"Two outs, so what?"
--Catchphrase for the 2001 Seattle Mariners
Every Mariners fan has his or her favorite game from 2001. After all, we watched nearly every one or followed online the ones we couldn’t see on TV or attend in person.
I have two. The Mariners had romped through the first half, going 63-24 and leading the division by 19 games. By fortuitous circumstance, Seattle hosted the All-Star Game that year and it had been a Mariners celebration, with eight players named to the roster, including starters Ichiro Suzuki, Bret Boone, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez. The American League won the game 4-1, with Freddy Garcia earning credit for the win and Kazuhiro Sasaki recording the save.
It would have been easy for the club to relax with such a big lead, but that’s not how the 2001 Mariners played baseball. In the first game following the All-Star break, they hosted the San Francisco Giants and Barry Bonds, then chasing Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record. Sure enough, Bonds launched a long home run in the first inning and the Giants held a 3-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. But David Bell homered on a 3-2 pitch from Robb Nen to send the game into extra innings. In the 11th, Mike Cameron walked with one out and stole second. With two outs, Tom Lampkin hit a chopper over the middle that second baseman Ramon Martinez gloved, but with no chance to get Lampkin. Cameron kept churning around third and beat Martinez’s throw home.
Relax? The Mariners would go 17-6 in their first 23 games out of the break.
My other game came a couple of weeks later. The Mariners led the Twins 3-2 in the eighth inning when Lou Piniella sent out little-used utilityman Charles Gipson as a defensive replacement in center field. Sure enough, later that inning Gipson threw out the potential tying run at home plate. That was the 2001 Mariners -- Piniella making every right move, all 25 guys contributing and delivering clutch throws and big hits. Baseball is a team game made up of individual talents. But I've never seen a baseball team where the sum of the team exceeded the individuals like the 2001 Mariners. They were a team in perfect harmony.
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"I haven't seen him hit the ball with any authority."
--Mariners manager Lou Piniella on Ichiro Suzuki, late in spring training
The Mariners had lost to the Yankees in six games in the 2000 American League Championship Series, but then Alex Rodriguez signed with Texas as a free agent. The Mariners countered that loss by winning the posting process for Ichiro Suzuki and signing him to a three-year, $14 million contract. In a less-heralded move, the team also signed free-agent second baseman Bret Boone. Still, nobody knew exactly what to expect from the club.
Spring training got off to a bad start. Jay Buhner, third on the team in home runs in 2000, suffered a torn arch in his left foot in his first at-bat and would miss most of the season. More troublesome was the performance of Ichiro, whom Piniella had initially planned on hitting third in the lineup. But Ichiro wasn’t hitting the ball with any power and the Seattle papers wondered if he was overmatched by major league pitchers who threw harder than the pitchers he'd regularly faced in Japan. Piniella and hitting coach Gerald Perry expressed their concerns that teams would just bunch their defense to the left.
Finally, in late March, Ichiro smacked a home run. "I shook his hand when he got to the dugout, just like I would with anyone else," Piniella said. "He had a big smile. I know it was good for him to hit the ball hard in that direction."
It was a small turning point for the Mariners. Maybe their Japanese import would be OK after all. Still, Piniella decided to install Ichiro as his leadoff hitter.
Like all of Piniella’s moves that year, it was the right one.
Ichiro got two hits in the season opener. A few days later he went 4-for-6 with two runs, a double and a two-run, game-winning home run in the 10th inning in Texas. A couple of days after that came The Throw. Ichiro had started a go-ahead Mariners rally in the top of the eighth with a pinch-hit single. In the bottom of the inning, facing the boos and taunts of Oakland fans who had been hounding him throughout the series, he sent his own message when he gunned down Oakland’s Terrence Long at third base with a laser beam from right field.
"I'll tell you what, you could hang a lot of clothes on that throw,” Piniella said. "It was going to take a perfect throw to get me -- and that's what he did,” Long said.
Just like that, Ichiro was a national sensation. He hit .336 in April, with hits in 23 of 25 games. The Mariners, meanwhile, went 20-5, including a three-game sweep in the Bronx. After the Mariners thumped the Rangers in one series, A-Rod predicted with complete insincerity but amazing accuracy that the Mariners would win 115 games. On May 23, Bell hit a home run in the eighth inning to beat the Twins, kicking off a 15-game winning streak. Ichiro and then Boone appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Later, Ichiro, Boone, Cameron and Martinez appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, under the billing "ALL WORLD."
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"It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It wasn’t supposed to end here."
--Bret Boone, after losing the ALCS to the Yankees
The Mariners never let up. Ichiro would win the batting title with a .350 mark and lead the league in hits and stolen bases. Boone had one of the greatest seasons a second baseman ever had, hitting .331 with 37 home runs and a league-leading 141 RBIs. The beloved Martinez, 38 years old, hit .306 with a .423 on-base percentage and 116 RBIs. Slick-fielding first baseman John Olerud had a .402 OBP and scored and drove in more than 90 runs. Cameron knocked in 110. Mark McLemore played all over the field and scored 78 runs and swiped 39 bases. With Ichiro, Cameron, Boone and Olerud, it was one of the best defensive teams I've ever seen. The pitching was the best in the league, as well. Garcia led the league in ERA, Jamie Moyer won 20 games and Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson provided a dominant bullpen trio.
The team went 18-9 in June and July and 20-9 in August. They were selling out every game -- the M's would lead the AL in attendance that year, outdrawing the Yankees, a team that had won three straight World Series titles. Local TV ratings were off the charts. The team clinched the division title soon after the return to action after the 9/11 attacks halted play for a week. A champagne-soaked celebration didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, the team gathered near the pitching mound for a prayer. Somebody brought out a flag and the players walked the flag around the stadium, thanking the fans for their support. As Seattle newspaper columnist Art Thiel would write, "They found a way to honor their achievements, fans and country without histrionics, triteness, or bad taste. A season of greatness found a seminal expression apart from the game."
All that was left was the season record for victories. The 1998 Yankees had won 114 games. The 1906 Cubs, in a much different era, had won 116 games. Piniella pushed hard, keeping the regulars in the lineup. The Mariners surpassed the Yankees in Game No. 160 as Olerud and Boone homered and Moyer pitched a gem. The next day, they tied the Cubs as Boone homered in the first inning and five pitchers combined for a 1-0 shutout. No team had ever won more games. "I think if you assembled an All-Star team and put them in our division, they couldn’t win 116 games," Boone said.
Maybe Piniella pushed too hard. Maybe the team was gassed from the record drive. Maybe the pressure to match their regular season was too great. Or maybe the playoffs are just a crapshoot. The Mariners, of course, aren’t regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. They’re not mentioned in the same breath as those ’98 Yankees or the ’86 Mets or ’75 Reds. They didn’t win the World Series; they didn’t even reach it.
They beat Cleveland in five games in the Division Series, rallying to win the final two games after getting bombed 17-2 in Game 3. But there were problems. Shortstop Carlos Guillen had contracted tuberculosis, and there were fears he’d infected the entire clubhouse. He missed the Cleveland series and played sparingly in the ALCS against the Yankees. Martinez had pulled a groin against the Indians and was ineffective in the ALCS. In the first two games, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina pitched gems. Seattle won Game 3 14-3 and led Game 4 1-0 on Boone’s homer in the eighth, but Bernie Williams homered off Rhodes to tie it and then Alfonso Soriano hit a two-run walkoff homer off Sasaki. Game 5 was an anticlimactic 12-3 blowout.
* * * *
"I'm tired of [expletive] losing, I'm tired of getting my [expletive] beat, and so have those guys. We gotta change this [expletive expletive] around and get after it. And only we can do it. The fans are [expletive] off, and I'm [expletive] off, and the players are [expletive] off. And that's the way it is. There's no [expletive] easy way out of this, can't feel sorry for ourself, we gotta [expletive] buckle it up and get after it."
--Mariners manager John McLaren, June 2008
The decline wasn’t immediate. The 2002 club was in first place as late as Aug. 18 and won 93 games, but missed the playoffs. Piniella, in part to be closer to his family in Florida and in part because he was angry management hadn’t added any reinforcements at the trade deadline, left after the season to manage Tampa Bay. The 2003 club led the division by five games on Aug. 15, but Oakland got hot and the Mariners faded. Once again, 93 wins wasn’t enough to make the postseason.
By 2004, the team was aging and in decline and general manager Bill Bavasi, who had replaced Pat Gillick, was ill-equipped to handle the transition. Still, the downfall was excruciating. The Mariners had arguably become baseball’s premier franchise. They were filling Safeco Field. They were fun to watch. They had some of the highest revenues in the sport. Maybe they weren’t the Yankees -- but they were the next-best thing.
Since 2004, the team has gone 566-714, including 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2010. The offenses the past two years have been two of the worst baseball has seen in decades. Attendance, once more than 43,000 per game, has fallen to 23,489. The decline in popularity is evident in the team’s radio broadcasts. The only commercials with player endorsements involve Jay Buhner, who has been retired 10 years, and Seattle-area native Travis Ishikawa, who has never played for the Mariners.
So what happened?
The foundation for demise was set in the Gillick era. Due to free-agent signings, the Mariners had no first-round pick in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and failed to sign 2002 first-rounder John Mayberry Jr. Those four drafts produced just two major leaguers of significance -- Adam Jones, who was traded to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard trade; and Eric O’Flaherty, who the club released after the 2008 season.
The team did suffer some bad luck with a slew of pitching prospects in the early part of the decade. Ryan Anderson, compared to Randy Johnson for his 6-foot-10 stature and blazing fastball, was a top-10 prospect but blew out his shoulder and never reached the majors. Jeff Heaverlo tore his labrum. Clint Nageotte battled injuries. Gil Meche had pitched well as a rookie in 2000 but missed all of the 2001 season with a frayed rotator cuff -- yes, the 2001 club could have been even better. While Meche eventually returned, he was never the star his rookie season indicated he had a chance to become.
To make matters worse, when the Mariners hit bottom and started earning high draft picks, they botched them. In 2005, they had the third pick and most experts had them taking Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Instead, in one of the deepest drafts in recent years, they took USC catcher Jeff Clement, passing not only on Tulowitzki, but Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Ricky Romero. Those guys went with the next four picks. (Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Garza also went later in the first round). In 2006, drafting fifth, the team passed on local product Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw to draft Brandon Morrow. In 2007, the team took hard-throwing but inexperienced Canadian high school pitcher Phillippe Aumont; Jason Heyward went three picks later. 2008 first-rounder Josh Fields was a college reliever expected to reach the majors quickly; Mariners fans are still waiting.
Current rookie Dustin Ackley looks like the first good hitting prospect the Mariners have developed since A-Rod. Actually, that’s not completely accurate; they developed Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, but Bavasi gave them away to Cleveland in ill-advised trades for Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez in 2006. Those two combined for nine home runs that year and the Mariners finished 78-84. Bavasi brought in past-their-prime veterans like Scott Spiezio (.198 average over two seasons) and Rich Aurilia (.241 average before being sent back to the National League). Later, Bavasi would do unmentionable things like signing Carlos Silva and trading Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez.
In recent years, nearly every hitter the Mariners have produced has reached the majors with no concept of the strike zone -- guys like Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Wladimir Balentien and 2011 graduates Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero. You’re not going to win with guys like that.
So now the Mariners are headed for another season of 90-plus losses. They suffered through a 17-game losing streak in July. They’ve had some bright spots like Ackley and fellow rookie Michael Pineda. They still have Felix Hernandez. At one point recently, 12 of the 25 players on the roster were rookies, a sign that a complete rebuild was in order. But Ichiro is getting old, Franklin Gutierrez has regressed, Justin Smoak remains a question mark and third base and left field remain problem areas. The rookies strike out too much, the bullpen is thin and Felix's body language often suggests that he'd like to pitch with more than two runs of support.
I’ll be honest: It makes a Mariners fan want to re-watch that "Sweet 116" videotape again.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.