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The Missed Phone Call that Changed the Course of Mariners History

In July 1993, the Mariners had a deal in place to trade Randy Johnson to the Blue Jays. An ill-timed golf outing saved them from making a gigantic mistake.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Former Mariners General Manager Woody Woodward is rarely remembered fondly by Mariners fans. We think back on his years filling rosters and building teams, and we often think of the dreadful deals. I don’t really need to lay them all out; you can relive the acquisition of Heathcliff Slocumb and re-experience the litany of curse words that spontaneously erupt forth without any help. Some of Woodward’s best moves, though, were trades that were widely despised at the time. A perfect example of that, is the three times he built trades around Randy Johnson.

Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy “Big Unit” Johnson playing Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

“Um, no,” I hear you scoff, “there were only two trades for Randy Johnson.”

Oh, no, my friend. No, no. Woody Woodward did in fact engineer three trades involving Randy Johnson. You certainly remember the trade to the Houston Astros in July 1998 that caused Seattle sports pundits and fans to detonate with outrage. Randy Johnson, perennial Cy Young contender, traded for three prospects nobody had ever heard of? Two of those prospects, Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen, would go on to have pretty good careers for the Mariners. In exchange, the Astros would get two months out of the Big Unit before being bounced in the first round of the playoffs, and losing Randy in free agency that offseason to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

You may have some familiarity with the trade to acquire Randy. He came to the Mariners from the Montreal Expos along with Gene Harris and Brian Holman for the Mariner’s best starting pitcher, Mark Langston. The Mariners in the 1980s were a master class in destroying a roster in order to save a few bucks. The team had no desire to re-sign Langston (who fancied himself a movie star and wanted to be in Los Angeles or New York anyway), so they sent him packing. At the time, Randy’s prospects can only be described as raw. He had potential; his 6 feet 10 inches of lanky arms and legs flung a mid-90s fastball that petrified left-handed hitters. What he had in velocity, he lacked in control.

As we know, Randy Johnson developed into a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Mariners. He is one of the most illustrious strikeout pitchers of all time, and without him, the Mariners would not have had that magical run to and through the playoffs in 1995.

Which brings us to the third Mariners-involved Randy Johnson trade. On July 31st, 1993 the Blue Jays agreed to a trade that would send Randy Johnson to Toronto.

The 1993 Seattle Mariners were at a turning point in franchise history. The team had hired Lou Piniella as manager during the offseason, and bulked up the pitching staff with Norm Charlton and Chris Bosio. They made the savvy move of signing franchise icons in the making, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, to long-term deals. They changed their uniforms, switching colors from blue and yellow to the more modern navy blue and teal. The team had played one winning season in their sixteen years of existence.

Coming off a 98 loss season in 1992, despite the offseason moves to acquire help, Mariners ownership also wanted to cut costs. Heading in to spring training, Woodward was actively shopping right-hander Erik Hanson and the tall lefty, Randy Johnson. In early March, the Mariners were rumored to be negotiating with a number of teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays. The Mariners were hoping to package a less appealing, highly paid player, such as Pete O’Brien, Dave Valle, or Tim Leary, along with the sought-after Johnson.

John McGrath begged the Mariners not to trade the Big Unit, writing in the News Tribune, “Trading Randy Johnson would be a blunder of unfathomable dimension…dumping him to pare a $34-million payroll by a couple million would be a crime of the heart. It would be unconscionable.”

Thanks to a combination of starting pitcher Dave Fleming missing the beginning of the season due to an injury, and the high price Woodward was asking for Johnson, the Big Unit was still with the Mariners as July rolled around. Randy Johnson was one of the Mariners representatives in the All-Star Game. In the third inning of that game, he famously threw a fastball over John Kruk’s head that seemed to give Kruk heart palpitations.

Later that month, Kruk believed Johnson was about to become his teammate. Trade rumors had Johnson heading to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for either catcher Mike Lieberthal or pitcher Curt Schilling. The Phillies players even left for the night believing the trade was a done deal. Of course, it wasn’t. The Phillies would lose the World Series that season, making players wonder what may have been if the deal had happened.

As for the Mariners, they hit the All-Star break with a .500 record and found themselves sitting only two games out of first place in the American League West (remember, there was no Wild Card in those days). Playing in a division featuring only three winning teams, they were very much in playoff contention in July. Their success was largely due to the starting rotation and defense. Edgar Martinez was expected to come back from his hamstring injury at the end of the month. The Mariners could have been buyers, so why were they trying to sell?

By July 31st, the Mariners had fallen to 7 games behind the AL West-leading Chicago White Sox, who now held a four game lead in the AL West. On July 25th, Lou Piniella was asked if the Mariners were still in contention. He answered, “Now, the answer is no.” Another reason is that Johnson was unhappy with the Mariners for a variety of reasons. The Seattle beat writers of that era seemed to delight in taking shots, small and large, at Johnson’s tendency to complain. Still, Johnson felt unappreciated by a Mariners front office that didn’t support a photography project he had undertaken to benefit the homeless. He was upset at not receiving congratulations from the front office staff for making the All-Star Team. And in a well-documented disaster during the offseason, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong obtusely asked the pitcher how his Christmas had been. Johnson’s father had died on Christmas Day.

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Furthermore, he was set to become a free agent in 1994. The team expected they would be unable to sign him in the offseason. A group of position players was beginning to form the foundation of the up and coming team. Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Tino Martinez were the stars the Mariners saw in the future. Why not cash in on Johnson’s expiring contract by acquiring some more future stars to join them?

The rumor mill linked the Mariners and Randy Johnson to several teams. In addition to the Phillies, mentioned above, there was the Blue Jays, the Yankees, and the Reds. The Yankees and Blue Jays were tied for first place with a game a half lead over Boston. The division title could very well come down to which team made a better acquisition at the deadline.

At the deadline, the Blue Jays were desperate for pitching help. They dropped 10 of 11 games heading in to the All-Star break and general manager Pat Gillick began actively shopping for help once again. He was searching for help to bolster the starting rotation, a major cause of the Blue Jay’s troubles. He was also interested in Oakland Athletics left fielder Rickey Henderson. He figured since every contending team needed pitching help, why not add more offense and take advantage of the pitching woes? The Blue Jays were willing to sacrifice the future for the present; they were in win-it-now mode (they had also literally just won the World Series in 1992).

The Blue Jays players most often rumored to be trade bait were a trio of top pitching prospects: left-handed AAA pitcher Paul Spoljaric, righty Steve Karsay in AA, and strikeout machine Jose Silva in A. Relief pitcher Mike Timlin popped up from time to time in the rumors as well.

The Blue Jays seemed to be an obvious fit for the Mariners. Discussions happened. Negotiations went down. There was something a little unusual in the way the Mariners conducted these trade negotiations, though.

From Bob Finnigan in the July 31st, 1993 edition of the Seattle Times:

“With General Manager Woody Woodward out of town, clubs have been dealing mostly with Piniella. Yesterday, Blue Jay senior scout Gordon Lakey met with Piniella. Before the game, Piniella spent two hours on the phone in his office, missing the taping of his daily radio show.”

I’m sorry, what? The general manager is out of town at the trade deadline? His field manager is handling trade negotiations? What?

It’s not as bad when you remember that Lou Piniella had experience as a general manger. He served in the position for the New York Yankees, taking the spot of…Woody Woodward. It’s still pretty bad.

Despite the unconventional trade negotiations, somewhere along the way on July 31st, the Mariners and the Blue Jays came to an agreement. The Mariners would send the Blue Jays Randy Johnson in exchange for Steve Karsay and Mike Timlin.

Pat Gillick picked up the phone and called Woody Woodward, as one does when accepting a trade offer.

Nobody picked up. Gillick waited patiently for a return call.

The trade deadline loomed ahead at midnight eastern time. At about 7:30 PM Gillick decided he couldn’t wait any longer. He needed to improve his team; he was set on winning another World Series.

He had been negotiating tirelessly with the Athletics about Rickey Henderson. That night he called again and the A’s agreed to a deal that would get them Steve Karsay and a player to be named later. One snag, though. Rickey Henderson had a no-trade clause and he wasn’t going to just waive his no-trade clause. “Everything is negotiable,” he told reporters. “It’s a business, you know. I’m just a businessman myself.” The Athletic’s general manager, Sandy Alderson got right to work negotiating with Henderson.

While Alderson was working to convince Henderson to waive his no-trade clause, Woodward finally got around to returning his phone calls. Unfortunately, Gillick had already agreed to give the A’s time to work out Henderson’s no-trade clause. They had until 11:40 PM. Gillick would not go back on his word to Alderson, and so he told Woodward that he would have to wait this time. At 11:40 PM Gillick was about to pick up the phone and tell Woodward the deal was on. Just in time, he received word that Henderson had agreed to waive his no-trade clause in exchange for $500,000 and an agreement from the Blue Jays that they would let him become a free agent at the end of the season (teams could offer arbitration to prevent players from seeking out the free agency market).

The Randy Johnson trade to the Blue Jays, once a done deal, was dead. It raised the infuriating question: why was the general manager of a major league baseball team unavailable for hours on trade deadline day, when he had offers out there? Well, in those halcyon days before cellular telephone technology was available to the public, Woody Woodward decided to spend his weekend in Florida watching his son’s baseball team in a tournament (he had taken time away from the office to do the same thing the year before as well).

And while Pat Gillick was calling to accept the Randy Johnson trade? Woodward was out golfing, as one does when they’re on the brink of closing a trade designed to bring future stars to the team.

Seattle media was enraged at Woodward for not being in Seattle to finish the trade, and Woodward would earn the nickname “The Golfing GM” thanks to the incident. Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times was furious at the episode, writing on August 2nd, 1993:

“Far be it for me to trample on family values, but Woodward should have been in Seattle. If getting to Florida were so important, he could have taken a red-eye flight after Saturday night’s trading deadline.

Instead of a deal, the Mariners are stuck with an apparently unhappy pitcher. Johnson’s slump-shouldered performance two starts ago in Cleveland should have been a warning. He hasn’t won since June 30.”

He goes on:

“Woodward’s absence is inexcusable.

He had better hope Johnson has a Cy Young couple of months and Karsay becomes nothing more than the answer to a trivia question.

Who did Toronto trade for Rickey Henderson?

Where was Woody?

That question, this missed opportunity, could haunt the Mariners for years.”

The missed shot at Randy Johnson didn’t hurt the Blue Jays that year. They won the World Series in six games over the Phillies. Joe Carter hit an iconic walk-off three-run home run to win. Representing the tying run, Rickey Henderson drew a walk to lead off the inning.

Now, it’s safe to say this trade deadline ended up working out just fine for the Mariners. Randy Johnson was a key player in 1995, the season that saved baseball in Seattle (you may have heard of it). It’s hard to imagine Steve Karsay taking the mound in the situations that called for Randy.

In this case, at least, Woody Woodward’s foibles helped the Mariners in the long run. When looking at his body of work as general manager, the trade he didn’t make may have been the best move he made.

Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy “Big Unit” Johnson with Photo by Acey Harper/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images