October 26, 2001

Four reasons why the M's fell to the Yankees

I'm taking this week off from anti-Yankee rants, although I will continue to root ardently for whomever plays them. To satisfy anyone keeping track, I'm picking the Yankees in six. Curt Schilling gets tired and loses game four; Randy Johnson does the same in game five. So the Yankees get two freebies and go home winners once again.

There. Prediction out of the way. Look inside for the pro-Diamondbacks story. Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out what it is that went so wrong in Seattle. This team went 116-46 in the regular season, winning its division by 14 games over a very, very strong Oakland team. They had the best season ever, and they did it with team chemistry, good hitting, great coaching, and great pitching. Normally, that is the combination of things that gets a team deep into the playoffs. So what went wrong? A bunch of things.

Number one: the Mariners got scared. Bret Boone, who came out of absolutely the middle of nowhere to lead the American League in RBI this season, curled up into a little ball until the middle of the ALCS. Granted, he drove in six runs in his final three games as a playoff contender, but it was too little too late. Mike Cameron, whose gold-glove defense was so important to keeping runners off the basepaths, started tripping and stumbling all over the grass. Kazuhiro Sasaki, who led the American League in saves, threw meatballs with extra sauce. Aaron Sele lost three more postseason games, dropping his career playoff record to 0-6 (0-5 against the Yankees, who are the only team anyone ever plays in the postseason). In fact, with the exception of the unflappable Ichiro, every single Mariners hitter had a postseason average lower than his regular season figure. The whole team got scared, all at once. No crying in baseball.

Number two: depth counts less in October. The boys from Seattle had a penchant for getting timely hits from virtual unknowns. Carlos Guillen, Mark McLemore, Dan Wilson. All were a bunch of no-names who seemed to come up with something when the time was right. But the Yankees, and to some extent the Indians, had a unified front. A team of nine or ten day-to-day players who came in, did their jobs, and went home. It would have taken some special brand of managing to get the right guys in at the right time. Shuffling things around works, apparently brilliantly, in the regular season — witness Jimy Williams before his untimely firing. Consistency wins playoff games.

Number three: no bread-and-butter. The Mariners needed big bats and big game pitchers, and they found out they only had mediums of everything. Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson: they officially miss you in Washington. When it was time to win a game, Lou Piniella had three or four guys he might turn the ball over to, and none he could be positive would step up. Remember: the last time the Mariners beat the Yankees, they did it by bringing in the Big Unit to finish the job. Likewise, when the Mariners needed a hit, there were two guys (Boone and Martinez) who had made bids at doing just that. But no one was the go-to guy, and that hurt the team.

Number four: home field advantage was a sham. Baseball history has certainly made it clear that parks with character (Wrigley and Fenway) are emphatically not the cause of postseason success. But Safeco Field certainly did nothing to help the M's. Not only did this sleek, newfangled contraption feel more like an office than a baseball stadium, but the Mariners themselves had no allegiance to it. In spite of a newfound glut of fair-weather fans, few die-hards have stayed with the team for very long. Oddly enough, Seattle's superior road record compounded this problem. They were so proficient away from home that it offered them very little to return to Safeco.

Luckily for new Mariners fans, this kind of season builds character. All Red Sox fans remember gamesix, when Bill Buckner gave away the World Series to the Mets by letting a grounder dribble through his legs. All Giants fans remember their 103-59 season, when the divisional alignment kept them out of the playoffs because the Braves were 104-58. Meanwhile, fewer Yankees fans probably remember Scott Brosius' World Series MVP season. They have been around for too much of that kind of thing. But rest assured that all Mariners fans will remember Kaz Sasaki blowing the game in New York.

Legends will grow in Seattle, as they have grown in other cities. Commentators will speculate on Lou Piniella's "we will return for gamesix" guarantee, and on the prospects of the M's winning the final two games of the series. They will talk of the opportunities they lost when Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano sealed their collective fate with weak 330-foot home runs. 2001 will become Seattle's year that never was. Maybe then the team will have some character. And maybe then they can win some games.