BY Art Thiel 04:00PM 06/19/2019

Thiel: Mariners have a shot to catch the Pilots

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle Pilots, the Mariners are on their way to replicating the 1969 season. Now that’s dedication to history.

The 1969 Seattle Pilots at Sicks Stadium. / David Eskenazi Collection

The Mariners Saturday will be acknowledging, or commemorating — “celebrating” doesn’t seem quite the right word — the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Seattle Pilots, the awkward runt of MLB that lasted a single season. Enough time has passed that the criminal ineptitude of the operation now seems more like a childhood prank on the order of stuffing Aunt Thusnelda’s wig down the toilet.

To salute whatever that was, the Mariners are staging another Turn Back the Clock event ahead of the 1:10 p.m. Saturday start of the game against Baltimore. The players will wear Pilots uniforms and the first 20,000 fans will receive a replica cap, complete with the “scrambled eggs” trim on the bill.

Sadly, there is no scheduled appearance for buccaneer Bud Selig, the Milwaukee car salesman who in 1970 bought the Pilots out of bankruptcy for $10 million and made them the Brewers. If the ceremony included placing the early-day Clay Bennett in a dunk tank at home plate, a sellout would be guaranteed.

Alas, the best participant witness they can summon is Gary Bell, who pitched a complete-game, 7-0 win over the Chicago White Sox April 11, 1969, the Pilots’ first home game at Sicks’ Seattle Stadium in Rainier Valley. It was the harbinger of nothing.

Now 82, Bell, who had his 12th and final MLB season in Seattle, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. That will generate hundreds of lame jokes about his joining the Mariners’ current rotation. Then everyone can sit back and enjoy bags of popcorn at the 1969 price of 50 cents, the club’s magnanimous financial/nutritional instant ritual to reconnect with the ancients.

It is too bad the promotion doesn’t include distribution of copies of Ball Four, the seminal book by Pilots pitcher Jim Bouton that ripped the skin off the game and became one of the turning points in 20th century American sports journalism/literature. Much of the book was Bouton’s bemused reflections on the hapless Pilots and the tawdry customs and characters that populated America’s then-most popular sport.

Bell’s appearance Saturday evokes the irreverent mention of him by Bouton in the book:

Gary Bell is nicknamed Ding Dong. Of course. What’s interesting about it is that “Ding Dong” is what the guys holler when somebody gets hit in the cup. The cups are metal inserts that fit inside the jock strap, and when a baseball hits one it’s called ringing the bell, which rhymes with hell, which is what it hurts like. It’s funny, even if you’re in the outfield, or in the dugout, no matter how far away, when a guy gets it in the cup you can hear it. Ding Dong.

Jim Bouton immortalized the 1969 Pilots in his book, Ball Four. / David Eskenazi Collection

It’s funny, unless you’re Mitch Haniger. But we digress.

The larger narrative Saturday is that the Mariners are offering up something beyond Bell, hats, popcorn, video and music of yesteryear (yes, there will be an organist playing live).

They are offering the 2019 season as a replica of the 1969 season. It may be a reverence for history unparalleled in the annals of sport.

The Pilots finished 64-98, 33 games back of the division lead, thanks in part to the terms of expansion regarding player acquisition that left them largely with castoffs and unproven youngsters. The under-capitalized team drew 677,944, 20th among 24 MLB teams, thanks in part to a hastily renovated minor-league ballpark that opened with only 19,500 seats, some of which were still damp with fresh paint, and tickets priced among the highest in baseball.

The 2019 Mariners are operating under no similar constraints.

The franchise, originated from a settlement of a lawsuit over the Pilots departure that was destined to prove the American League team owners to be a gang of scofflaws, scalawags and brigands, is owned by prosperous members of the community. They operate a vast regional monopoly with its own TV network in a spectacular, rain-proof stadium funded by taxpayers, who once gathered in sufficient numbers (3.5 million in 2002) to lead all of MLB in attendance.

All of these advantages that have accrued over a half-century put the lie to the claim from many critics in MLB, from the 1960s through the the mid-1990s, that Seattle was a bad baseball town. It was, instead, a town of bad baseball.

Then. And now.

Entering Wednesday’s games, the Mariners were 31-46, a winning percentage of 40.3. Maintaining that pace for the balance of the 162 games would give the Mariners a 65-win season.

Again, the Pilots won 64. As did the Mariners in 1977. Both were first-year expansion teams.

If the Mariners fall off their their current languid pace just a tick — the pending trades of starter Mike Leake and other older veterans with a lick of value makes the proposition seem likely — they can match the win totals of predecessors from long ago.

The case can be made, then, that the 2019 outfit is tantamount to Seattle’s third expansion baseball team. Given the number of World Series appearances in the half-century (zero), the 3/0 ratio is one of the more astounding counting stats in baseball history.

The regression makes clear they are Benjamin Buttons of Baseball.

The difference between then and now is, of course, intent. The 1969 Pilots and 1977 Mariners didn’t want to be bad, but were crippled by outside circumstances. The 2019 Mariners, despite benefiting from the accrued advantages mentioned above, want to be bad.

The modern-day purpose of deliberate badness, we have been told, is to acquire younger, better, cheaper, contract-controllable talent in order to have, down the road at a time unknowable, sustained competitive success at a high level.

The psychological problem is that nothing in MLB’s largely misbegotten half-century in Seattle offers hope of that possibility. Nor does the volume of MLB teams currently tanking along with the Mariners suggest that strategy will do anything but become more difficult. The competition is more intense for the same talent. The small middle class in today’s game means there’s too many teams in the same shallow end of the pool.

Not counting two strike-shortened years, the Mariners have had 11 seasons in which they had fewer than 70 wins, including six seasons of 61 or fewer. The full-season franchise low was 56 in 1978. In 43 years including this one, they have had four seasons of playoffs.

Since the Mariners have failed as a have-not team and a have team, with a bad stadium and a great stadium, with local ownership and non-local ownership, with no local TV revenues and lots of local TV revenues, the aspiration should be to set the franchise record of 55 or fewer victories. Everything else has been tried.

At least this time, the club won’t go bankrupt and move to Milwaukee.

As of Wednesday, 17 of the 25 active players were not on the roster at the end of last season. That’s expansion-level churn. For the rest of the season, I’d stick with the Pilots uniforms and 50-cent popcorn as physical reminders of the attempt to go where no Seattle team has gone before. And never wants to go again.

The Seattle Pilots were a modest draw at Sicks Stadium in 1969. / David Eskenazi Collection


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YourThoughts

  • Chuck Henry

    You finally jumped off the sinking ship eh? Just kidding, that article was hilarious. It’s like watching a Monty Python skit, so I find it very entertaining. I still believe either a Disco Demolition Night, or a pig that brings out the new baseballs to the ump would round the season off. 10 cent beer nights would be great but would ruin the family friendly atmosphere they like to have. Done right, really bad baseball can be fun. Are we sure the team isn’t now run by brigands? When I was a little kid, the minor league Padres had clowns, it was awesome.

    • art thiel

      “Pinin’ for the fjords, is he?”

  • Chuck Henry

    You keep this up Art and the Mariners will cut off your hush money payments.

    • art thiel

      I expect you, like Michael Cohen, to take a bullet for me.

  • Husky73

    “Then. And now.” Who’s now?

    • art thiel

      Five days from now, it’ll be Rick Monday.

      • Husky73

        Don’t forget Skipper Friday and Billy Sunday.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Now’s on first. Then’s on second…

  • Steve Buckholdt

    Art, you are the master of sarcasm. Of course, when writing about the Mariners all one has to do is report the facts and it is indistinguishable from sarcasm.

    • art thiel

      I wish Rod Belcher were still around Saturday to sing his fight song, “Go Go You Pilots!”

      • Husky73

        Not even Rod knew that the Pilots would take the song literally.

        • art thiel

          You aren’t the first to that line. I believe it was in an April 1970 P-I.

          • Husky73

            I’ll go through my stacks…..

  • Michael

    The Mariners need to have a Skip Jutze day.

    • Husky73

      Maybe he could catch Bell’s first pitch. Jutze hit the M’s first grand slam.

    • art thiel

      Aren’t they having a Skip Jutze season?

  • Husky73

    I am one of the surviving few that saw the Seattle Pilots in action. I was a senior in high school and think I saw about 6 or 8 games, and listened to most. The “seats” were wooden planks. The box seats were metal folding chairs. I was not at Opening Day (I had a high school baseball game myself), but I did go to a game in that first series against the White Sox. Tommy Davis (I’ve been a lifetime Dodgers fan) was playing left field. Even with the Rainiers, I remember the light towers in view at Sicks Stadium coming up Rainier Avenue. Honestly, albeit a 64 win team, the Pilots weren’t a terrible ball club. They had several good players– Harper, Mincher, Hovely, Brabender, Pattin, Davis and Rollins. They just may have been a better team than the 2019 Mariners.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think I can go with you there, given the 50 years of physiological/training improvements among athletes. But thanks for the memories of the planks and chairs. Not even close to a good minor league park.

      • Husky73

        Those 50 years of improvements have made Tommy John a household word.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Yes, I remember SO many Dodger games with Vin Scully calling out the names of Tommy and Willie Davis. Willie was the greatest drag bunter I ever saw with Dan Gladden of the Giants a close second. Round about the time of the two Davis’ on the Dodgers , or just after, the Giants had the three Alous. Felipe, Jesus and Matty Alou. I seem to remember a day when they were all in the outfield together at Candlestick. The Mariners could use he rest of the season to creatively teach drag bunting and chip bunting to beat a shift.

      • art thiel

        Don’t need a drag bunt against a shift. Need a half-swing oppo.

  • Larry StoneB

    While in High School, I often went with pals to park on cheapskate hill, past left field and over Rainier Ave, to watch the Rainiers while listening on the car radio. We did not go there during the Pilot’s putrid year. Besides Ding Dong, should we remember the Big Bra, Gene Brabendet?

    • art thiel

      Lots of worthies to remember — Ray Oyler, Tailwind Tommy Harper and Tommy Davis, a hero of the Koufax-Drysdale Dodgers. I recommend re-reading Ball Four.

  • wabubba67

    The Pilots traded a rookie named Lou Piniella to the Kansas City Royals after a spring training incident. Piniella hit a routine groundout to 2B and continued to run down the first baseline until he reached the outfield fence…which he began to punch. Piniella was traded the next day and became the AL Rookie of the Year.

    Jim Bouton: “He was obviously too competitive for this organization.”

    Strange that the Piniella years are still, by far, the best years of this organization. Perhaps the Pilots’ owners gave us the curse (and blessing) of Sweet Lou when they traded him?

    • art thiel

      I wish I’d known Lou as a rookie. Given his impulses as a 40-year-old, I’m surprised the fence stayed up.

      • Chuck Henry

        Hey, the manager told Lou to make CONTACT. So Lou punched somebody.

      • wabubba67

        I always appreciated his competitiveness and intensity…but what endeared him to me was that he was exceedingly self-aware and mostly maintained a sense of humor about himself. (The initial spring training sermon on the mound that had Griffey laughing; pulling over a bus by a Little League game to ask his first team in Seattle if they thought they could beat those kids; chomping on a large slice of pizza just before the team’s first playoff game in New York, etc.)

        • art thiel

          Good observations.

    • Chuck Henry

      I remember when I was a kid watching the game of the week when Pinella was with the Yankees. I remember this game where they were having trouble against the opposing pitcher, so Pinella came up and just kept fouling pitches off on purpose until he wore the guy out, picked his pitch , and got on base. Singlehandedly cracked the pitcher. Then the rest of the lineup crushed it. That’s some smart baseball , that’s chess baseball not checkers. That’s the kind of thinking that made him a great manager. Also blindside sacking Dibble on camera made him a great manager.

      • art thiel

        Lou knew baseball and people like few who ever managed here.

        • Husky73

          Which begs the question, who is the Mariners’ second best manager?

          • wabubba67

            I’ll go with Jim Lefevre, based on results (first winning season)…despite a confrontation with Jay Buhner after he was pinch hit for (as the #4 hitter in the lineup, I think).

            Or Dick Williams, based on history elsewhere. He was kind of like a crankier version of Piniella who was saddled with less organizational talent. (The battles with Mark Langston were epic, though, when Langston would consistently beg from the mound for a reliever late in a game in which he was pitching well.)

          • Mavis Jarvis

            I’ve always had a soft sport for Rene Lacheman, who had the Ms in the playoff hunt for the first half of the 1982 season.

          • wabubba67

            Lacheman is a good choice. Read George Will’s Men at Work… it is seemingly impossible for Lacheman to speak without uttering a profanity every other word. His conversations with LaRussa had me laughing.

          • art thiel

            Rene Lachmann is a good choice. I think Bob Melvin did a better job than he received credit for, and proved himself with the A’s.

    • Effzee

      It seems like the Seattle major league franchise has always been a feeder team for the rest of the league, like a major league AAA team.

      • art thiel

        I would disagree a bit about ’95, since a number of key players had been with the club for several years, and the upside was visible late in the strike-shortened ’94 season.

        However, with four playoff teams in 43 years, the notion of curse starts to put on its pants ahead of a walk in daylight.

  • Effzee

    Bizarre. I posted yesterday in the previous Mariners column that we need to bring back the name Pilots. And now today’s column. Its a sign.

    The name Mariners is cursed. Two memorable seasons in 42 years is no argument for keeping the name. End the misery.

    #killthemariners
    #bringbackthepilots
    #provemewrong

    • art thiel

      Emmett Watson once insisted they be called the Litigants, for the origins of their birth.

      • Husky73

        He had a good squat.

    • Kirkland

      There are a number of locals who think “Pilots” would be a good moniker for the coming NHL team, assuming the historical favorites of “Totems”, “Metropolitans” or “Sockeyes” aren’t chosen. Someone even created concept logos and uniforms for a hockey Pilots team a while ago: https://boards.sportslogos.net/topic/91330-seattle-pilots-hockey-concept/#comments

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    If anybody has not read Ball Four by Jim Bouton, get busy. Still a classic several decades later.

    • Kirkland

      Bouton recently reprinted it with three updates, “Ball Five”, “Ball Six” and “Ball Seven (The Final One). It discussed his return to Yankee Stadium, the tragic death of his daughter Laurie, his visit to Safeco Field, and suggestions on bettering the game (e.g. one drug suspension, you’re banned for life). The New York Public Library selected it as one of the Books of the Century — and that’s books of any genre, not just sports.

      They sell Pilots hats at various sports stores in the malls and near the stadiums. I bought one a couple of years ago and wear it on occasion.

      • Archangelo Spumoni

        Mr. Kirkland
        “Home Run for the Money” . . . Fred Talbot, aka Fred Talbert . . . Donald Dubois of Gladstone, Ore.
        CLASSIC!
        Ball Four readers know this . . . . . . . . .

  • Joe_Fan

    I went to several games that year with my dad. I don’t know what happened to my Pilots hat. I remember we used to park by Oh Boy O’berto and walk down to the game. I don’t remember where we sat but I do recall that from our seats we looked out to left/center field where people would sit up on the bank outside the fence and watch the game. I think there were some apartments up there too, with people watching from their decks. I was only 7 years old, but I also remember at times donning a white baseball uniform with a blue undershirt and socks. Not sure where I got that thing or what happened to it. Good times.

    • art thiel

      As with nearly every kid who attended his first big league game, the images are indelible.

      • bevdog

        Indelible images indeed! I took my son to his first big league Mariners game in the mid 80’s. The next day Seattle’s evening newspaper, which shall go unnamed, pictured him standing on his seat with his arms raised in exaltation as a Mariner scored from second base with the go ahead run. It was ON THE FRONT PAGE! I next went to the sports section and sure enough his picture had been blown up and was on page one. I could not believe out of all the fans at the game that evening they pictured my son at his first big league game!

        I saved the newspaper for over 30 years and recently sent this memento of Mariner memorabilia to him after the birth of his first child. At the age of 1 1/2 he took her to her first Mariner game against the Angels in Anaheim. She was replete with a M’s hat on and of course numerous pictures were taken. My son’s first big league game is a memory and image he and I shall never forget.

        • art thiel

          I worry a bit that she may grow up to resent the early branding, but good for your and three generations of bevdog.

  • Kevin Lynch

    One of the greatest serious/humorous summaries you have ever written on the Mariners saga, Art! Reading the column and wonderful blog entries has gotten my day off to a gleaming satirical start. I’m still smiling. Thanks, all!

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Kevin.

  • Guy K. Browne

    Considering the Mariners’ (still mysterious) hot start, their current W/L record is far better than it should be. Considering their winning percentage since then, they are destined fall far short of 64 wins and have a legitimate shot at bubbling (gurgling?) below 55 wins.
    As with all other aspects of the art of building an enduring winner, the Mariners are once again behind the curve in attempting to tank their way to the top.
    I still have my red Pilots pennant that I bought at Sick’s Stadium when I was 9. I have no recollection of how many games I went to that year, probably more than 5 but less than 10, but I remember being confused as to why we had a team for only one year.

    • art thiel

      Your early bout with confusion was good training for the subsequent Mariners years.

      • Guy K. Browne

        I was spared a concussion as I wasn’t familiar with forehead slaps at that age…

  • Will Ganschow

    Watching the Ms this weekend, the whole broadcast is starting to remind me of what it was like listening to talk during long rain delays. There was a time when a baseball team could come from 14 back in August and win the pennant. The tradition of competing as hard as possible as long as possible……

    • art thiel

      I like the notion of the meaningless season as one long rain delay. Attempting to talk past the nothingness. I may steal that, Will. Thanks.

      • Will Ganschow

        Be my guest and thanks for all the original and great reporting and comment.