t make one lick of difference down the stretch.  All three were pretty pisspoor; and say what you will about Slocumb’s 10 saves in those final two months, I’ll remind you that he managed four losses in his short stint with us.

But, that goes to show you the absolute wreckage we were throwing out there late in games.  Norm Charlton was 3-8 with a 7+ ERA and was pretty much done for his career (and HE appeared in 71 games that season!).  Bobby Ayala was surprisingly effective with a sub-4 ERA, but he was a timebomb waiting to happen (and not in a good way).  We were throwing guys out there like Edwin Hurtado, Scott Sanders, Bob Wells, and Greg McCarthy … each limp dick worse than the last.  I’m telling you, I would’ve sold my SOUL for a repeat of our 1995 bullpen performance.  Saying nothing of what we would eventually accumulate at the turn of the century.

But, like I said, it didn’t really matter, because by the end of the season we were the best team in the AL West.  With THAT offense?  Oh yeah, you could’ve thrown six Steven A. Taylors out there and that team would’ve won 90 games.  I would lament the fact that we didn’t have shit at the back-end of our rotation, trying out guys like Bob Wolcott (until he was finally shut down come August for being totally worthless), Omar Olivares (in another deal that totally and completely backfired for this team), and Scott Sanders (who we got from San Diego for Sterling Hitchcock – who we got with Russ Davis for Tino Martinez & Jeff Nelson … think that 1997 team could’ve used Jeff Nelson?).  But, the truth of the matter is, the back end of our rotation isn’t why the 1997 Mariners ended up failing.  It never got to that point.

Even though the Mariners had the 2nd best record among the division winners, we got stuck playing the Number 1 seed Baltimore Orioles.  The Yankees, as it turned out, were 2 games worse than the Orioles, but they were the Wild Card and SHOULD have been the 4th seed.  The Cleveland Indians were the other division winner, but they had the worst record of them all, and by all rights should’ve been playing the Orioles, but that’s neither here nor there.  Leave it to Major League baseball to have a stupid rule that predetermines the playoff seeding (1997 would be the final year they did this, because DUH).

The Mariners won the division by beating the California Anaheim Angels on September 23rd, at a game – as chance would have it – that I attended.  I still have the scorecard and everything.  When Heathcliff Slocumb notched that final out, the Kingdome erupted like I’ve never heard it before.  The Mariners, after a year in the wilderness, were going BACK to the playoffs.  The Orioles, on the other hand, didn’t win their division until the 161st game of the season.  I don’t know if it made a lick of difference, but at least THIS time the Mariners would be able to set up their rotation so Randy Johnson would go twice in a five-game series (as opposed to 1995 where he started Game 3 and had to come in during Game 5 in an emergency relief situation).

The first game would be critical.  It was at home (the first two being at home before a theoretical three on the road), and our best guy was taking the mound.  So, of course the Mariners went up against the buzzsaw that was Mike Mussina.  He went seven strong innings, striking out 9 and giving up only 2 harmless runs.  The Big Unit, meanwhile, was very un-Unit like.  He got smacked around to the tune of 5 innings, 5 runs, 4 walks, and only 3 strikeouts.  The Orioles scored 8 runs in the 5th and 6th innings, with Mike Timlin & Paul Spoljaric taking the brunt of the punishment in the latter of the two innings.

The Mariners offense didn’t show up whatsoever.  7 total hits – 3 of them solo home runs – spread out over 5 innings.  Griffey was 0 for 4, Edgar was 1 for 4 … it was just a bad all-around effort as the Mariners lost 9-3.

With that turd behind us, Game 2 was now a Must Win.  Jamie Moyer had been solid all season, Scott Erickson was nothing to write home about.  So what happened?  Of COURSE the Mariners lost, again 9-3!  Moyer couldn’t even get through five innings, giving up 3 runs, and Bobby Ayala showed everyone why he was the most hated man in Seattle sports by getting drilled for the other 6 runs (in 1.1 innings).

And, once again, the Mariners’ offense was shut down.  9 hits, 7 left on base, 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position … just a BRUTAL stretch of games for the team with THE best offense in all of baseball.  AT HOME!

Which makes it a God damned miracle that the Mariners won game 3 at all.  At the time, I figured we were destined for a sweep.  I thought, of the three, Jeff Fassero was the LEAST likely to pull a game out.  But, he turned in quite the gutty performance:  136 pitches over 8 innings (because, seriously, would YOU trust that bullpen over a guy throwing that many pitches?), 1 earned run, 4 walks, but only 3 hits.  He kept them off-balance all game.  In fact, Lou left Fassero in there to start the 9th, but he walked a guy, which led to Heathcliff Slocumb coming in to make things interesting.

Fortunately for the M’s, they scored 2 in the top half of the 9th (thanks to back-to-back solo homers by Buhner and the red-hot Paul Sorrento) to pad their lead to 4-0.  So, when the Orioles bashed Slocumb around for two runs (one of them belonging to Fassero), it wasn’t a big deal.

FINALLY, the bats came out.  Granted, the Mariners only scored the 4 runs in their 4-2 victory, but they knocked Jimmy Key around for 8 hits in 4.2 innings.  We could’ve had a lot more (again, we were poor with runners in scoring position, only 1 for 7), but I wasn’t about to complain.  A win is a win, and THAT win meant that we’d see Randy Johnson again.

Mariners fans had opportunity to hope.  Yeah, we were down 2-1 in the series, with two more to be played in Baltimore.  But, we had The Big Unit on the hill again; you had to figure he’d bounce back from that poor effort in Game 1.  AND, you had to figure this offense was primed for a huge game.  We’d only scored 10 runs in the first three games; who’s to say we couldn’t score 10 in that fourth game alone?

Who’s to say?  I believe Mike Mussina was to say.  Once again, he shut us the fuck down, going 7 innings and giving up only 1 run.  Randy went the complete game in defeat, but it was to no avail as the Mariners lost 3-1.

This game was a clunker any way you slice it.  The Orioles jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first, the Mariners got one back on a solo Edgar Martinez home run, the Orioles added another run in the 6th, and that was that.  The Mariners didn’t even get a hit after that 2nd inning!  That’s how bad this potent offense was in this deciding game!  The Orioles combined to give up 2 hits and 4 walks!

You get a big ol’ gold star if you knew that Rob Ducey was the other Mariner with a hit in that ballgame.

The Mariners as a team batted .218 with 11 runs scored and only 11 extra base hits.  This is a team that batted .280 in the regular season with 597 extra base hits (an average of over three and a half per game).

You kinda knew that the pitching would be suspect.  I don’t think anyone saw Randy Johnson’s Game 1 coming, but you figured with that bullpen, runs would NEED to be scored.  And when they didn’t come, this team had no answers.

I hate thinking about the What If’s, but I’ll be damned if they’re not there.  What If we played the Yankees instead of the Orioles?  Some teams are just a BAD matchup for you, and the Orioles were that for us.  The Yankees’ pitching wasn’t NEARLY as good as Baltimore’s that year.  Plus, with that 1995 meltdown still dogging them, you had to wonder if maybe the Mariners were a bad matchup for THEM.  Granted, had we beaten the Yankees, we would’ve ran headfirst into another great Indians team, but at least we could’ve scored some fucking runs on them!

The ultimate What If simply lies in the fact that the Mariners had such tremendous talent on that team.  How do you have that many superstars (A-Rod, Griffey, Randy, Edgar) and lose in the first round in four games?  How is that POSSIBLE?  Three guaranteed Hall of Famers and another borderline!  These mid-90s teams were like the 1920s Yankees for Seattle fans!  Every major player on that team will always be remembered fondly.  Every major player either has been or will be publicly celebrated as a hero.  And we sunk faster than a block of cement being hurled into a lake.

That 1997 team was it.  The ’98 Mariners – while still highly talented on offense – ended up third in the AL West.  That was the same year they traded a disgruntled Randy Johnson because we wouldn’t give him the contract extension he so richly deserved.  The ’99 Mariners were again insanely good on offense, but Jeff Fassero fell apart, John Halama was worthless, and some of the other young starters never matured into anything you could use on a Major League diamond.  After that, they traded Griffey, Buhner was just about done, and they had officially built the team around a guy in A-Rod who would leave for Texas in another year.

1997 was the end of an era for this Mariners team.  Granted, they would make it back to the playoffs in 2000, but they were hardly the same team.  1997 will always be remembered as a damn waste, and nothing more.  A damn waste of raw, unrivalled ability, the likes of which we will never see on this team ever again.

A Paragraph With The Mariners – 107

Friday’s game was pretty impressive.  Not only did we win (which in and of itself is a pretty rare and amazing feat nowadays), but we won by a whopping 6 runs!  AND we did it off of our mortal enemy, Zack Greinke, who I’m pretty sure until this weekend hadn’t given up a run to us in the last two seasons.  Well!  On Friday we bent him over and smacked that ass to the tune of 6 earned runs in 7 innings, including a home run by one Ryan Langerhans, who just might be the best 4th outfielder who absolutely never gets any playing time.  It’s almost criminal at this point how not often Jagerbombs gets to play.  OK, so maybe he’s batting in the low .200’s; but he’s getting on base in the high .300’s and shit, he’s only had 65 at bats or so!  Anyway, getting back.  This game wasn’t only unbelievable because of the win, the score, the opposing pitcher, or the best hitter of the game.  It also had a lot to do with Luke French, his 8 innings pitched, and his 1 run allowed.  Granted, this isn’t the same Royals team that batted their way to one of the top offenses in the AL; they’ve suffered a lot of injuries in the last month.  But still, Luke French did his job, kept the ball down, and did what he’s been doing in Tacoma all year.  You don’t know how he does it, because he doesn’t have overpowering stuff or that Cliff Lee command.  He just does it.  More often than not, in the bigs, he’s looked like John Halama rather than Jamie Moyer.  But, if he can just figure out a way to stay consistent, work on that change up a little more, and somehow keep an ERA in the 3’s, French could be a solid Number 5 starter.  If he can do that, if Fister can be our 4, and if Vargas can continue to be our 3, with Felix as the Ace and Pineda as a potential future number 2 …