There aren’t many 40-year-old franchises that can claim as much star power as the Mariners. It’s puzzling that it didn’t translate into more team success. Specifically, when looking back at the golden era of Mariners baseball, it’s ultimately a story of underachievement.
That’s a dazzling array of names in our Mariners’ all-time top 10, isn’t it?
There aren’t many 40-year-old franchises that could claim such star power — two enshrined Hall of Famers (Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson), one should-be Hall of Famer (Edgar Martinez), one surefire future Hall of Famer (Ichiro), one Hall of Fame talent with a scarlet letter (Alex Rodriguez), and one possible Hall of Famer (Felix Hernandez).
In fact, the more you ponder that list, the more puzzling (maddening?) it becomes that it didn’t translate into more-tangible team success. Specifically, when looking back at what qualifies as the golden era of Mariners baseball — the seven-season span from 1995 to 2001 that accounted for the only four playoff appearances in club history — it’s ultimately a story of underachievement.
Perhaps that’s why Mariner nostalgia is guaranteed to rankle the rank-and-file fans who think it’s used as a diversion technique to obscure the glaring scarcity of achievement. The Mariners and Washington Nationals remain the only two MLB franchises to have never reached the World Series — but the Nationals are headed for their fourth playoff appearance since 2012, while the Mariners face a steep uphill road to attain their first since 2001.
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That’s not to say those weren’t thrilling times, and that they don’t deserve to be commemorated. Let’s face it, the Mariners don’t have much else to cling to. But it might be a bit more relevant if all those superstars had delivered at least a pennant.
The fact that they didn’t remains one of the great mysteries, and disappointments, of Mariners baseball. Ask Lou Piniella, who managed all four playoff teams, and Pat Gillick, who built the 116-win powerhouse of 2001, and they’ll tell you of their lingering regret over that deficiency. And Griffey, as transcendent as his career was, is perhaps captain of the small group of elite players — including Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Gaylord Perry, Hall of Famers all — who never made a World Series.
It hardly mattered in 1995, of course. The pure exhilaration of the playoff drive, coming from 13 games behind in August to catch the Angels, and the magic of the postseason, with the epic Division Series win over the Yankees, was more than enough. When the Indians knocked the Mariners out of the American League Championship Series, it barely dimmed the electricity of Seattle’s introduction to big-time baseball.
By 1997, the expectations had been raised, however. That is the year that always confounded me — the only season in which Griffey, Edgar, A-Rod, Big Unit, Jay Buhner, Jamie Moyer and Dan Wilson, seven members of our all-time Mariners top 10 — were all on hand, healthy and thriving for an entire season. The Mariners hit 264 home runs that season, which remains the major-league record. Griffey was the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Johnson was the Cy Young Award runner-up.
That should have been the year. But the Mariners had a fatal flaw, a bullpen that hemorrhaged leads. They made a panic move at the trade deadline, shipping Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek to the Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb, a trade that haunted them for years. This deal was made AFTER they already had acquired reliever Mike Tomlin from the Blue Jays (for top prospect Jose Cruz Jr.).
The Mariners went into September with just a one-game division lead. They wound up finishing with a 90-72 record — their first 90-win season — to take the AL West by six games. But in the playoffs, this sparkling collection of individual talent fell in the opening round in four games to the Orioles, exposing both their flaws and the fickle nature of postseason baseball. Mike Mussina outpitched the nearly unbeatable Big Unit — twice. In the first playoff appearance of his career, Moyer injured his elbow and had to be pulled early in another loss. It wasn’t to be.
Nor was it to be in 1998, the year Johnson was traded at the deadline; or 1999, Griffey’s final season in Seattle before the trade to Cincinnati; or 2000, when they made the postseason as the wild-card team but lost to the Yankees in the ALCS; or in 2001, when Ichiro’s arrival and a record-setting regular season still couldn’t get them past New York in the ALCS.
And we’re all still waiting for the next try, 16 years later. It’s going to happen, one of these years, maybe even this one. And one of these years, the Mariners might finally get to the World Series, and one year, they might even win it.
I mean, it might take 108 years, like the Cubs. But I’ve got to think it’s going to happen. And only then will the Mariners have a feat to match their honor roll of players.