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It Might Have Been: The 1997 Seattle Mariners Part 1

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For of all sad words of tongue and (bull)pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.

Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner. The best 2-5 hitters in Mariners history.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When it was over, I was left with four VHS tapes I knew I would never watch. One tape for each game of a series, each built upon the last an argument for how futile my dreams were. Four tapes out of a Costco pack I had bought because I thought there would be many games that October I would want to watch again.

When it began, I was full of hopeful expectations. The new, real baseball stadium was being built across the street. National magazines declared this to be the year. The roster was rife with future Hall of Famers. It came on the heels of an excellent season that had followed an unbelievable season.

It shattered my heart, the way baseball was designed to do.

1997 was the Mariner’s 20th Anniversary season. As they begin their 40th Anniversary season I want to look again at that year, hanging out in the middle of Mariner history, a season that has grown more painful as the years have passed.

*****

I headed straight for the mailbox after school, as I did every Friday. There he was. He glowered at me over his glove from inside the mailbox, the way he glowered at Major League hitters. Most of his pockmarked face was hidden behind the glove. You couldn’t yet see his hair fly as wild as the pitches he threw, or the menacing way his long arms catapulted the ball toward the strike zone like a weapon of war. But his eyes held the promise of that deadly fastball and the nasty slider that made the best hitters in the world haplessly fling their bats in a silly attempt at catching bat on ball.

Randy Johnson was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue, dated exactly twenty years ago tomorrow. The cover boldly told me, “Mariners ace Randy Johnson makes Seattle the most feared team in ’97.” Inside, hitters told tales of being unable to sleep the night before facing our ace. In Spring Training, an errant fastball broke JT Snow’s face, adding a little fuel to the fear fire. He was ours in a league that was terrified of him.

The Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview Issue, March 31, 1997
Walter Iooss Jr.

The predictions of the SI staff casually told me, “…the Mariners have what it takes to win it all.” They predicted the Mariners would win their division, beat the Yankees in a repeat of the 1995 Division Series, and beat the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series. In the World Series, the Mariners would defeat the Braves.

1997 was a far different media world than it is today. The internet existed, of course, and most people I knew had some form of internet access at home. The daily newspapers, of which we got two, Sports Illustrated, and endless, repeated viewings of SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight were the source of my baseball information. This was true for most people. There weren’t many contrarian views in those days. Bill James was doing his thing, but outside of a small group of early Sabermetric adopters, we relied on the good ole stats of yore: Batting average and ERA, wins and losses, and the gut feeling of a manager.

There was Mariner hype on my television, on my doorstep in the morning and the afternoon, and, most damningly, in my mailbox. Sports Illustrated, to me, was the gold standard of information. Those writers knew what they were talking about. I trusted them.

I should have known better. But, the small italics confidently told me, “World Series: Mariners over Braves” and I believed it in a way I haven’t believed in anything since; in a way you can probably only believe when you are 15 years old.

My baseball team—and you better believe my team and I were packaged together as a “we”—were going to the World Series. We were going to win the World Series. This was a season during which I would live and breathe by every pitch and every at bat. This was the year that would reward my long childhood of suffering spent watching the Mariners make a mockery of baseball and reside as a joke in the American League West basement.

This was the year I believed.

*****

Ground broke for Safeco Field on March 8, 1997. This was the reward for the 1995 season that saved baseball in Seattle. It would be a beautiful ballpark. Full of green grass and fresh sunshine, it would be an improvement on the staid 70s aesthetic of the Kingdome with its green carpet masquerading as grass and artificial lighting that never felt quite right. A real baseball field fit for a winning team: home runs would sail over the left field bleachers onto Royal Brougham and rattle off the windows of the Hit It Here Café (we hadn’t discovered the marine layer). Safeco hadn’t yet bought the naming rights, so we were free to dream of a Niehaus Field or the House That Griffey Built.

The new stadium was one of many sparkles that made up the bright future we all saw for the Mariners heading into 1997. The 1996 season held the disappointment of missing the playoffs. It was tempered by the offensive production of an All-Star worthy lineup. 21-year-old Alex Rodriguez won the American League batting title, hitting a cool .358, including 36 home runs and 123 RBI. He should have won the American League MVP award, but Seattle sports writer voting hijinks meant he lost to Juan Gonzalez of our rival Texas Rangers by just a smidgen.

In 1996, Ken Griffey Jr. missed a little bit of time after breaking his hamate bone. Most alarmingly, Randy Johnson was sidelined and underwent back surgery after making just eight starts. Despite the confident Sports Illustrated cover article, whether he would return to form after surgery was a huge question mark for the team. The starting pitching staff didn’t fare well the rest of the ’96 season and improving the team on that front was the focus of offseason efforts.

The Mariners had acquired Jamie Moyer from the Red Sox in August of 1996. The crafty lefty was just becoming a successful trickster with the Bugs Bunny changeup. Joining him in the rotation to back up Randy Johnson was Jeff Fassero, General Manager Woody Woodward’s prized offseason acquisition from the Montreal Expos. Scott Sanders and El Presidente himself, Dennis Martinez, would round out the rotation as the season began.

The bullpen had also been shaky in ’96, but not much was done to fix that. Manager Lou Piniella, vocal fan of veteran pitchers with good stuff that he was, would rely on Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala to share closing duties.

Third baseman Russ Davis would be returning to the team after suffering a broken leg in June 1996. He broke his lower leg while chasing down a foul ball and missed the rest of the season. The Mariners re-signed Mike Blowers, who was traded to save money following the 1995 season, at a bargain after he injured his knee with the Dodgers as an infield backup.

Much of the chatter surrounding the team going into Spring Training focused on the black hole that had developed out in left field. Whether or not this was actually a serious issue, particularly when looking at the pitching staff, the Seattle media focused relentlessly on the litany of names that had played in left field. Luckily a permanent fix was biding his time in the minor league system. Left fielder of the future, Jose Cruz Jr., would be there soon and would plug that hole for many years to come. In the meantime, Lee Tinsley and Rich Amaral (and a few others) would form a place-holder platoon.

As Spring Training wound to a close, manager Lou Piniella declared, “This is the best club I’ve ever taken north.” He had won the 1990 World Series as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Those weren’t empty words designed to motivate or instill confidence; they were the words of a man who had seen a lifetime of baseball and baseball teams.

*****

Power was the lifeblood of baseball in the 90s. The previous year Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs, after hitting only 16 in a similar number of at bats in 1995, driving the Baltimore Orioles to break the single-season team home run record with 257. Home runs were jumping off everyone’s bats. Ignoring the expanding biceps of sluggers, there was only one explanation: The ball was juiced.

No one idly wondered whether Roger Maris’s asterisked single season home run record would fall. In 1997 everyone was actively on the lookout for the man who would fell it. The front runners were the Mariner’s own sweet swinging Ken Griffey Jr. and the Oakland Athletics’ Bash Brother Mark McGwire.

*****

The season began the way a World Championship season should begin: by beating the defending Champs on Opening Day. A crowd of 57,586 made its way to the Kingdome for the evening game; the rest of us watched on ESPN (as per family tradition, all nationally televised games were muted and we listened to Dave Niehaus on the radio). The New York Yankees strode into town to test the World Series worthiness of the Mariners.

The opener seemed to confirm the hopes every Seattle fan held since that magical ‘95 run ended. Jeff Fassero took the start and pitched a gem for seven innings, holding the Yankees to five hits and two runs. Bobby Ayala and Norm Charlton split the eighth and ninth innings, allowing three hits, but no runs to preserve the victory.

The fire breathing Mariners offense faced David Cone. Despite striking out eight times in six innings, the Mariners got to him for four runs. Three of those runs came on two Ken Griffey Jr. home runs:

The starting pitching was fixed. The offense would hit home runs. The Ayala-Charlton combo would keep things in check.

Those are the things we believed on the evening of April 1, 1997.

Check back tomorrow as we dive into the first half of the season.