Greatness a decade gone was celebrated Saturday night as the Mariners welcomed back the heroes of the 116-win season. The fun mostly ended with the pre-game salutes.
Gather ’round, kidlets, a the tale is told of the time when the Mariners were giants who strode the earth.
Dogs yelped, babies wailed, women screamed and men trembled.
At least, if they were on the other team.
When we took the field, said Bret Boone, you just got the feeling from the opponents that they knew they were going to lose.
Seems so long ago. That happens when the current Mariners are on an eight-game losing streak, and their nine previous seasons never produced another post-season appearance.
The 2001 version was the franchise’s one and only great team. Yes, the 1995 outfit saved baseball in Seattle, so its impact was greater, but 116 wins made the Ought Ones a wire-to-wire, house-afire, one-to-admire colossus.
The colossus strode back into Safeco Field Saturday night, a little chubbier and grayer, although most in the crowd of 30,896 would have been happy to hand Boone, John Olerud, Edgar Martinez and Dan Wilson a contract, bat and hat in exchange for a couple of runs.
Friday night, the former Ms linked to the number 116 gathered at a downtown hotel ballroom reserved for them to re-live, and re-exaggerate, a majestic time in their lives.
A great time last night, said Boone. Lots of stories.
Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong welcomed the group around 6 p.m., said thank you, put down the company credit card, opened the bar and left the hotel. It was the players time, their 10th anniversary of one of the great feats in baseball history.
Short of a championship ring, it was a good gesture.
So was the ceremony Saturday night. Video highlights, field introductions and rolling ovations over several minutes for 22 former players and coaches who were more than thrilled to be invited back. The architect of the ’01 astonishment, general manager Pat Gillick, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame next week, was the last man introduced and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Before the game, Gillick had a simple, unsexy answer when asked for an explanation about ’01.
“I don’t want to use the word stunned,” he said. “I know this doesn’t play (well), but our execution was excellent — advancing the runner, hitting the relay man. We played the game the way it was meant to be played, and for this ballpark — pitching, defense and speed.”
The man preceding him onto the field, former manager Lou Piniella, blinked back some tears, hugged everyone of his exes and took the microphone to thank Seattle for 10 splendid years.
Mostly retired from baseball except for a little consulting work with the San Francisco Giants, Piniella — who dropped 25 pounds to help control his Type 2 diabetes diagnosed four years ago — said before the ceremony that he hasn’t stopped smiling for most of the weekend.
“For 10 years, this was a great situation for me, and for one season, we were 70 games over .500,” he said. “That was a special team, and I’m still not quite sure how we did it.”
Only six players from the 01 group remain on major league rosters Ichiro, Mike Cameron, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, Joel Pineiro and Arthur Rhodes, the latter a member of the bullpen of the Texas Rangers, who were in town Saturday night as well, helping the current Mariners make a little history too.
The 2011 edition broke the franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings, finally ending at 3o with a fifth-inning single by Ichiro. The crowd leaped up in appreciation, feeling no further compulsion to apologize to the reunion party for the current state of things. But the one run was a lonely sentinel against the Rangers, who won their third consecutive game of the series, this time 5-1, and 10th in a row overall.
The irony was not lost on any dedicated fan over the age of 15 the Mariners celebrated the greatest offensive team in club history by making them watch the worst offensive team in club history.
Not a good gesture.
But that was now. Saturday night was about then.
Ive stayed in touch with more of these guys than any teammates in my 15 years in the majors, said pitcher Aaron Sele, now an assistant to the general manager of the LA Dodgers. “Everyone felt a part of this team.”
In interviews before the game, the theme echoed.
“I never played on a team where I could go to dinner with all 24 guys,” Boone said. “Usually theres always someone where you say, ‘Ill play with him, but Im not going out to dinner with him.’
Of course, winning 20 games in April, then again in May, tends to make dinner companions by the boxcar.
The other theme that was inescapable was the absence of a championship for a team that seemed destined for one by that year’s All-Star Game, which included eight Mariners.
“I tried to think how we didnt do it,” said Boone, who with 37 homers had one of the great seasons by a second baseman in MLB history. “The only thing I could come up with was that as we got closer to 116 wins, the pressure kept building. Once we got to the record, it was like, whew.”
After a shaky series against Cleveland won 3-2 that taxed the starting rotation, the Mariners were out-pitched in the American League Championship series by the Yankees, who in the wake of 9/11 were packing the nation’s sentiments with them. Still, the 4-1 defeat was as hard to grasp then as now.
“The way the season had gone,” said Olerud, the first base stalwart, “not winning the World Series, not even making it, was a shock. We felt like we could win every ball game.”
After the season, Sele, a Kitsap County native, moved on to the Angels, who won the Series in 2002.
“Only after we won in Anaheim did I realize how special it was to win the Series,” he said. “It made it worse that we couldnt do it in Seattle, my hometown.”
The best chance missed, the Mariners are on a slow build to a second chance. The hope is that the few of the 10th anniversary guys will be around to see it.