Here’s an all-time baseball roster for you: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Robinson Cano, Lou Piniella. Get a team with them as your keystones and you’re gonna win some ballgames. The incredible thing is that all of those players HAVE worn the same uniform at some point; unfortunately, they never seemed to be surrounded by anything other than scrubs when it counted. Welcome to the world of the Seattle Mariners, the baseball dictionary definition of underachievement. Despite some excellent players and great chances at success, though, the Mariners developed some rather silly habits which prevented them from ever getting over the hill. Only two teams in baseball have never been to the World Series, and the Mariners are one of them.
Although the Mariners didn’t come along until later, the story of Major League Baseball in Seattle starts with a 1969 squad called the Seattle Pilots. The Pilots went through all your standard fresh-new-first-year-team troubles, but they also got slammed with a few issues which were rather unique: The stadium which had housed Seattle’s minor league team, the Rainiers, was the home of the Pilots, had to be expanded to 30,000 seats. Team management had apparently overpromised and underdelivered. The place didn’t have any water pressure after the seventh inning if the crowd was over 8000. In short, their stadium was lousy even by the standards of temporary digs, but while they were supposed to have a new place coming at Seattle Center, that turned out to be one fight which opponents of a new stadium won. It was clear by the end of the season that something would need to be done with the Pilots, and that something was to sell the team to a car salesman named Bud Selig. Although the Pilots showed up for Spring Training the next year, no one knew where they would play until Selig took them to Milwaukee and renamed them the Brewers. Selig wanted to change the colors to navy and red to honor the minor league Brewers that he grew up watching, but the move came so late that the Brewers were stuck with the Pilots’ old blue and gold uniforms, which they’ve worn ever since.
Yeah, the Pilots were basically relegated to MLB footnote status, and they would have remained there under most circumstances. But during their lone year in baseball, they employed the services of an unusually intellectual pitcher named Jim Bouton. Bouton was an astute observer and, during the 1969 season, he wrote his thoughts and observations down in a journal. His account was straightforward, blunt, and shocking for the time. And the next year, it made it into book form as Ball Four. One of the most important sports books ever written, Ball Four is the book which is widely credited with shooting the myth of the noble athletic hero to hell. Bouton was blacklisted by the baseball establishment because it gave away all of the secrets about the lives of professional athletes, but the fans at it up, and today – while pushing the 50th year since its first publication – it’s regarded as one of baseball lit’s supreme classics.
Seattle, meanwhile, was less than enthused about losing its team. The city went about suing Major League Baseball for breach of contract, and it got some heavy assistance from King County and the State of Washington as well. King County in particular believed that Seattle would be getting a new team within a few years, which is why the Kingdome was built. And in 1976, with the lawsuit having been dragged out, MLB finally threw up its hands and said, “Alright! Alright! Here’s a new team! Just drop this damn lawsuit already!” Club officials threw a name-the-team contest which somehow managed to turn out well: The club had over 600 names to pick from which were submitted by over 15,000 people, and they went with one of the most perfect names in American sports: Mariners.
The Seattle Mariners finally hit the diamond in 1977 to a sold-out crowd at the Kingdome, where they showed their thousands upon thousands of new fans what they were made of by losing 7-0 to the California Angels. The highlights of the early Mariners include things like the first home run in team history: April 10, 1977, by designated hitter Juan Bernhardt. And catcher Bob Kearney punching out pitching coach Frank Funk. And the hiring of broadcaster Dave Niehaus. And the 1979 All-Star Game being held at the Kingdome. And being sold to California businessman George Argyros. And… Uh, well, these aren’t exactly world-quaking highlights, are they? Well, there was Gaylord Perry winning his 300th career game in 1982, which brought positive national attention to the team, but that was forgotten in short order because Perry was released a year later for being a disruptive clubhouse presence. If you’re looking for reel-type highlights, the Mariners had plenty of those as well, but they all seemed to happen TO the Mariners rather than FOR them. For example, Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox set a record for strikeouts when he struck out 20 Mariners in 1986. Those were 20 strikeouts on the way to a seasonal total of 1148, the most ever in the American League at the time.
The early Mariners were better known for moves of questionable baseball acumen. In 1978, they made a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates for noted shortstop Mario Mendoza. Mendoza had moves on defense, but he also came with a batting average which was usually on the under of .200. In 1980, the Mariners were owned by lifelong Dodgers fan Danny Kaye. It’s said that Kaye pushed for the hiring of former Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills as a manager in August 1980. Wills lasted for all of 82 games, getting himself fired the following May after a 6-18 start. Wills made a lot of mistakes and oversights, and there’s a strong case to be made for him being the worst baseball manager, ever. He later admitted that he had a cocaine problem during his time in Seattle. In 1985, the team traded for Steve Yeager, a washed-up 37-year-old catcher who hit .207 in 53 games the previous year for the Dodgers. They figured he would be a spirit lift in the clubhouse and regain his mojo. And in fairness, he did do better in 1986: He hit .209 in 50 games, walked away with one of the team’s highest salaries, and never played again. In 1986, Dave Henderson and Spike Owen were traded to the Red Sox for deadweights. Meanwhile, Henderson lives on in Boston lore for slamming the long ball that vaulted the Bosox into the World Series that very year, and Owen had been the first Captain in Mariners history… For the four months preceding his trade. The Mariners did have Danny Tartabull in 1986, who hit 25 homers and drove in 96 runs, but even with those numbers, the Mariners somehow concocted the idea that he should play winter ball. Tartabull was understandably tired, but he made the mistake of telling the team, and the team traded him to the Kansas City Royals. The Seattle Times reported that the return package for him included pitchers Mark Gubicza and David Cone. The pitchers who actually showed up were Scott Bankhead and Steve Shields, who were, ah, NOT Gubicza and Cone. In 1981, during a road game against the Texas Rangers, the team’s uniforms were stolen. The team’s trainer commented that the Mariners must have finally come of age, because someone wanted their uniforms badly enough to break in and steal them.
This became a pattern with the Mariners: Losing records, lousy performances from bad players, terrible trades, and the Kingdome having attendance low enough to hear echoes was Seattle’s trade in stock. And it was a pattern that went on for far longer than anyone expected it to. The Mariners were able to find some good players – Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, and Mark Langston all had talent to spare for any fan willing to pay for tickets. It wasn’t until 1988, though, that the Mariners finally got something to go their way: At the time, the Mariners were employing the services of a decent batter named Ken Phelps. The New York Yankees were in need of a decent batter, and liked what they saw in Phelps. The Yankees had a prospect named Jay Buhner they thought they could live without. This looked like another boneheaded Mariners trade, but Phelps – who, perhaps notably, was native to Seattle – couldn’t keep his numbers up. On the other hand, Buhner found a home in Seattle, became one of the team’s most popular players, retired a Mariner, and still lives in the area. Then in 1989, all the team’s losing paid off with a primo draft pick: Ken Griffey Jr.
It took 15 years, but the 1991 Mariners finally closed a season with more wins than losses. They went 83-79, good for fifth place in a seven-team division in which no one had a losing record. So what was the next move? Why, fire the manager, of course! Yeah, manager Jim Lefebvre was booted and replaced by a guy who LOST 98 games the next year. He got fired after that season, and the next manager of the Seattle Mariners was a seasoned managerial genius who guided the Cincinnati Reds to a surprise World Series victory in 1990: Lou Piniella. Although the infamous strike of 1994 stopped things, it was clear these weren’t the same old Mariners. With Buhner and Griffey, Edgar Martinez guarding the hot corner, Randy Johnson’s 100-MPH fastball, and Piniella’s supernatural field vision, the Mariners were suddenly dangerous. In 1995, the Mariners managed to flag down an Angels team that spent August choking and tripping all over itself, won 25 of their last 36 games, and won a single-game playoff against that same Angels team to punch its first-ever ticket to postseason action. Falling into an 0-2 hole against the Yankees in the ALDS, they fought back to force the fifth, deciding game. That fifth game went to an 11th inning, in which the Mariners were down 5-4, when Martinez hit a double that won the game and throw the Mariners into the ALCS. While the Cleveland Indians took the ALCS in six games, that ALDS is remembered as the Mariners’ finest hour. The team had been clamoring for a baseball-only stadium for awhile by then, and the 1995 season – known as The Miracle Mariners of 1995 – is what renewed enough interest in baseball to make it happen.
Although Alex Rodriguez added more talent to the Mariners in 1996, the team spent the rest of the decade being a little on the spotty side. Pitching depth was a foreign concept, which worked against them when Randy Johnson was traded in 1998 after their GM refused to give him a long-term contract. Griffey requested a trade to the Reds in 1999. In 2000, the Mariners made the Wild Card spot in the playoffs, returned to the ALCS, and lost to the Yankees in six games. (What? You were expecting the Montreal Expos?) The next season, Rodriguez left to take up the Texas Rangers on the richest contract in professional sports, ever: Over $200 million. Fortunately, the Mariners faithful were able to forget about A-Rod when the team introduced Ichiro Suzuki, one of the great hitting kings in baseball history. In 2001, things got off on the right foot. The Mariners won, and won, and won again, and won some more. They led the league in winning percentage all year and ended the regular season with more wins than any other team except the 1906 Chicago Cubs. Ichiro, Martinez, Mike Cameron, Bret Boone, John Olerud, Freddy Garcia, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Jeff Nelson were all All-Stars that year. Things were looking bright, but anyone who knows their baseball history remembers that the Cubs – with their 116 wins – were wasted in the World Series by their opponents, the crosstown Chicago White Sox. Maybe that should have been an omen. The Mariners didn’t fare wonderfully in the postseason either. They beat the Indians in the ALDS, but needed all five games to pull out a come-from-behind victory. With their energy apparently used up, they next succumbed to the Yankees in the ALCS. Again. That’s 116 victories, all wasted because the Mariners’ 4-6 postseason record couldn’t even get them a Pennant. At least the 1906 Cubs had that to brag about. And the 2001 World Series would have been interesting had the Mariners gotten that far: They would have been pitted against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were in their third or fourth year of, uh, existence!
The Mariners followed that up with a great 93-win campaign, but didn’t find anyone to really help the team by the time the trade deadline rolled around. They ended up missing the playoffs because the Angels and Oakland Athletics both used the late months of the season to go on mighty tears, and the AL West was just that good. Lou Piniella developed a few suspicions about the team management after that season. Suspicions about the team’s operative ethos. Suspicions about just what the bottom line really was. Suspicions which weren’t exactly helped in the aftermath of the 2001 season, when team president Howard Lincoln admitted that he had to make decisions with the goal of operating at a profit. Suspicions which also weren’t helped when it was revealed that the Mariners had a $170 million revenue for that season, which was second only to the Yankees. And suspicions which were goddamned fucking certainly not helped when Lincoln admitted that the goal of the team was to field a competitive team rather than win the World Series! Piniella blew his top but what else is new. Oh yeah, and he also left the team in a huff after 2002 to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. So there was that.
Enter Bob Melvin, the new manager for the Mariners. The Seattle press thought he was there strictly to be the owner’s puppet, but it turned out that Melvin did have a bit of talent as a manager. In his first season, the Mariners won 93 games again. They reversed course the next year and lost 99, but that failure was again blamed on the front office standing pat at the trade deadline. Melvin was fired after the season, but has gone on to find modest success with Oakland and Arizona, winning Manager of the Year awards with both.
The Mariners since then managed to dig up Felix Hernandez, get sold to Nintendo of America, and enjoy a successful 2007 season. They also discovered Adam Jones, whom they promptly traded to the Baltimore Orioles before he had a chance to develop. Ichiro had nine consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more. Ken Griffey Jr. returned and eventually retired. Although they’ve started posting winning records on a semi-frequent basis, those records are more respectably good than, you know, GOOD. In fact, they’re much better known for their worse distinctions: They still haven’t returned to the playoffs since their 116-win season in 2001. They have one of the highest payrolls in baseball – one which, last I checked, eclipsed every team except the Yankees and Red Sox – and are the highest-payrollingest team to ever miss the playoffs. They still can’t stop trading away prime talent. And despite their payroll, they still continue to act like a team being run on a shoestring budget: General manager Jerry Dipoto started his GM career in 2010 with a single shit season for the Diamondbacks. He then took over the Los Angeles Angels and ran an operation which had Mike Trout for a good length of it to an average record. He left the Angels for disagreeing with manager Mike Scioscia about baseball analytics. Think about that: Scioscia has been the Angels’ manager since 2000. He won two Manager of the Year awards and the team’s first and only World Series title. Would it not occur to Dipoto that Scioscia KNEW WHAT HE WAS FUCKING DOING?! Manager Scott Servais isn’t looking BAD so far, but he’s also in his first year as a first-time manager. The front office is… Shall I say… Unimpressive. The Mariners have been expected to do better for the last several seasons, but as far as that Pennant or World Series title goes, well, let’s just say the single-game Wild Card playoff spot looks like it’s going to be their best friend for a few years.
I don’t count Jackie Robinson’s number among those retired for any teams except the Los Angeles Dodgers, since every team retired it. That means the Mariners have one retired number so far: Ken Griffey Jr’s 24. Unfortunately, the Mariners have some stringent rules regarding number retirement. To be eligible for number retirement by the Mariners, a player has to have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame – a bullshit requirement if ever there was one – AND spent at least five years playing for Seattle; or come close to election while having spent most of their career with Seattle. And players aren’t eligible until they’re eligible for Hall of Fame voting. So far, the only other player the Mariners have who meets those requirements is Randy Johnson. And that leaves some rather important contributors to the team out of the running: Jay Buhner, who played a big role during Seattle’s formative years; Ichiro Suzuki, baseball’s hit king; and most importantly, Edgar Martinez. And if there’s one player who was Mr. Mariner, it’s Martinez. He played baseball for 18 years, all with the Mariners, contributed to their best teams, has stats that make the borderline for the Hall of Fame, and a list of accolades as long as my left arm. That he may not get his number retired on something so arbitrary boggles the mind.
As far as the roster goes, the Mariners are much better known for the players they let get away than the players that have played for Seattle. This list has some whoppers: Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, Tino Martinez, Adam Jones, Derek Lowe, Carlos Guillen, and Adrian Beltre are only a fraction of them. And those are the ones who didn’t really make names for themselves in Seattle – they waited until leaving first. And several of them have been key players for more than one World Series champion: Varitek, Ortiz, and Lowe were among the standouts on the mighty cursebreaker Boston Red Sox in 2004, and were still hanging around when the Red Sox won it again in 2008. Tino Martinez anchored the hot corner for the Core Four Yankees dynasty. Adam Jones is quickly becoming the face of the Orioles.
Being on the young side, the Mariners are a little low on sacred team traditions, but they do have one that stands out: Rally Fries! That was started by broadcaster Mike Blowers in 2007. During a game against the Reds, a fan tried to catch a foul ball along the right field foul line but wound up spilling his tray of french fries right onto the warning track. Blowers and his partner, Dave Sims, happened to catch the mishap while chatting on the air and Sims suggested sending a new tray of fries. Blowers like the idea and sent his intern to deliver a new plate of fresh french fries. Of course, other fans happened to catch what happened and, America being a jealous and greedy country, got jealous and greedy. At the very next game, fans started showing up with signs asking for free french fries. Every time a new plate of fries was delivered, the Mariners seemed to score. Voila, Rally Fries were created! Blowers will usually select people or groups wearing funky costumes or carrying creative signs, and selections are made around the fifth or sixth inning. The fries come from Seattle chain Ivar’s, a seafood joint with a location inside Safeco Field.
The Mariners, as a team, don’t offer a whole lot of history. Part of that is because they’re so young. (They’re the youngest of the three baseball teams I follow, and maybe the youngest major league team that I follow overall.) They started playing in 1977, which makes them one of the youngest teams in baseball; the Toronto Blue Jays started playing the same year, and there are four teams that are younger: The Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Rays, and Arizona Diamondbacks. Of those five teams, though, it’s the Mariners who are the least accomplished. The Blue Jays, Marlins, and Diamondbacks have all won the World Series – the Jays and Marlins both managed to do it twice – while the Rockies and Rays have reeled in Pennants. They have several defining moments – The Double, the 116-win season, and hell, Griffey’s Hall of Fame speech recently too – and several defining players, but without the Pennants or titles, it’s tough to attach a history to them.
There’s something funny about sports in the northwest, or at least the perception of them. Media coverage of the northwest is sporadic at best, so it’s not often that fans across the country get to see sports teams in the area. Therefore, it’s a popular assumption that fans in the northwest are fairweather. Seattle is a tech hotbed, right? What would all those nerds have to do with sports? Well, that’s the perception. The reality is that sports fans in the northwest are out of their damn minds. The people of Seattle are crazy about the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and even the Supersonics – the basketball team that left for Oklahoma City still has fans running around in vintage gear. Any fan of those teams can stand there for hours regaling newcomers with stories of the great moments from their teams’ histories, and there are a lot of those fans. Adopting a team or three in the northwest means you’re instantly part of the community. It gives the sports fandom a kind of small-town feel. For me, it makes the Mariners very easy to like.
And that’s the great advantage the cheering for the Mariners can offer right now, because outside the northwest, cheering for the Mariners is very unusual. But that also makes it as unique and quirky as the northwest itself.
116 wins during the regular season is an accomplishment; fandom has a close-knit tightness that makes it feel special; Mariners want to win and pay out the ass to try to make it happen
You won’t win any bar arguments against Yankees fans; try not to get too attached to your favorite players; isolated location can make them tough to follow
Should you be a fan?
The closeness of the fanbase and relative isolation of Seattle brings a lot of good from fans of the Seattle Mariners, which means there’s going to be one hell of a payoff if they ever get their act together. Even though Seattle is a big city, its teams get so little national coverage that being a fan of the Mariners places you in tighter quarters than being a fan of the Yankees or Red Sox ever could. (Note again: I cheer for the big time Yankees and White Sox, as well as the Mariners – all legitimately – so I know the differences well.) And that’s the reason you would follow the Mariners, because if you’re just trying to be a glory hound, well, good luck with that because the Mariners won’t win anything for awhile.