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The Mariners and the Night Before

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On September 10th, 2001 the Mariners were steamrolling their way through baseball and looking toward the playoffs. It was the last night of the Before.

Seattle Mariners’ Freddy Garcia delivers a pitch a
Freddy Garcia in the first inning on September 10, 2001.
Photo credit should read LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images

The Seattle Mariners closed out August 2001 with a rainy day loss in Baltimore, but it didn’t matter. Rosters expanded on September 1st and every other team in playoff contention brought up rookie hopefuls and prepared to secure their leads or make a run at division leaders while jostling for a Wild Card spot. The final month of the season was upon baseball, and with it, exciting playoff races.

The Mariners, however, were surrounded with no such excitement. Already with 96 notches in the win column, they held a 17 game lead over the Oakland Athletics in the American League West. Should they collapse in spectacular fashion and hand the division to the A’s, they could fall back on a 24 game cushion over the next nearest Wild Card contender with 27 games left to play.

The Mariners were comfortable enough on their trip to Baltimore that Tom Lampkin, John Oelrud, and Ed Sprague took a side trip to Arlington, VA and Washington D.C. Lampkin had a friend who worked in the defense department so the trio of Mariners were treated to a tour of the Pentagon. Then they headed to the White House where they stopped by the Oval Office to talk baseball with President George W. Bush. After spilling the details of their visit to reporters, they were asked if they’d like to go back to the White House.

“That’s what we’re playing for,” John Olerud replied.1

If ever a team was a shoo-in to win the World Series it was the 2001 Seattle Mariners. They were steamrolling through the regular season. There had been hiccups that season, sure, but they were short-lived and easily overcome. The season felt like the payoff Seattle had earned after years of desolation and despair from its baseball team. The 24-year-old franchise had never been to the World Series. Their first playoff appearance had only come 6 years ago.

The three biggest superstars the team had ever had were all recently departed. Randy Johnson was sent to the Houston Astros at the 1998 trade deadline after bitter contract negotiations that winter. Ken Griffey Jr. requested a trade to his hometown Cincinnati Reds after the 1999 season and Alex Rodriguez became the big fish in the 2000 Mariners pond. He leaned into the role of leader, giving his teammates t-shirts in Spring Training that read “We are on a mission, sir”. He put up a season that was worth 10.4 bWAR, the highest single season number in Mariners history, and led the team to an American League Championship Series berth after winning the AL Wild Card.

After the season A-Rod jumped ship to the Texas Rangers. In his place, the Mariners signed a new outfielder from Japan. After a dismal spring, no one held much hope that Ichiro Suzuki would replace the hole in the lineup, much less the hearts, of Mariners fans left by Rodriguez. No one thought the Mariners would contend in 2001, much less dominate baseball.

So when they jumped out to a 20-5 April, we thought it was a fun and delightful fluke. Then, they followed it up with a 20-7 May. The 2001 Seattle Mariners just kept winning baseball games. Suddenly, the team everyone doubted was in conversations about the best teams of all time. By mid-season we wondered if they could break the all-time wins record. It was nearly assured they were a World Series team.

Baseball history held whispered warnings. The Mariners chased the 116 game single season win record held by the 1906 Chicago Cubs and we were reminded that those Cubs lost the 1906 World Series to the Chicago White Sox. We knew the 1954 Cleveland Indians won 111 games and lost the World Series to the New York Giants.

In the summer of 2001, we watched the Mariners play and win, rinse and repeat. It was hard to summon any doubt.

This was going to be the year.

*****

Summer began its rotation into autumn and the Seattle newspapers bemoaned the trouble the Seahawks would have drawing fans away from SoDo neighbors on Sundays in September and October. Barry Bondy was hitting his way to 73 home runs and breaking the single season home run record. Michael Jordan was hinting at an NBA comeback while Venus Williams beat her younger sister, Serena, at the US Open.

As the Mariners inched closer to clinching the AL West Division title, I’m Real by Jennifer Lopez featuring Ja Rule pushed Fallin’ by Alicia Keys from the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Crush by Mandy Moore was the top vote-getter on TRL (arguably a more prestigious spot than Billboard). And 19-year-old Britney Spears danced on stage with an albino python at the VMAs.

On September 9th, President Bush tossed a giant coin in the White House Rose Garden to determine who would kick off the 2001 NFL season the next day on Monday Night Football. It was his last public event at the White House in the Before.

When the NFL kicked off their season, the Mariners were in Anaheim taking on the Angels. They were close to clinching the title and it was going to happen on this trip. It was a little disappointing to the fans who sold out Safeco Field all season not to watch them clinch in person at home. Safeco Field was only a couple years old and Seattle hosted the MLB All-Star Game that year. Every night the stadium was full of fans. The Mariners were fun. We fell in love with Ichiro and an improbable team that couldn’t stop winning. The Mariners became a regular part of nearly everyone’s life in Seattle. After work or while studying for school, evenings were spent with a game on tv or on the radio. Not getting to see the team win their third division title at home was disappointing. We knew the best was still to come though.

On September 10th we discussed and debated whether the Mariners would break the all-time wins record of 116. We worried over whether the pressure to perform in the playoffs would affect the team. Manager Lou Piniella started discussing with reporters his plans to have his starters sit out of the lineup and get some rest before the postseason. The biggest debate of all was which pitcher should open the playoffs. It could be the young Freddy Garcia. It could be the veteran Jamie Moyer. Maybe Aaron Sele would snag the honors.

For all the questions that hung in the air as the Mariners arrived in Anaheim, they still had 19 games and 20 days to figure it out. They’d move through the schedule, one game at a time, winning and playing into October.

*****

On the evening of September 10th, Freddy Garcia took the mound for the Mariners. He was the favorite to claim the opening pitching spot in the postseason and he wanted to make sure he got it. He became a Mariner when the Astros sent him to Seattle in exchange for Randy Johnson. Now in his third season with the team, he was making us forget about the tall guy, whose trade we had mourned. In 2001, Garcia threw a fastball in the low-90s, a changeup, and a beautiful, knee buckling 12-to-6 curveball. On September 10th, he was working on a season worth 5.3 fWAR that would see him win 18 games (it was an era when that mattered). He was an All-Star and would finish third in Cy Young Award voting.

The Anaheim Angels would finish third in the AL West in 2001, lagging behind the Mariners and the Oakland Athletics. It was Mike Scioscia’s second season as manager, and they sported these fantastic logos:

The Anaheim lineup on September 10th barely challenged Garcia. After allowing a leadoff single to Darin Erstad in the first inning, he retired 10 Angels in succession. Garret Anderson doubled in the 4th inning and Tim Salmon singled in the fifth. After that, 12 Angels in a row were sent back to the bench. In all, Garcia struck out 8 and didn’t walk a single batter in his shutout 8 inning performance:

The Mariners offense only scored five runs that night. 3 of the RBI belonged to third baseman David Bell. Mark McLemore drove in another run in the fifth inning, but was picked off at second. He immediately argued the call by umpire Lance Barksdale. McLemore swore to reporters after the game that he didn’t swear in his conversation with Barksdale, but nonetheless, he was ejected from the game.

Carlos Guillen, another player to come to Seattle in the Randy Johnson trade, replaced McLemore. Guillen had recently been cleared to play after suffering an ankle sprain earlier in the month. Unbeknownst to the Mariners, he was also playing with pulmonary tuberculosis. Determined to stick in his starting role at shortstop, he drove in a run in the eighth inning.

After 8 innings Garcia was at 116 pitches, so Arthur Rhodes came in to protect the 5-0 lead. After getting the first two batters out, the Angels came to life. Garret Anderson reached on a base hit. With Troy Glaus at the plate, Rhodes threw a wild pitch and Anderson moved into scoring position. Glaus singled him home on the next pitch. Up to the plate came Scott Spiezio, who hit a ground ball up the middle on an 0-2 count for another base hit. Rhodes wasn’t looking good as Tim Salmon dug in at the plate.

Stan Javier had started in left field for the Mariners that evening. The veteran had played 17 seasons of major league baseball and 2001 would be his last. As a 17 year veteran, Piniella decided to pinch run for him when he walked in his 8th inning plate appearance. His replacement was Charles Gipson. Gipson had been a fan favorite since he came up in 1998. Roaming the outfield with high socks, he fit right into the Mariners tradition of outfielders who made diving catches.

Rhodes worked the count full on Salmon. He delivered the payoff pitch and Salmon hit it well out to left field. Gipson went for it:

Gipson said after the game, “On the way to the ball, I was thinking that if I don’t catch this, (Piniella) is going to kick my butt.’’2 The Anaheim native added, “I got a good jump on the ball, and after my third step I decided not to pull up but go for it. For a scary second you wonder if you’ll get it but I was committed. When I felt that ball smack solid in the glove, rolling over and hearing my friends from down here screaming for me, there was no better feeling than knowing the game was over and we had won.”3

The victory lowered the Mariner’s magic number to just 2. If they won and Oakland lost the next night, they would clinch the division title. Poulsbo native and Washington State Cougar Aaron Sele was getting the start. Starting a game in which the Mariners could claim a division title was surely thrilling for Sele, who had grown up a Mariners fan.

The team went back to the Doubletree Hotel in Anaheim after the win, while dreams of clinching the division danced in their heads.

*****

The next morning at around 6:30 AM Pat Gillick walked into the hotel gym to get in a run on the treadmill. He found every television turned to the news.

Lou Piniella woke up to a phone call. It was his wife, Anita, in Florida.

About that same time my dad knocked on my bedroom door.

“Come downstairs. Two planes just hit the World Trade Center.”

“Was it an accident?” I asked, groggily trying to compute why I was being summoned out of sleep.

“No.”

And just like that, before we had the chance to realize it, we were deep into the After. We didn’t get the chance for closure. We didn’t have time to evaluate our naiveties and the way we thought about the world. Every moment of our lives—thoughts, events, mundanities—were immediately cataloged into the Before and the After. The Before became the mythological fading memories of the time we felt safe, the time before the world changed in an instant.

Baseball stopped for a week. How could you play games in the After? Yet, even before baseball had a chance to rescue the country, sports writers had decided it would. The clamor for games filled sports columns. Eventually the Mariners would take the field again. They would win the division on a somber night, kneeling before the flag. Safeco Field would gain another banner to hang in the rafters. But the banner won that night had little connection to the season that had won it. There was no champagne in the clubhouse after clinching the division. None after winning 116 games. None after winning the first round of the playoffs.

Officially the Mariners won 116 games in the regular season and lost in the ALCS to the New York Yankees. But the constraints of seasons and time can’t ever define that season. The season of the incredible Mariners ended on September 10th in Anaheim. They won 104 games. They had everything before them.

Everything that came from then on was washed in grief, in fear, in the After.

Before we had fully woken up and settled into September 11th, we were in the After. The 2001 we had been living and the 2001 baseball season the Mariners had been playing was over.

The world changed and we were forced to change with it.

Notes:

  1. Finnigan, Bob. “President Bush takes time out for three M’s - Notebook.” Seattle Times, The (WA), September 1, 2001: D6.
  2. Hickey, John. “GARCIA BEDEVILS ANGELS - MARINERS REDUCE MAGIC NUMBER TO WIN AL WEST TO TWO.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA), September 11, 2001: C1.
  3. Finnigan, Bob. “Shutting down the stretch run - Garcia dominates as M’s close in on title.” Seattle Times, The (WA), September 11, 2001: D1.