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It Might Have Been: The 1997 Seattle Mariners Part 4

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We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

Lou Pinella

This is the finale of a four-part series looking at the 1997 season. Catch up on the expectations for the year, the first half of the season, and the trade deadline and second half.

The last time the Mariners made the playoffs, it was unexpected. Their entrance in 1995 was a rushed and euphoric surprise as they were blown in on the winds of happenstance and magic.

It had an entirely different feeling this year. They were supposed to win the division. They weren’t the exuberant newcomers of two years ago; they won 90 games and the division and proved they belonged among baseball's elite.

It was time to do what was expected in the playoffs.

From the moment the division was clinched a nervous excitement hovered over the team.

I had a baseball fan English teacher that fall who had counted down the Magic Number on his blackboard and began class every day talking about the Mariners. I argued Randy Johnson should be used out of the bullpen as needed during the playoffs instead of as a starter; he countered that there was a difference between starting pitchers and relievers and that idea would backfire.

I still maintain that my approach could have worked.

That old baseball adage that good pitching beats good hitting was amended by my dad to include, “But not necessarily great hitting.” The Mariners had great hitting; great home run hitting, at least. In the first round they would face the Baltimore Orioles and the best pitching staff in the American League.

Naturally, Randy Johnson would take the mound in Game 1. He had lost twice to the Orioles during the regular season, both under strange circumstances. In the first loss, a rainy game at Camden Yards was paused in the middle despite no change in the rain. When it resumed, Randy had lost his momentum and lost the game. In the second strange loss, Randy was scheduled to start but the stadium lights mysteriously stopped working and his start was moved to the next day. Theoretically, that shouldn’t matter, but like toddlers, starting pitchers are creatures of habit and a disruption to their routines can throw them off course.

The Orioles had a solid rotation and an outstanding bullpen. The key for the Mariners would be to score early and often against the starters and hope their own ‘pen could hold it down.

*****

I had a Costco pack of VHS tapes ready to go. Many times I wished I could rewatch the playoff games in 1995. What a treasure it would have been if I’d had the wherewithal to record them. This year I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I neatly labeled the first tape, “American League Division Series: Game 1 Seattle Mariners vs. Baltimore Orioles 10/01/97.”

It was time.

*****

Good pitching performances beat poor hitting performances and vice versa. That was the story of Game 1. The Mariner’s pitching was poor. The Mariner’s hitting was likewise poor. The Orioles pitching and hitting were good. They took the first game 9-3.

The legendary Kingdome crowd never got to make their mark. Orioles ace Mike Mussina allowed only two runs while striking out nine in his seven innings. It was the performance the Mariners expected from Randy Johnson. However, the Orioles got to him for 4 runs in the fifth inning and that was the ballgame.

Lou Piniella, bless his heart, reminded us after the game, “The rules say you’ve got to win three games. But they don’t specify which three.”

Orioles V Mariners
The Mariners fell on their faces in the first game.

*****

Second verse, same as the first in Game 2. Hoping to pick up the first series win in their final game at home, Jamie Moyer threw out his best slowballs and his elbow. He reluctantly left the game with two outs in the fifth inning when he could no longer extend his arm after feeling something strange in his elbow. It hardly needs to be mentioned that the bullpen was unable to hold his 2-1 lead when it was called in, allowing 8 runs over 4 and 1/3 innings. The offense couldn’t get much going against the Orioles pitching staff for the second night in a row. A familiar score of 9-3 lit up the scoreboard that night.

But in 1995, the Mariners lost the first two games to the Yankees. And they came back to win it. Maybe with their backs against the wall, the bats would fire up and smoke Baltimore’s pitching staff the way they’d smoked the whole league all year. This time, though, they’d have to win three games on the road.

Orioles V Mariners
Jamie Moyer talks to Dan Wilson after feeling something in his elbow.

*****

Jeff Fassero had been Woody Woodward’s prized offseason acquisition. He came to Seattle from Montreal as Randy Johnson had come before him. The trade was announced the same day the Yankees held their World Championship parade in November 1996. It was hoped Fassero would help the Mariners hold a parade of their own.

On that October evening nearly a year later, he gutted out a win for the team he had come to help win. In 8 innings he only yielded 3 hits to the hot Baltimore offense.

The Mariners offense eeked out 4 runs. The bullpen made it interesting and lost Fassero’s shutout, but only yielded 2 runs.

4-2 Mariners.

While there is life, there is hope.

Jeff Fassero
Jeff Fassero, playoff hero.

*****

Game 4 was rematch of Game 1. Randy Johnson would seek his revenge against Mike Mussina. The stage was set for another miraculous Mariners playoff comeback.

And, yet.

With echoes of Ernest Thayer, the outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Seattle nine that day. The score stood 3-1 with but one inning left to play. When Randy Meyers struck out Edgar and to Roberto Kelly did the same, a pall-like silence fell upon Seattle fans watching the game.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright. The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light. And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.

But there is no joy in Seattle - mighty Buhner has grounded out.

Jay Buhner
Mighty Casey, Jay Buhner

*****

A few weeks later, Craig Counsell ran across home plate, scoring the winning run for the Marlins in a World Series that should have belonged to the Mariners.

*****

The winds of change swooped in, without magic this time. With one year left on his contract and a budget too small to allow much wiggle room, the Mariners spent the offseason trying to trade Randy Johnson. As the season was winding to a close it seemed unfathomable that the Mariners wouldn’t throw piles of money at him. Greg Maddux had recently signed an $11 million per year contract, and Randy was certainly in his league. At the end of the season Woody Woodward said he was hoping for a $50 million payroll of the 1998 season; devoting 20% of your payroll to a player who only plays 20% of the time was a losing proposition. (In contrast, the 1997 payroll was just over $46 million. The highest paid player was Ken Griffey Jr. at $7.8 million.)

So, they shopped him, and unable to make a trade they found acceptable, announced they’d start the season with him and see if they could make their World Series run that year. Shockingly, those circumstances didn’t bring out the best in the Big Unit. He endured many accusations in 1998 and in the years since that he tanked that season. I can’t imagine how any player, even going into a free agency year, could perform well for a team that vocally and publicly went out of their way to prove they didn’t want him.

He was gone by the trade deadline, acquired by the Houston Astros who were going all in on their World Series run. He would become an even better pitcher over the years after his Mariners stint. His strikeouts would accumulate. He’d throw a perfect game. He would win the World Series and share the 2001 World Series MVP award. He’d be elected to the Hall of Fame. He’d always leave us wondering what it would have been like if the Mariners could have extended his contract.

During the season, Bug Selig and the baseball owners started to throw around the idea of Radical Realignment. Baseball was expanding to add two new teams next year: The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Diamondbacks had been guaranteed a spot in the National League, and the American League wanted a shiny new team as well. This would create fifteen team leagues, and the need for an interleague game every day, or teams would sometimes need to take weekends off.

The solution was to copy the geographic alignment of the NBA and NHL. The western half of baseball teams would be in the National League and the eastern half in the American League. There had been outcry and howling protests against this idea since it was first raised. For the Mariners, it would have cut down on their travel, but it presented a horrifying outcome: the loss of the designated hitter.

Going into the offseason, the Mariners had no idea if Edgar Martinez would be part of their 1998 team. Ideas were tossed around that he could learn to play first base, or platoon at first and be the go-to DH during interleague play. Edgar himself seemed unhappy with the idea of playing in the field, and the Mariner’s incredibly valuable DH hinted that he would simply retire if the team switched leagues.

Adding further confusion to the offseason, an expansion draft would be held and the Mariners could potentially lose players (they ended up losing Bob Wolcott and Andy Sheets).

The bullpen had been improved by the midseason trades, but it was still a Hindenburg waiting to run ashore.

1998 arrived. The Mariners were still in the American League and they still had Edgar Martinez. The season, however, played out like the worst-case scenario for 1997. Randy Johnson wasn’t effective. The rest of the starting rotation couldn’t pick up the slack. The bullpen repeatedly exploded in a fiery disaster. There were reports of clubhouse brouhahas and front office ineptitude. Whispers began about the pending ends to Ken Griffey Jr.’s and Alex Rodriguez’s contracts. We began to realize they may not be able to keep both; they would end up keeping neither.

In 1998 the Mariners felt like an aging team that was losing its stars. There were still bright spots though. But after the 1997 season, we knew better than to elevate maybes into absolutes.

It wasn’t until 2000, with the departure of Griffey and a new front office regime, that the Mariners tasted the playoffs again. In hindsight, the winning window that had flung open in 1995 was slammed shut when Jay Buhner trod back to the dugout in Baltimore that October evening in 1997. That loaded lineup, that stacked roster full of Hall of Fame caliber players, couldn’t win the World Series.

*****

I didn’t fall in love with baseball in 1997. That had happened slowly in the late 80s and early 90s as I went to games with my dad and started taking an interest when the Mariners were on tv. I was already a signed, sealed, and delivered baseball fan when the ’97 season opened against the Yankees. 1997 added nuance to the experience of being a fan; it gave me the heartbreak of fandom. 1997 made baseball and the Mariners truly, deeply, madly emotional for me. It taught me to not get too high, to not get too low, but that riding those waves, despite the emotional distress they cause, is what bonds you to baseball.

*****

It was the best of times, with an incredibly fun offense.

It was the worst of times, with a bullpen that made us nauseous on a regular basis.

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was an MVP season and 56 Ken Griffey Jr. home runs:

It was Joey Cora’s hitting streak.

It was Randy Johnson’s strikeouts.

It was a season that lives so vividly in my mind, I think you’re crazy for telling me it happened 20 years ago.

It was a season that made me realize how short the window to win can be.