So monumental has been the Mariners' collapse this year that it's fair to ask a once-unthinkable question. Will this be the worst Mariners...
So monumental has been the Mariners’ collapse this year that it’s fair to ask a once-unthinkable question.
Will this be the worst Mariners team in history?
It certainly seems to be earning a rightful place as Seattle’s most underachieving team. As my colleague, Geoff Baker, astutely pointed out in his blog, the 2008 Mariners could become the first ballclub in baseball history to join the 100-100 club — 100 losses with a payroll of more than $100 million.
But “underachievement” implies a team with abundant talent that should be doing better. At some point, as the losses mount, that assessment has to be subtly altered. This is — or has become — just a flat-out bad team.
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Yes, on some level, it is underachieving, but that level of putrid performance has become its standard. The season is more than one-third complete — a not-so-small sample size — and after the recent disastrous homestand, the Mariners were on pace for 105 defeats.
No Seattle team has ever lost more games — not the early expansion squads, not the retread-laden 1980s teams, not the Bill Plummer-managed disaster of 1992, not the past-their-prime 2004 club of Bob Melvin.
What took place Wednesday surely ranks as one of the lowest ebbs, if not the low ebb, in the 31-year annals of Marinerdom.
From Chuck Armstrong airing out the coaches before the game, to the surreal scene of the players ordered to sit at their lockers after the game, to John McLaren’s 50-second bleepfest — all accenting yet another in an endless string of defeats — it screamed of a team that’s become over-the-top dysfunctional.
Will it be, in the end, the worst Mariners team? To get a feel for the wretched early years of the franchise, I contacted an expert: Julio Cruz, now part of the Mariners’ Spanish-language broadcast team.
Cruz played on some of the most miserable M’s teams, including all three that lost 100 games (1978, 1980, and 1983). Cruz was actually traded to the White Sox in June ’83, and scored the winning run in the game that clinched a division title for the Sox — against the Mariners.
Cruz said he simply couldn’t bring himself to celebrate in front of old friends like Jim Beattie, Phil Bradley, Bill Caudill and Ed Vande Berg, suffering through the end of what would be a 103-loss Seattle season.
“Usually you’d give a fist pump and guys would be jumping on each other,” he said. “But I felt so bad for those guys. I played 6 ½ years with them. I didn’t celebrate much until I got into the dugout.”
Looking back at that era — Cruz was an original Mariner in 1977 — he said, “We just didn’t have talent to compete at that level. It’s funny, we broke up and Toronto [also a 1977 expansion team] stayed with the same guys and went on to win a couple of World Series.
“Same guys, same theory, same GM. They had one theory going. We had many theories, none of them right.”
Here, in chronological order, is a snapshot look at the six worst Mariners teams, all with winning percentages under .400.
1977, 64-98 (.395)
Fittingly, they were owned by a comedian, Danny Kaye. It was the first year of the franchise, and Seattle fans didn’t much mind the losing. They were just happy to have a team again after the Pilots skipped town seven years earlier.
And besides, playing in a brand-new, fan-friendly baseball palace like the Kingdome, who needed wins?
At least the ’77 M’s stunk for cheap: the entire payroll was $954,025 (about the equivalent of one Willie Bloomquist today).
1978, 56-104 (.350)
By record, this was the worst team ever, and they earned it. The leading winner of the staff with 11 was Enrique Romo, and he didn’t start a game. The best weapon on offense was Cruz’s legs: he stole 59 bases. Who can ever forget the likes of Tom Paciorek, Bob Stinson, Dan Meyer, Leon Roberts and Bruce Bochte?
1980, 59-103 (.364)
This Mariners team left an indelible mark on baseball history, helping to popularize the enduring term Mendoza Line.
Mario Mendoza was a shortstop on the 1979-80 Mariners known for his weak hitting (though he actually had a career-high .245 average in ’80). In ’79, Mendoza had hit .198, and according to lore, teammate Paciorek coined the phrase Mendoza Line to refer to a .200 average.
At some point, Paciorek or Bochte mentioned the phrase to Royals superstar George Brett. When Brett was quoted using the term early in 1980, it got national play, and lives on to this day.
Two other notable elements from 1980: Mike Parrott won on opening day for the Mariners and finished the season with a 1-16 record (and a ruptured testicle after getting, uh, beaned by a Roy Smalley smash; but that’s another story); and Maury Wills took over as manager on Aug. 4 after original skipper Darrell Johnson was fired, ushering in perhaps the most disastrous managerial reign in baseball history.
Oh, one other thing: pitcher Rick Honeycutt was nailed for scuffing a baseball, caught red-handed with a thumbtack and sandpaper taped to his index finger. Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye …
1983, 60-102 (.370)
This season is remembered mostly for The King Street Massacre. That took place on June 25, when popular manager Rene Lachemann was fired and future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry was released, along with shortstop Todd Cruz.
Spike Owen took over as shortstop and Del Crandall was the new skipper, though the move was so controversial the Mariners didn’t announce him before the game.
1992, 64-98 (.389)
Hard to believe that any team with Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Omar Vizquel and Randy Johnson all on hand and healthy could stink this much. But it did.
The one-and-done manager was Plummer, a loyal organization man who was promoted from third-base coach to replace Jim Lefebvre. Plummer quickly found his lifetime dream turning into a nightmare. Hmmm. Sound familiar?
2004, 63-99 (.389)
The ’04 Mariners probably most approximate this year’s mess. Coming off a 93-win season in ’03, they fully expected to be contenders, and instead were an unmitigated disaster.
Many of the heroes of the 2000-01 playoff runs were on their last legs (John Olerud was released in July). Scott Spiezio and Rich Aurilia were free-agent washouts, and one-time ace Freddy Garcia was dumped at the trade deadline.
At least the team had two compelling dramas to sustain interest through September: the final days of Martinez, who on Aug. 9 announced he would retire at the end of the season, and Ichiro’s successful pursuit of the all-time hits record.
Bucky Jacobsen was around for a while, too.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org