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Tino Martinez and the Last Heartbreak of the 1995 Seattle Mariners

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25 years ago today the Mariners traded Tino Martinez to the New York Yankees.

YANKEES V MARINERS

Being a Mariners fan during the Kingdome era was a rough existence.

Sure, we got to see Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime, and we got to watch Randy Johnson grow from a wild child flamethrower into a cold, calculating pitcher. We got to see Edgar Martinez take the art of hitting and turn it into a science that he practiced with exacting precision. We also never got to watch or enjoy those players without the constant threat of trades, payroll slashing, and the specter of moving the team to Tampa.

Still, after the magical 1995 season, it felt like things had really changed. The Mariners had come within two wins of the World Series. They had a team that could compete with the best in baseball.

But a spectacular season doesn’t come without a cost.

On December 7th, after weeks of rumors, the afternoon newspapers reported that Tino Martinez had been traded to the Yankees and Mariners fandom had its collective breath knocked out.

Today is the 25th anniversary of that devastating trade, the trade that taught many of us for the first time that baseball the business cares little about our sentimental attachments.

Money, so the sportswriters say, is the root of all evil in baseball today

The 1994 MLB season ended in August and the postseason was cancelled due to the player’s strike. Among the issues in the labor dispute was a salary cap, which the players union opposed. Going into 1995, baseball executives were under the impression they would have a salary cap of $34.2 million to contend with in setting rosters. When the strike officially ended on April 2, the salary cap was not implemented and the Mariners presumably had more financial flexibility.

However, the team was still looking to keep spending under control. Following the strike, fans and sports writers alike were angry with baseball for the work stoppage. The Mariners told reporters their ideal payroll was between $28 and $31 million, saying they lost $7 or $8 million in revenue during the strike. President Chuck Armstrong explained the team’s position, “Our ownership has shown its commitment every offseason, but they have definite limits as to how far they can extend and how many losses they can withstand.” The Mariners needed to cut payroll before the season began.

As spring training got underway, Edgar Martinez and Chris Bosio were already on the trading block. Randy Johnson began to draw interest in trade talks, and nearly every day the newspapers ran a quote from Woody Woodward about potential trades and the need to cut payroll. Only Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner were safe from the rumor mill.

The Mariner’s other Martinez, Tino, was arbitration eligible in 1995 and looking at a raise from his $500,000 paycheck in 1994 to between $1 and $1.5 million in arbitration. 1994 was a breakout season for Tino. In 97 games he slashed .261/.320/.508, slugged 20 home runs, and drove in 61 runs. Those numbers that projected to a full season made his bat appealing in the lineup. Still, there were concerns over his consistency and his tendency to get off to slow starts. In April and May 1994, he batted .207 and hit 6 home runs for a wRC+ of 76. Compare that with July and August when he was batting .348, hit 11 home runs, and put up a wRC+ of 172.

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The 1995 season was shorter than normal due to the strike (144 games), and losing production early in the year wasn’t appealing. Thankfully, the Mariners also recognized his value and decided to offer him a contract. The 27-year-old Tino was offered a one-year contract worth $1 million. The Mariners made the offer and gave him 24 hours to accept or decline. If he declined, he would become a free agent. It’s possible he would have made more money going to arbitration or hitting the free agent market, but his relationship with Lou Piniella ended up being the deciding factor. Like Piniella, Tino was from the Tampa area. Several of Tino’s family members were neighbors with Piniella, and both families were from the same region of Spain.

Tino said of his decision to stay, “I’ve been through tough times here, and with Lou and this coaching staff, this is the best this team’s ever been. We have the best chance to win.”

Piniella wasn’t eager to see his roster torn apart by payroll considerations. He fought for each of his players with management and told reporters:

“I fought for my players. I told them and I told Tino, ‘You and Fleming (pitcher Dave Fleming, who faced the same contract situation) are integral parts of what we’re trying to accomplish here.” I understand the predicament of ownership. Realistically, for a small-market team, a $30 million payroll is at the high end. The problem is when five guys make $23 million, there isn’t a lot you can do with the other 20 players.”

Had Tino declined the Mariner’s offer, Reggie Jefferson and Greg Pirkl would have platooned at first base.

As the shortened spring training went on, the proposed trades for the higher payroll players fell apart and ownership made the decision to stay the course with a higher than desired payroll. The 1995 Seattle Mariners’ roster was likely saved by the fact that every team in baseball was looking to cut payroll where possible and sign cheap free agents to fill holes, rather than acquire expensive contracts from other teams.

1995 All Star Weekend
Tino, right, along with Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson at the 1995 All-Star weekend.

1995: A career year for Tino, and baseball in Seattle

Like other players in the Mariners lineup, 1995 was a career year for Tino. More than justifying the increase in salary, he put up 4.5 fWAR and earned his first all-star selection. The fears of him getting off to a slow start were quickly forgotten. In April and May he slashed .317/.413/.584 and put up a 146 wRC+. Over the course of the season he hit that magical 30 home runs and 100 RBI threshold by slugging 31 home runs and driving in 111 runs.

As great as the counting stats and offensive production was, Tino was swept up into the echelon of Mariners fan favorites because of his partnership with Edgar in the lineup. Batting after Edgar, the players’ styles complimented each other, as did the E. Martinez and T. Martinez on the backs of their jerseys and in the starting lineups.

They talk a little bit about their partnership in this excerpt from the My Oh My Video of 1995 Mariners highlights:

Perhaps Tino’s most memorable moment as a Mariner came in the thick of the September 1995 run. With one out in the bottom of the ninth on September 24th, , Denis Eckersley came in to save the 1-run lead for the Oakland Athletics. Edgar singled for a base hit, and was replaced by pinch runner Darren Bragg. On a 2-1 pitch, Tino drove the ball over the tall wall in deep right field to win the game:

You know the rest of the story. The Mariners would go on to win the American League West. They would beat the New York Yankees in the division series and lose to Cleveland in the ALCS, coming up just short of winning the American League pennant and playing for the World Championship.

But that October night when the season ended in the Kingdome, when the fans stayed to cheer on their team of magic, when we all cried tears of sadness at the end of a beautiful baseball season, and tears of joy and hope, we felt like this was simply the beginning of something.

Seattle fans showed how ready we were to stand with our team. We just needed something to cheer for. That September run, when the Kingdome was filled to the brim and everybody everywhere could only talk about the Mariners, when a deal for a new stadium was made and the team felt settled in Seattle, something began.

For the first time, Mariners fans were in love with an entire roster of players, not just the token star. It felt like a love affair that would never end.

Rumor Has It

Alas, the season had scarcely ended before the quotes began being printed in the newspapers. The Mariners weren’t cutting payroll, but arbitration-eligible players were sure to command higher salaries in 1996. So, they had to cull the roster. The Mariners began discussing whether they would pick up the option on Edgar Martinez’s contract. Edgar won the American League batting title, and the team wanted to keep him around. Ken Griffey Jr.’s contract also loomed large, set to expire after the 1996 season.

Mariners General Manager Woody Woodward said a couple days after the Mariners were eliminated, “My preference would be to keep the team pretty much intact and add some starting pitching, but I have no idea how realistic that is.” Lou Piniella added, “The most important thing we have to look at during the offseason is our starting pitching. That’s the area we have to address first.”

Although Tino Martinez signed a one-year contract in spring training, he was still under Mariner’s control and, again, arbitration eligible. His spectacular season meant he was guaranteed a raise, likely around $3 million, that the Mariners might be unwilling to pay for. Non-tendering him and letting him become a free agent was not an option; his profile had been raised and the team wanted a return for losing him.

YANKEES V MARINERS

The beginning of November, the Mariners began their negotiations. Halfway through November, news leaked out of New York that the Yankees were interested. In their search for starting pitching, the Mariners first asked for Andy Pettitte. The Yankees were quick to reject any sort of negotiation for the left-hander, who had finished third in Rookie of the Year voting that season.

Seattle’s second ask was Sterling Hitchcock. The Yankees were hesitant to include him in a deal. The 24-year-old lefty made 27 starts in 1995, and the Yankees were thin in the starting rotation. However, the Yankees were enthralled with Tino’s power and saw it playing well at Yankee Stadium. So, they began to consider the deal.

The Tino rumors came out of New York before the Yankees had finished negotiations with their current first baseman, longtime Yankee Don Mattingly. Mattingly had been mulling retirement and the Yankees seemed eager to be rid of him so they could replace their aging star. The Yankees were pursing free agent Fred McGriff. Another option was to trade for a first baseman. Along with Tino, they were interested in Will Clark and Mark Grace. They were also mulling the possibility of re-signing third baseman Wade Boggs and moving him to first base. The Yankees had a young third baseman, Russ Davis, who was ready for the major leagues.

Woodward refused to comment, saying, “I’m not going to chase Yankee rumors.” But he admitted they were discussing deals in general. “We need to do something to improve our starting pitching...There is no easy way to do that except the trade route.” Woodward would continue to deny there was a deal in the works with the Yankees, even as rumors out of New York became more heated.

Tino told reporters about the rumors:

“The Mariners have not called me or my agent (Jim Krivacs) to talk about a contract or to say they may trade me. I only know what I read in the papers, that they were talking to the Yankees about me. I’d be disappointed to go, but I’d understand. It’s business. The Mariners and Yankees are both good teams and either would be a good situation for me. But before I left the Mariners, I’d like to think they’d call and see what it might take to sign me.”

The Mariners officially began their offseason dealing on November 30th, when they traded Mike Blowers to the Los Angeles Dodgers in return for two minor league prospects, Miguel Cairo and Willis Ontanez. Like Tino, Blowers became a fan favorite during the 1995 stretch run. Also like Tino, he was arbitration-eligible and looking at a raise. Blower’s Mariners teammates were upset at the trade.

“I’m ticked. I can’t believe we’re getting rid of a guy who was an integral part of our stepping-stone year. He had a lot do with where we went.” Jay Buhner said. Pitcher Chris Bosio chimed in with, “Wow. That’s all I can say right now...wow.”

Blowers, a native Tacoman who played college baseball at the University of Washington, said “It’s hard to leave Seattle, but it wasn’t my decision.” His wife, Nicole, expressed frustration to reporters, saying, “He very much wanted to stay with his hometown team. He’d have tried to work out a deal to make himself affordable, defer money until they got the new stadium built. But they never called.”

The Blowers trade opened third base for the Mariners. Enter Yankee minor league third baseman Russ Davis. The Mariners told the Yankees they’d only agree to a deal if Davis was included. Before they’d agree to trade Davis, the Yankees needed to get Boggs under contract to cover third base.

Meanwhile, in Seattle fans and writers were mourning the loss of Blowers and the pending loss of Tino. Reflecting the popular fan sentiments, Bart Wright wrote in the News Tribune about the disappointments of past Mariners teams and losing beloved players, “We all want to be optimistic about the Mariners, it just isn’t easy when yesterday’s reality slaps you in the face and you expect them to ask fans to be patient once again.”

Despite fan sentiment, trade talks continued. And as to be expected with a New York team and the New York media, it was a wild ride. On December 3rd, several outlets reported that a trade would be reported the next day. The next day, the trade had seemingly fallen apart. From the New York Daily News:

The Daily News has learned that the deal in its original form which was expected to be consummated today would have sent pitcher Sterling Hitchcock, third baseman Russell Davis and catcher Jorge Posada to the Mariners for first baseman Martinez, reliever Jeff Nelson and a minor-league pitcher.

But at midafternoon yesterday, Yankee GM Bob Watson called Seattle counterpart Woody Woodward and amended the deal by withdrawing Davis. The new offer had Hitchcock and Posada heading west for Martinez and reliever Bobby Ayala.

But the M’s, who need a third baseman after last week’s trade of Mike Blowers to the Dodgers, nixed that offer. And last night, Woodward declared the Martinez-to-Yankees deal a dead issue.

The next day, the Yankees agreed to include Davis in the deal, and negotiations were back on, the deal was contingent upon the Yankees signing Martinez to a long-term deal. When Wade Boggs re-signed with New York to fill the left corner of the infield, all that was left was for Tino to sign on the dotted line.

A date which will live in infamy

On December 7, 1995 Tino Martinez turned 28 and became a New York Yankee. He signed a 5-year deal for $20 million. Tino had grown up a Yankees fan and had particularly adored the teams Lou Piniella had played for. Now, he too would don the pinstripes.

Along with Tino, reliever Jeff Nelson and minor league pitcher Jim Mecir went to the Yankees. In return, the Mariners got starting pitcher Sterling Hitchcock and third baseman Russ Davis.

Mariners players once again fretted about the move, worrying it would sink the team’s hopes of contending in 1996. Ken Griffey Jr., then negotiating with the Mariners on a contract extension, flatly said through his agent that he wouldn’t re-sign if they were not going to be in contention.

Randy Johnson was golfing in Phoenix as the Tino trade neared completion. He told the New York Times, “It’s unfortunate a winning organization sometimes gets dismantled. Mike Blowers is gone, and if they trade Tino to New York, we will have lost over 50 homers in two weeks. I don’t think that can be replaced. If someone tells me we’re going to have the same team in spring training we did last year, well, I’d love to hear his logic.”

Fans joined the players in bemoaning the trade. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Mariners employees spent the day of the trade fielding calls from angry fans and explaining the economics of baseball that forced the move. Craig Degginger, a Mariners fan, summed up the fan sentiment for the PI: “You sort of learn as a fan that there is a new economics to baseball. But it’s disappointing. Here we had this thrilling September stretch drive and two of the heroes are gone.”

Fans wrote letters to the sports section editors, expressing their sadness at losing Blowers and Tino and worry that the Mariners would never play in the World Series while constantly dumping payroll.

Sports columnists took differing views. Blaine Newnham of the Seattle Times took shots at the perceived bandwagon fans and scoffed at their sadness, calling it, “the bleating of newborn Mariner fans.” He argued that unless the fans learned how to be “real fans”, like the fans in Cleveland, which had recently reversed its fortunes, the Mariners would never succeed.

Laura Vecsey argued in the Seattle Post-Intelligence that star players Griffey, Buhner, and Johnson were to blame for the Mariner’s payroll predicament, writing, “It is because you make so darn much money that the Mariners couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep Tino Martinez.”

Also in the P-I, Art Thiel sneered at “Mariner fans feeling a betrayal after a passionate love affair.” He went on to explain, patronizingly, that baseball teams needed to make money in order to pay players. Steve Kelley waxed poetic about the good old days in baseball in the Seattle Times, “Winter’s Hot Stove League used to be fun. Trades were made to improve teams. You gave away your star first baseman to get their all-star pitcher. Now you dump salary. What would Branch Rickey think?”

But the broken heart of fandom mends to break again.

Although the 1996 Mariners did not win another shot at postseason glory, it was the first full season Alex Rodriguez played in the major leagues. He nearly won the American League MVP award. We didn’t know it then, but the ache of fandom would become all the more painful in a few years time.

Sterling Hitchcock made 35 starts for the Mariners in 1996, his only season with the team. He fell short of the expectations the team had for him, putting up an ERA above 5. Russ Davis also came to Seattle with high expectations. He was lauded for his defensive work and power potential, and was seen as an upgrade over Blowers at third base. Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to expectations in either category. After breaking his leg while chasing down a foul ball, which limited him to 51 games in 1996, Davis struggled defensively and would commit 66 errors in the next three seasons with Seattle. His power never lived up to the hype either, although he did hit the first home run at Safeco Field.

As for Tino Martinez, Yankee fans initially weren’t eager to accept him as Mattingly’s successor. Tino began to win them over, becoming a beloved part of four World Series winning teams and earning a monument in the famed Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.

Weep not for the memories

The Tino Martinez trade hurt. I still remember the hollow sadness I felt opening the sports page and seeing the headshots of Hitchcock and Davis in the story about the trade. It was the first time I felt acutely the heartbreak of modern baseball fandom. It hurt to have a favorite player traded away after that player had just created some of the most beautiful baseball memories you’d ever have.

Of course, it’s part of fandom, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

YANKEES V MARINERS