The 2001 Mariners had no superstars and few egos, but they were a perfectly built machine in the clubhouse and on the field. For one wonderful summer, it all added up to 116 victories.
In late March 2001, Mariners manager Lou Piniella called a team meeting to exhort his ballclub, which hadn’t been performing up to his expectations in spring training.
“He let us have it,” recalled John Olerud. “He said, ‘We have to get this thing turned around, because once the season starts, you can’t flip a switch.’
“Looking back,” said Olerud last week, “it did look like we flipped a switch.”
Indeed, from the moment the season started April 2, the Mariners illuminated the baseball world. They won an astonishing 116 games, matching the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the most in baseball history. The figure continues to boggle the mind.
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The second-place A’s won 102 games, and were a distant 14 games back in the division. It struck general manager Pat Gillick recently that the ’01 Mariners finished 70 games above .500. He uttered those last four words with incredulity.
“I never thought about that before,” he said. “It’s hard to believe.”
With 10 years to reflect, the participants remain in awe of their runaway success in 2001, which a decade later defies logical explanation. The 2001 Mariners will be feted at Safeco Field on Friday and Saturday, and when they gather for a reunion on July 16 — The Boone and Bone, Olerud and Wilson, Moyer and Sele, Mac and Nelly and Lampkin and The Sheriff, among others — they will no doubt shake their head at the improbability of it all.
“We didn’t have a lot of household names,” reliever Jeff Nelson said. “But we knew when we stepped on the field we could beat anyone.”
“No one was great,” added outfielder Stan Javier, “but everyone was good.”
It was a team, admits its architect, Gillick, that worried him heading into spring training, even before Piniella had his annual spring rant. They had lost Alex Rodriguez — their best player from 2000’s 91-win, wild-card club — to free agency that winter, on top of the departures of Ken Griffey Jr. the previous year, and Randy Johnson in 1998.
“I was very fearful, losing someone of the caliber of Alex,” Gillick said. “To be frank, I was just hoping we would get back to the playoffs.”
But the 2001 Mariners turned out to be a testament to Gillick’s team-building skills, a career’s worth of which will land him in the Hall of Fame later this month.
They were exquisitely constructed, with depth everywhere you turned:
• In the rotation, where the No. 4 starter, Paul Abbott, went 17-4;
• In the bullpen, where Piniella could turn to three righties (closer Kazu Sasaki, Nelson and Jose Paniagua) and two lefties (Arthur Rhodes and Norm Charlton) in tight situations;
• On the bench, where Mark McLemore and Javier — both switch-hitters — were vital cogs;
• And in the lineup, where new additions Bret Boone and Ichiro were the catalysts to a team that led the majors in runs with 927, four more than the pre-humidor Colorado Rockies.
It had power (Boone with 37 homers; Edgar Martinez, Olerud and Mike Cameron all more than 20) and speed (a club-record-tying 174 steals, including Ichiro with a league-leading 56). It had superb defensive contributions from Ichiro, Cameron and Olerud, among others. It had its top four starters — Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele and Abbott — combine to go 70-21 (.769).
Even the notoriously demanding Piniella says now, “We had everything we needed. You could really do whatever you wanted with that team. I just stayed out of the way and let them do their jobs.”
“If you look back at it, the sum was much greater than the pieces,” Gillick said. “It all fit together. They just played that year very sound and fundamental baseball, and did everything they had to do.”
Everything except make it to the World Series; the five-game loss to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series still gnaws away, 10 years later. The Mariners lost to a dynasty that had won the previous three World Series, and for once had the entire nation on its side in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center five weeks earlier.
“We were up against a team in its prime that had a wealth of talent,” Piniella said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump that way. The amazing thing is, we wanted to play the Yankees in the postseason. We wanted to beat the best. We never quite got it done.”
Until that point, the Mariners could do no wrong. They lost more than two games in a row just once; that four-game losing streak didn’t occur until late September after they had anticlimactically clinched the division in the somber aftermath of 9/11.
There is unanimity among players from 2001 that the chemistry and camaraderie on that Mariners team was extraordinary, with an acknowledgment that it’s hard not to be buddies when you’re winning virtually every night.
“I really think about that team in terms of it being the biggest team concept I’ve ever been a part of,” said catcher Dan Wilson, one of numerous veteran leaders on the club. “We all had our individual parts to do, but we were all in it together. It worked very, very well, and Lou was the conductor of that orchestra. He kept the baton moving.”
“It was a team of friends that played well together,” added John McLaren, Piniella’s bench coach in ’01. “They fed off each other. It was as good of chemistry as I’ve ever seen. Of course, we won, and that made the chemistry a lot better.”
The mix of personalities, from the brash Boone to the laconic Olerud, meshed perfectly. They even drew out Ichiro, who was grappling with the pressure of being the first Japanese position player in the majors, on his way to an MVP season.
“Guys like McLemore and Boonie and Cameron wouldn’t allow him to just be quiet and sit in his locker,” said Sele. “They’d pull him in, and his personality would show. Ichi mixed in as well as anyone in that clubhouse. He was a great player, and a great teammate.”
Added Olerud: “I think he knew English better than he let on. He was trying to interact with the guys and learn some of the slang and some of the Spanish stuff. He was definitely a fun addition to the team. He got in a little trouble with guys teaching him some English phrases that were not quite on color. He had to tone it down after a while when he realized the guys were not always giving him good things to say.”
Nelson played on three title teams in New York and said the Mariners’ chemistry surpassed that of the Yankees, who found it harder to bond in a clubhouse perpetually filled with reporters.
“I don’t know if it will ever be repeated,” he said. “No one was allowed to be singled out as far as going out on their own. We’d say, ‘You’re going to eat with us.’ Guys couldn’t hide. We wouldn’t let them.
“We’ve obviously seen Ichiro separate himself from the team. Even in ’02 and ’03, you could see him slowly slide away. In ’01, he couldn’t. Whether it was him being his first year, no one could slide away from that team. We had 25 guys, and that was it.”
By the end of April, the Mariners were 20-5. From May 23 to June 8, they ran off a 15-game winning streak to move to 47-12, opening up a 17-game lead. They didn’t lose their first series until May 18-20 against the Yankees, and they didn’t lose their first series on the road until late September. Fans packed Safeco Field — which was in just its second full year of operation — to near-capacity almost every night.
“As we got ourselves way above .500, now the expectations on winning were there, and things snowballed for us on the positive side,” said Piniella. “We had a chance to win 117, the most ever, and got beat the last game of the season (4-3 to the Rangers).
“Look, what a manager really enjoys about managing is winning. I learned that early in my managing career from Mr. Steinbrenner. I had a great coaching staff, and Pat and Lee (Pelekoudas) got us the players. I was very relaxed all year. Winning was almost a daily occurrence. It was as fun a year as I ever had in baseball.”
At the All-Star Game in July — played fortuitously in Seattle — the M’s placed eight players on the team, and no one complained. With a 63-24 record at the break, it was hard to argue.
Olerud remembers the Mariners coming back from a long road trip in midseason, and Piniella canceling batting practice the next night, which was a rarity. They won, so Piniella, in step with baseball superstition, made BP optional the next night as well.
“I remember looking at Dan (Wilson),” Olerud said. “Who ever has optional hitting on two night games in a row? What’s next? Are we going to just throw our jocks on the field and see how that works? Everything was working for us that year.”
It was that kind of season, at least until October. Maybe that’s why, when backup catcher Tom Lampkin was asked for his memories of 2001, he spoke for 24 teammates when he said, “I just remember winning games.”
But the last word should go to Sele: “When you’re in the middle of it and going through the grind, you don’t realize what’s happening. Until it’s all over and you look back, 10 years later, and say, ‘Wow. We were that good.’ “
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com