The last time the Mariners took a run at the postseason, I was eleven years old and far more invested in my extensive Beanie Babies collection than in the exploits of men in baseball uniforms. Each of the Mariners' 116 wins came and went without so much as a flicker on my radar, as did their rise and fall in the playoffs.
Looking back now, I regret missing out on an unprecedented moment (well, 116 moments) in Seattle's history. I regret not being able to experience Mariners baseball when it was in its prime, not being able to talk about the Mariners with other fans and know, for once, that my team had everyone else's beat.
The Mariners of 2014 are not the Mariners of 2001 in many ways, but they are a solid, competitive team in full pursuit of a postseason berth. They've injected hope back into the club in ways that, at least to me, were unforeseen when this season began. With ten games remaining before the regular season comes to a close, I'm perpetually thrilled and terrified to find out how their story ends this year. With that said, instead of speculating about the M's playoff chances over the next week and a half, I'm going to take a look back at the historic season a different band of Mariners put together 13 years ago.
In 2001, the Mariners were on a roll. They were 9-1 in September with three shutouts and two blowouts. They had just passed the threshold of 100 wins with a 12-6 rout of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, becoming the 10th major league team to win 100 games in a season. The last team to accomplish the feat was the 1998 New York Yankees, who advanced to the World Series for their 24th franchise championship. In fact, of the nine previous clubs to take 100 games in a season, only the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates failed to reach the Series.
As the Mariners hovered around their third division title, the attacks of September 11 cast a pall over Major League Baseball. All games were postponed for one week, pushing the postseason schedule into November and breaking up the Mariners' four-game series against the Angels, with the first game played in Anaheim and the final three contests played in Seattle.
On September 19, 2001, Jamie Moyer took the mound for the Mariners. At 38 years old, the southpaw was in the middle of his winningest career season to date, one that would see a 20-6 record by the end of the regular season -- nearly as good as the Yankees' Roger Clemens, another 38-year-old who boasted 20 wins (and just three losses) in 2001.
Facing Moyer were the 73-72 Angels, sitting third in the American League West and still trying to keep their heads above .500. They were led by Scott Schoeneweis, a 27-year-old left-hander who was on the verge of his second consecutive season with 10 losses and who would finish the year with the third-most plunked batters in the league, at 14.
Schoeneweis tempted fate in the first inning, loading the bases on three back-to-back outs with only one out in his pocket. Before any damage could be inflicted, shortstop David Eckstein scooped a double play. Undeterred, the lefty gave up a leadoff walk to begin the second inning and was promptly punished for it when third baseman Mark McLemore broke through with a line drive RBI double.
Moyer was four innings deep in a six-inning shutout when the news arrived. The Rangers had just snapped a losing streak with a 10-run outburst against the second-place A's, thanks in large part to former Mariner Alex Rodriguez, who went 5-for-4 and drove in two runs. That loss was all the Mariners needed to clinch the division.
Temporarily oblivious to the drama on the field before them, 45,459 Mariners fans rose to their feet and cheered. Manager Lou Piniella congratulated the players in the dugout, while those who were not on the field exchanged high-fives and hugs. After the fourth inning concluded, every screen in the ballpark trumpeted the Mariners' new title: 2001 AL West Champions.
Of course, there was still half of a game to be played before the real celebration could begin. Moyer maintained a steady hand through six innings before turning the game over to the bullpen. At the plate, Ichiro Suzuki and Carlos Guillen capitalized on a throwing error and passed ball by the Angels' defense, coming home to score on a productive out and three-run homer from Edgar Martinez.
By the end of nine innings, the Mariners were sitting on their fourth shutout of the month and 13th shutout of the year. Moyer received his 18th win, adding to a streak of nine consecutive wins. The club was now sitting above the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates, tied with the 1939 Yankees at 106 wins on the year.
As soon as Kazuhiro Sasaki induced the final pop fly of the game, the division championship banner was unfurled in center field. Players traded high-fives, handshakes, and hugs across the field. Streamers littered the infield. The crowd, as they say, went wild.
In the midst of the cheers and confetti was also a sobering reminder of 9/11. Before uncorking a well-deserved celebration in the clubhouse, Mark McLemore grasped an American flag and walked around the field, waving it in remembrance of those who were killed in the attacks only eight days earlier. The mood shifted at Safeco Field to accommodate the tribute as the players knelt on the field for a moment of silence, led in prayer by team chaplain Chuck Snyder.
"We are entertainers, we're baseball players, but before everything else, we are human beings," McLemore told Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone. "We have suffered this week like everyone else in the country. It was tough for us to take the stage and perform."
Fueled by the title and a seven-game winning streak, the Mariners pressed on to win 10 more games before the regular season was capped on October 7. Although the burden of their 116 wins followed them to the playoffs, amplifying the pressure of maintaining a dominant win streak, they left a legacy as AL West champions that still stands in Seattle today.