Part of the Western Division of the American League, the Seattle Mariners are one of the comparatively newer franchises in the sport. Born of the protracted efforts to bring a Major League side to Seattle, the M’s were only set up in 1977 and have not exactly enjoyed the most successful of times. Nevertheless, they have picked up a few titles in their short history and their fans will be hoping to establish a pedigree in the sport soon enough.
The complicated birth of the Mariners
Baseball in Seattle had been confined to the minor Pacific Coast League throughout the 20th century, despite intermittent attempts to bring an established franchise to the coastal city. Indeed, had William Daley been in charge of matters, the Cleveland Indians could have been based in Seattle after 1965. Daley eventually succeeded in his efforts to create a side in Seattle, forming the Pilots in 1969, only for them to relocate to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers.
In the wake of the legal mire which accompanied this move, a deal was struck between the league and the city, from which the Mariners were established. Making their debut in 1977 in the Kingdome, which was primarily the home of the also newly established Seattle Seahawks NFL franchise, their early years proved to be incredibly frustrating.
Receiving a thumping in their first game at the hands of the California Angels, this set the tone for the rest of the campaign, which ended with the new boys second from bottom with just 64 victories, despite decent performances from starting pitcher, Diego Segui.
This precedent was followed for the next few seasons, as the Mariners either flirted with the bottom of the table or suffered the ignominy of actually propping up the division. Although the trend was briefly bucked in the 1982 and 1987 seasons, when the Mariners achieved mid-table respectability in 4th spot, normal service was quickly resumed and remained throughout the 1980s.
This was made worse by the stream of players with established quality forming the Mariners’ roster, with starting pitcher, Gaylord Perry, who would become a Hall of Famer for his achievements with the San Francisco Giants and the Cleveland Indians, second baseman, Harold Reynolds, who was selected as All-Star on two occasions while playing for the Mariners, and 4-time All-Star pitcher Mark Langston. It had been a torturous birth for the Mariners and an equally difficult infancy.
Gaining some recognition
The introduction of the legendary slugger, Ken Griffey Jr, in 1989 was the spark required to get people interested in the flailing Mariners. Making his debut on April 3rd, it didn’t take him long to develop a reputation, taking the first of his ten Gold Glove Awards in 1990, following it with the first of his Silver Slugger Awards in 1991, all the while being a mainstay of the All-Star side.
Now established as one of the most prolific home run hitters in the history of baseball, with well over 500 and counting, his ten year tenure with the Mariners before moving to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000 was absolutely pivotal to the franchise’s development.
With him in the side, the Mariners finally achieved their first winning season in 1991, finishing the campaign with 83 victories to just 79 defeats. Nevertheless, continued poor form led to managerial changes and, finally, new ownership, with Seattle-based businessmen, fronted by the Nintendo of America chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, taking over.
The new owners acted quickly by appointing the highly successful former Cincinnati Reds manager, Lou Piniella, as manager. His first season saw a marked improvement in standing, as the Mariners finished with their second winning season and ended in fourth position.
The improvements continued, courtesy of the combination of Piniella on the side and Griffey Jr on the field, and the 1995 season proved a momentous one. Not content with mere winning seasons, the Mariners finally broke into the big leagues, by taking the Western Division title, helped by the irrepressible Griffey Jr and Randy Johnson, not to mention the team slogan of ‘Refuse to Lose’.
The manner in which they clinched this victory was the stuff of legend, as a one-game play-off proved necessary to separate the Mariners from the California Angels (the Mariners having been at one point 13 games behind the Angels).
After taking that game with panache, the Mariners clinched the title and came up against the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series. Despite succumbing to the Indians by a large margin, the Mariners had nevertheless made their mark in the sport.
Plenty of ups and downs
By the start of the 1996 season, the Mariners had a formidable line-up based around Griffey Jr and Jay Buhner, assisted by the introduction of the future great, Alex Rodriguez. Despite winning a record number of games (85) though, the Mariners remarkably failed to reach the play-offs that season.
However, they made up for it in the 1997 campaign, as Lou Piniella’s charges marched to the Western Division title with a new record of 90 victories. Moving into the post-season Division Series, the Mariners faced the Baltimore Orioles but again came up short, with the Orioles running out 3-1 victors in the series.
This platform for success was slipping away and it was therefore little surprise when the Mariners declined substantially in the 1998 campaign, finishing a mediocre third place, just two games ahead of the rock bottom Oakland Athletics.
This blip turned into a rut, as the Mariners repeated their league form to finish second from bottom. In response, Ken Griffey Jr requested a trade and duly moved to the Cincinnati Reds to compound a miserable season, mitigated only by the completion of the Mariners’ own ballpark, Safeco Field.
With Griffey Jr gone, Alex Rodriguez was forced to take up the mantle of responsibility and he duly delivered in the 2000 season. Losing out by a mere half-game to the Oakland Athletics in the race for the Western Division title, the disappointment was eased when the Mariners were declared wild card winners.
With Mike Cameron, John Olerud, Rookie of the Year Kazuhiro Sasaki and Edgar Martinez all vitally contributing to the cause, it had been a highly successful season and only improved when the Mariners finally broke their play-offs hoodoo, by sweeping the Chicago White Sox. Despite losing out to the Yankees in the Championship series, the Mariners had replicated the best performance in their history.
Off season shenanigans and on-field success
Like Griffey Jr before him, Alex Rodriguez by this time had attracted the attention of a host of larger franchises. When he was up for free agency then, it was little surprise the Texas Rangers took the step of offering him what was then the largest contract in the sport’s history, which he accepted (Rodriguez would be on the receiving end of the current record contract, courtesy of the Yankees in late 2007).
Although Rodriguez would be made to feel unwelcome by the Mariners’ supporters subsequently, the team itself was strengthened by signings like Ichiro Suzuki and proceeded to make franchise history. In taking 116 games over the course of the regular season, the Mariners cruised to the Western Division title again.
They also proved their worth in the play-offs, taking a fascinating series against the Cleveland Indians in the final game, only to fall foul of the Yankees once again in the Championship series. Suzuki, in particular, proved a phenomenon in this season and was named the AL Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and its Batting Champion. As a tribute to the great team performance that year, the Mariners contributed a record eight players to the All-Star Game.
Painful decline in recent years
Since reaching their zenith in 2001, the story of the Mariners has been one of gradually dwindling form. Building on the previous campaign, the Mariners looked to be on course to establish a dynasty of success by skyrocketing to the top of the division in 2002. However, their early form deserted them towards the end of the campaign and, coupled with the excellent form of rivals, the Anaheim Angels, and eventual winners, the Oakland Athletics, ended a disappointing third.
That season marked the end of an era for the Mariners in more than one way, as the institution that was Lou Piniella finally stepped down, apparently infuriated by the lack of investment in the team and eager to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in his hometown. Replaced by Bob Melvin, the 2003 season looked to be a great debut showing, until the Mariners again collapsed towards the end of the season to finish outside the play-offs in second.
Thereafter, the Mariners’ fortunes took a dramatic downturn. The 2004 season proved the worst in recent memory, as they finished right at the bottom by a staggering 26 games, proving the division’s whipping boys. Needless to say, that showing put paid to Melvin’s hopes of continuing, and Mike Hargrove, formerly of the Cleveland Indians and the Baltimore Orioles, was brought in. However, his introduction made little impact on the franchise’s form, as they again propped up the table by a significant margin in 2005, replicating the feat for the third time in 2006.
With three consecutive disastrous seasons, two of which had taken place during his time, the pressure was on Hargrove and, although his record improved in the first-half of 2007, he made the decision to step down at the start of July.
His replacement, John McLaren, came from the Mariners’ own bench staff and continued Hargrove’s work, ensuring a second place finish and a modicum of respectability once again.
Since the conclusion of the 2007 season, the Mariners have made a number of changes, bringing in pitchers galore such as Carlos Silva from the Minnesota Twins and Erik Bedard from the Baltimore Orioles, in a mass trade as starting pitchers.
Considering their showing in 2007, there is some reason for the Mariners’ supporters to believe success is around the corner but, if their history has shown anything, it’s that disaster could equally be lurking.
- Western Division Title – Winners (1995, 1997, 2001)
- 42 – Jackie Robinson (as part of Major League Baseball’s retirement of the number)