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It Might Have Been: The 1997 Seattle Mariners Part 3

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Hopes and expectations; black holes and revelations

Randy Johnson strikes people out. It’s what he does.
Elaine Thompson

This is the third in a four-part series looking at the 1997 season. We’ve already examined the expectations for the year and the first half of the season.

As the second half got under way, we were familiar with and apprehensive of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. The trade deadline was looming and the Mariners were featured in nearly every trade rumor. The weaknesses were glaring. The team had to make moves the way they’d done in 1995; they had to bring in players that could patch up the cracks.

July was a struggle for the team in general, and the bullpen in particular. In a game on July 13th against the Rangers, Randy Johnson left after seven innings with a 2-2 tie. Bobby Ayala struck out the side in the eighth, which should have been the signal to take him out. If you get a good inning from him, be thankful and move on. But Lou kept him in because Ayala was a veteran pitcher with good stuff, as Piniella would reiterate to reporters time and again when questioned about his ‘pen. In the top of the ninth inning, Ayala gave up a leadoff home run to Damon Buford. Mark McLemore tripled. Ivan Rodriguez drove him in with a sacrifice fly. Rusty Greer walked, stole second, and was wild pitched to third, but thankfully Domingo Cedeno struck out to end the threat.

In the bottom of the inning, the Mariners couldn’t get anything going against closer John Wetteland. It was a disappointing outcome, but not a total meltdown. Norm Charlton lost the game for the Mariners a few days later, on July 17th, but again, not a meltdown. That would come two days later against the Royals at a game I was lucky enough to witness in person.

Bob Wolcott started for the Mariners against Royals rookie Glendon Rusch (out of Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, as the television and radio would tell us ad nauseum that year). Wolcott threw seven shutout innings and the Mariners scored six runs for him. In the eighth inning, the wheels loosened up when Wolcott gave up an inside-the-park home run to Tom Goodwin and a normal home run to Jay Bell. Omar Olivares came in to face a couple batters, walked them both, and the keys were handed to Norm Charlton. Things happened, so in came Bobby Ayala to get the final out of the inning. The Mariners still had a 6-5 lead when Ayala trotted back out there for the ninth. The wheels came off: single, single, walk, sacrifice fly, single, double. The Mariners lost 9-6.

It was unfair, but Bobby Ayala was so much easier to despise than Norm Charlton. Mariner fans had dealt with years of his shenanigans and his forkball that bounced in front of the plate with runners on base. Norm Charlton looked like he cared. He was often devastated after blowing leads and wore that on his face, unlike the stoic Ayala. Charlton was also featured in a fantastic commercial that year:

But, frustrations with the bullpen were overshadowing the prolific offense. Even Lou Piniella began to throw his hands up and admit the team desperately needed help.

*****

July wasn’t all blown saves. Sometimes magic happened too. On July 29th, Scott Hatteberg thought he hit a home run into the bullpen at Fenway Park.

Well, tell him, Wash:

*****

On July 31st the Mariners held only a half-game lead over the Angels. Trade rumors had swirled and circulated. Roberto Hernandez of the White Sox and Ricky Bottalico of the Phillies were the most commonly rumored targets.

Everyone thought something was coming, but here it was, deadline day, and General Manager Woody Woodward hadn’t made a move. Why was he not able to get something done? Didn’t he realize the situation was dire?

Woodward publicly declared that Jose Cruz Jr. was untouchable. Since his May call up he had hit 12 home runs and driven in 34. He showed flashes of true brilliance; another gleaming sparkle in the bright Mariners future. Our outfield was complete: Buhner, Griffey, Cruz. They would win championships and slug home runs and make acrobatic plays. They would be the outfield version of Tinkers to Evers to Chance.

That morning, news broke that the White Sox had moved Hernandez to the Giants, along with two starting pitchers in a weird fire sale that happened with the White Sox only a few games out of first place. Bottalico was still available. Surely, something would happen.

I remember exactly where I was when it did happen, the way you recall the exact details of every significant, life changing moment. I was at my grandparents’ house for dinner. The Mariners were playing in Milwaukee and the game was on tv in the living room. Suddenly, Jose Cruz Jr. was no longer in the dugout. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. “No, no, no, no, no,” my mind repeated, “no, no, no, no, no. This. Is. Not. Happening.” No one in the room seemed to understand the seriousness of the situation. “He isn’t in the dugout anymore! He isn’t hitting!” I shrilling tried to explain to an unconcerned audience. Huffing with indignity, I demanded the car keys from my mom and sat in her Corolla, listening to the game on the radio.

The tears streamed down my face as I had my worst fears confirmed: he was gone. There would be no outfield for the ages. No stories to tell my children about the greatest outfield in baseball history. There would only be nothingness. The black hole in left field may as well have swallowed me whole. It was all ruined. It was all over.

He had been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for mediocre relievers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. To the Blue Jays. Our expansion cousins. In my 15-year-old interpretation of baseball, that was worse than trading him to the Angels.

We got home that night and I went to straight to bed, laying in the dark, sobbing, and listening to sports radio callers vent the same feelings I was feeling. That night my heart broke in a way it never would again.

It wasn’t over though, oh no, it wasn’t over. If ripping out the hearts of the Mariner faithful wasn’t enough, Woody Woodward’s final act on Trade Deadline Day 1997 would seal his place in the pantheon of hated Seattle sports figures. After midnight, news came over the radio waves that another relief pitcher had been acquired. Heathcliff Slocumb would be dragging his 5.79 ERA and 5 blown saves (and, okay, his 17 not blown saves) to the Mariners in exchange for switch-hitting catching prospect Jason Varitek and young pitcher Derek Lowe, who had made nine starts for the Mariners.

I cried myself to sleep for weeks after.

*****

Not too far into my grieving period, my team gave me a reason to be happy again. Randy Johnson had struck out 19 Oakland A’s earlier in the season, but took the loss. He repeated the performance on August 8th against the Chicago White Sox. This time, the Mariners offense showed up and he got the win:

Prior to the season there were so many questions marks surrounding Johnson. No one knew if he would return from back surgery the same dominant ace he had been. But the word dominating doesn’t seem sufficient to describe his performance that year. It was his finest season in a Mariners uniform. He was second in total strikeouts in the American League (behind Roger Clemens). He was first in the American League with 12.296 strikeouts per 9 innings. He finished the season with a WAR of 8.0. Dominating doesn’t begin to describe him.

The front end of the Mariners rotation had a pretty great season. (Because this is 1997, we’re going to throw some stats out there that meant something back then). Randy finished the season with 20 wins, followed by Jeff Fassero’s 16 and Jamie Moyer’s 17. Fassero and Moyer both had sub-4 ERAs, which were considered good in the wild American League - and the Kingdome.

The back end of the rotation couldn’t be called a disaster because the bullpen earned that title, but it wasn’t good. Dennis Martinez made 9 starts and lost 5 games before being released in May. Scott Sanders, acquired from the Padres for Sterling Hitchcock in the offseason, was sent to the bullpen after only 6 starts. Bob Wolcott, Omar Olivares, Derek Lowe, Ken Cloude, Felipe Lira, Bob Wells, and Edwin Hurtado all tried to fill the last rotation slots with spotty success.

*****

It has been said that pitching and defense win championships. We’ve discussed the pitching enough, so what of the defense? In short, it was a persistent issue. The entire infield, save steady Paul Sorrento at first base, had trouble catching and throwing. Defensive metrics are tricky, and even more so when we’re going back 20 years. Errors don’t tell the whole story, we know this. So take this grain of salt and bear with me. Alex Rodriguez led the team with 24 errors. We know he wasn’t a shabby shortstop, and even back in 1997 his errors were qualified by saying that rangy fielders sometimes committed more errors because they were able to reach hits that other shortstops couldn’t. Fair enough. The same was not said about Russ Davis and Joey Cora.

Joey Cora tried so hard out there. You could see the effort on his face. You could feel his frustration and disappointment when he missed a hopping ground ball or threw a souvenir to Rick the Peanut Man. It was hard to be mad at him, and sometimes he made these incredible diving plays and threw right at Sorrento’s glove as he was falling over or spinning around. Then, a routine ground ball would allow a runner on base. He committed 17 errors that season.

Russ Davis committed 18 errors, the same as his jersey number. Davis had been acquired from the Yankees in the Tino Martinez trade after the 1995 season and his defense had been well-regarded in the Yankee’s system. In 1996, just 51 games into his first season with the Mariners, he broke his leg while chasing down a foul ball and missed the rest of the season. Maybe his confidence was shaken, maybe he worried about his leg, or maybe he wasn’t actually that great of fielder. Whatever it was, his nickname in our house was E-5.

*****

If it wasn’t for the offense, the 1997 season would have been much different. The offense was incredible. In fact it was the best home run hitting offense in the history of baseball. The Mariners as a team would slug 264 home runs, a Major League record that still stands.

A typical starting lineup looked like this:

  1. Joey Cora
  2. Alex Rodriguez
  3. Ken Griffey Jr.
  4. Edgar Martinez
  5. Jay Buhner
  6. Paul Sorrento
  7. Dan Wilson
  8. Russ Davis
  9. Left Fielder Du Jour

Edgar Martinez, at age 34, led the team with a .456 on base percentage. He also had 35 doubles, 28 home runs, and 119 walks. Jay Buhner hit a lowly .243 but made his hits count for 40 home runs. Alex Rodriguez followed his 1996 batting title with a .300 batting average and 23 home runs. Joey Cora also hit .300, but struck out only 49 times while hitting 11 home runs and 40 doubles.

The clear and undisputed MVP of the Mariners was Ken Griffey Jr. He hit 56 home runs and drove in 147 runs. He chased Roger Maris for the season, but ended up 5 short of tying the record. For a while the record looked like it was within reach. He hit #50, a grand slam, on September 7th:

Alas, he would hit “only” 6 more home runs that month. His last coming on September 27th:

*****

With Heathcliff Slocumb on the mound, the Mariners clinched the division on September 23rd against the Anaheim Angels. Winning the American League West title was expected and undramatic compared to 1995. The Mariners entered September with a 2 game lead over the Angels and kept increasing their lead. They would end the season 6 games ahead.

Decisive.

Expected.

On to the playoffs they would go.

Tomorrow the series concludes with a look at the playoffs and beyond.