Ten years ago Monday, the Seattle Mariners became the first team to reach 50 victories that season.
They had a six-game lead over the Oakland Athletics in the American League West. They were filling Safeco Field with capacity crowds. They were about to send five players to the All-Star Game.
Everything was beautiful.
I am trying to recall what it was like during the summer of 2003, when a third playoff berth in four years seemed to be an assumption for a team representing the Pacific Northwest’s model franchise. I am trying to recall how sports radio sounded when callers didn’t begin baseball rants with their inevitable demand for Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong to retire.
We tend to think the decade-long decline of the team began with the resignation of Lou Piniella in 2002. Not true. The transition from Piniella to new skipper Bob Melvin was seamless. Fans were pining for Lou — some haven’t stopped — but Melvin’s circumspect managerial style appeared to be an ideal fit for a veteran club that didn’t need much prodding.
Melvin wasn’t inclined to tinker with a lineup that combined the power of Bret Boone and Edgar Martinez with speedster outfielders Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Cameron and Randy Winn. Sure, shortstop Carlos Guillen was an injury waiting to happen, and third baseman Jeff Cirillo had his head-case issues, but Eric Wedge would kiss the ground for a chance to fill out a batting order in which John Olerud (83 RBI in 2003) typically hit sixth, Cameron (76) seventh and Winn (75) eighth.
While not dominant, the starting pitching, anchored by 21-game winner Jamie Moyer, was stress-free. (Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Joel Piniero, Ryan Franklin and Gil Meche went all season without missing a start.) A bullpen of right-handers Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Jeff Nelson, and left-hander Arthur Rhodes offered Melvin several options, each more enticing than having to watch Tom Wilhelmsen go 3-0 on every batter he faces.
Ten years ago Monday, the Mariners had all the pieces in place to win the division, the league championship and the World Series. But the push fell short — they finished 93-69, three games behind the A’s — and the vibe about the team never has been the same.
What went wrong?
An obvious theory is that age caught up with them. Martinez was 40, one season ahead of his retirement. Olerud, who would turn 35 in August, was nearing the end of the road, as were Boone and catcher Dan Wilson, both 34.
There were some other problems lurking in the undertow.
Sasaki, the nominal closer, pitched like somebody distracted by personal baggage. (He was, it turned out.) Garcia was a potential ace, but he, too, had difficulty devoting full concentration to his craft.
And then there was the trade-deadline debacle, when general manager Pat Gillick failed to pull the trigger on a consequential deal.
Gillick’s only move before the non-waiver deadline expired July 31 was acquiring shortstop Rey Sanchez from the New York Mets for minor league outfielder Kenny Kelly.
While the Mariners were looking at Sanchez as a backup to the ever-brittle Carlos Guillen, the A’s went aggressive, putting together a deal with the Cincinnati Reds — it included current Mariners starting pitcher Aaron Harang — for outfielder Jose Guillen.
A sports axiom holds that the best trades sometimes are those not made. Not so in 2003. The Mariners’ decision to essentially ignore the trade deadline was derided by fans and, worse, mocked in the clubhouse.
Nelson, never shy about sharing his opinion, shared an opinion with edge.
“It’s difficult, year after year, to watch this team never make moves to better themselves,” Nelson told reporters. “I have never seen an impact player come to this team, nor have I ever seen them try to go out and get one. Every year, it’s ‘We tried to make some moves.’ But other teams seem to do it. It’s disappointing.”
Seattle management didn’t appreciate Nelson’s candid assessment. He was sent to the New York Yankees, upon clearing waivers, in the approximate time it requires to snap fingers. The public backlash against the front office was substantial and remains, 10 years later, everlasting.
The 2003 Mariners didn’t go into the tank immediately after the fiasco. They went into the tank a few weeks later, surrendering sole possession of first place Aug. 25, then giving it up for good Aug. 27.
Gillick stepped down at the end of the season, reasoning the time had come for another general manager, with a fresh perspective, to oversee a team whose stretch drive suggested underachievement.
Then again, Gillick is nothing if not shrewd. He realized the roster he had assembled was shot and that the product Safeco Field fans had grown accustomed to watching was about to get ugly.
Ten years ago Monday, the Seattle Mariners were anything but ugly. They were the best team in baseball, the best franchise in baseball. They were on top of the world.
I am trying to recall what it was like to glance at the baseball standings June 24, 2003, and see Seattle in first place with a comfortable lead. But all I can think of is that song about paving paradise to put up a parking lot.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com