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The best thing the Mariners never had

This one is going to hurt for a while, folks.

hung up before its time
hung up before its time

I'll never forget Danny Tartabull's first major league hit.

It feels like just yesterday that the 21-year-old took the field, back when the front office was convinced he could hack it at second base. The gaping wound left by Julio Cruz's departure was still aching, but I had high hopes for the power-hitting prospect.

I don't need to remind you that nothing was at stake for Tartabull when he arrived. This team has hurtled downhill faster than Al Cowens' batting average. Their playoff chances were put to bed before the spring rain lifted from Seattle. I was curled up on the couch, hoping for something to make another night of mediocre baseball worthwhile.

The Mariners battled their way through the first six innings, losing a no-hit bid on a base hit by Rangers' third baseman Buddy Bell. At the plate, they were dragging their feet, refusing to budge on a two-run lead. They hadn't shut anyone out all summer, and they weren't about to do it now. Texas catcher Donnie Scott eventually chucked a pitch over the fence; the next inning, the 'pen gave up two run-scoring singles. Bob Kearney stopped the flow with a heart-pounding swipe at George Wright, forcing him off of home plate. I shouted at the TV, but it was too late. The lead had already been lost.

When Tartabull stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning, I wanted to throw something at Chuck Cottier. Actually, I wanted to throw something at Dave Valle, who had just fouled out to Scott and left the bases loaded with two outs and a tie score. My faith in the rally was waning. My cap was on the floor, inside-out. It was one thing to place high expectations on the team's shiny new prospect, but under the pressure of a walk-off win, anyone could crack.

What cracked instead was the Rangers' tenuous hold on the score. Tartabull hammered a base hit, sending Darnell Coles home from third and clinching his first win -- his first walk-off -- and his first pie in the face.

Of course, that was only the beginning. Tartabull's infield stint didn't last long, but his hitting became a staple of his time with the Mariners. He became a veritable legend in Calgary, pummeling prospect pitchers and rehabbing vets with 43 home runs, the most by a pro ball shortstop since Hall of Famer Ernie Banks' 45 in 1959. To the minor league crowds gathered at Foothills Stadium, he was a hero.

That first smidgen of doubt I felt the night that Tartabull nabbed his walk-off hit completely vanished this year. It would have been crazy to expect a 43-homer season from him at the major league level in his rookie year -- though, to be honest, we could have used every one last year -- but the excitement he drew from fans was palpable just the same. Finally, the Mariners had found a player immune to the disease of perpetual failure. Looking back now, that should've been our first clue that something was going to go wrong.

Not ten games into the season, he took Angels' right-hander Don Sutton deep for a grand slam in the first inning, sending the four-time All Star straight to the showers. Several months later, he did it again, lifting the Mariners from a 2-0 deficit with a moonshot off of Oakland righty Doug Bair while Dave Niehaus broke out the rye bread and salami. Then there was his 17-game on-base streak. His 12-game hitting streak. The time when he hit four home runs in four games, prompting my mother to remark, "Where did that guy come from?" The day when he dispensed with home runs, taking four walks in five plate appearances -- coincidentally, the same day my dad explained to me what it meant to be a fair-weather fan. I could make a highlight reel of Tartabull's finest achievements, but it wouldn't come close to encompassing the kind of support he offered the Mariners this year.

There is one moment that comes to mind, however, a perfect sample size of Tartabull's contributions. The Mariners' playoff hopes were all but crushed at this point, even after a series win against the league-leading Angels. Oakland was in town for the last set of the homestand, looking to claw their way out of last place in the AL West.

I could think of nothing better to do than claw my way through rush-hour traffic for a Monday night game. Hot dogs, meaningless baseball, and the chance to watch Danny go for his 20th home run didn't seem like a bad way to pass the time (okay, so he was four shy of 20, but a girl can dream). For a few innings, everything worked. Mike Morgan pitched a scoreless four frames. Tartabull dug in against Jose Rijo, unearthing his 17th home run, then his 18th. One A's fan jumped up in front of me, so angry that he splashed his beer on a couple of kids who, I could only hope, were not his. The way Tartabull was swaggering about the dugout, you could almost picture him back in Alberta, listening to six thousand fans stomp their feet as the ball flew over the left field wall.

Just as quickly, the game unraveled. Morgan gave up back-to-back hits to tie the game, 3-3. John Moses responded with an RBI groundout; Jose Canseco and Dave Kingman littered the scoreboard with five more runs. This time, I was the one on the verge of jumping to my feet and screaming. As if to knit us together in misery, the baseball gods handed Bob Kearney a home run with Tartabull hovering on first base, now 3-for-3 on the night.

In the eighth, I started having flashbacks. I saw a younger, more fidgety Tartabull step up to the plate. Tie score. Two outs. Bases loaded. Back then, he was a stranger with the promise of greatness. Now, the nerves stemmed purely from circumstance. I knew exactly what Danny Tartabull could bring to the table.

Moments later, Tartabull's base hit veered away from Jose Canseco. It wasn't a home run, but it was enough. Bradley sprinted home from third. Mike Moore came in to pitch the ninth. As if to taunt Oakland's own power-hitting rookie, Tartabull snagged a deep fly ball from Canseco for his last play of the game. The crowd cheered, then made a beeline for the parking garage.

I sat in the stands a minute longer to soak it all in. Then -- and it feels so long ago now -- I had hope for the Mariners. I knew this season was doomed and our pitching staff was crumbling and making it to the World Series was akin to watching robot umpires call balls and strikes, but Tartabull had returned both talent and purpose to Seattle. He could've been the best player on the Mariners, perhaps even in franchise history, the bright cornerstone of a good offense. A great offense.

Maybe, given a little more time here, Tartabull would've morphed into an All-Star slugger, churning out 50 home runs a year. Maybe, instead of quibbling over Rookie of the Year nominations, we would be debating his place on MVP ballots. My dad used to tell me not to get attached to players, a surefire defense against disappointment when they inevitably left for greener pastures (the good ones, at least -- even I can't explain the Salome Barojas jersey in my closet). Wise as he may be, those words are of little comfort now. I can't shake the feeling that Dick Balderson just traded away the best thing going for the Mariners -- and with him, every shred of my faith in this team.

No disrespect to Mike Kingery, but the Mariners just won't be the same without the Bull.