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8 Upper

The Mariner Way

By Tom Scocca | Posted 5/2/2001

The best news for Orioles fans in this young baseball season has nothing to do with the Orioles--at least, not directly. The O's themselves are strictly a feel-OK proposition: The 90-loss predictions seem to have been overblown, but so were management's hints at a surprise underdog playoff run. Any serious improvement is in the future; the present Birds appear to be the same break-even outfit they've been since the Great Veteran Dump of '00.

But if the proverbial lightning hasn't struck for the Orioles, it has, finally, struck somewhere. At press time, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Minnesota Twins were leading their divisions. So were the Chicago Cubs.

After years of gloomy predestination in the majors--that handful of high-revenue teams putting the screws to everyone else--there are some genuine surprises brewing. It is possible to rebuild, even in modern baseball's unbalanced economy. More low-budget teams are following last year's A's and White Sox into contention. And more big-money teams seem to be heading down the path blazed by the O's and the Dodgers, fumbling away their advantages through mismanagement or complacency. The Mets and Rangers, having deferred maintenance on hitting and pitching, respectively, are suddenly seeing ominous bulges through the wallpaper. Even the Braves and Yankees have slipped back into the pack, thanks to age and attrition.

Not all the upstarts will stay up through 162 games, of course. But odds are that some of them will. And right now, the team with the best outlook might be the most appealing surprise contender of all: the Seattle Mariners.

The Mariners are not the most improbable of the early-May pacesetters. That honor belongs to the Twins, the very model of late-'90s baseball futility: With low revenues, a miserly owner, and an underaged roster, they were a glorified minor-league team trying to get by in the majors. Till this month, they had no resemblance to a winning club, and there was no reason to think they would suddenly develop one.

The Mariners, by contrast, were a wild-card team last year. But in the offseason, they lost all-everything shortstop Alex Rodriguez via free agency to the Rangers, who offered him a 10-year, $252 million deal. The offseason before that, they traded Ken Griffey Jr. to the Reds, so as to avoid dealing with his impending free agency. Ditto Randy Johnson, sent to Houston during the 1998 campaign.

And as of April 30, the Mariners were a major league-best 20-5, the most April wins in history. They were nine games up on the second-place team in the American League West, A-Rod's Rangers. Last week, they swept the Yankees in Yankee Stadium en route to a nine-game winning streak.

There are plenty of good, sentimental reasons for Orioles fans to savor the Mariners' success. The M's have never been a bitter rival for the Birds; if anything, they've been obligingly docile. Who couldn't be fond of them, remembering the '96 Division Series, or Jack Voigt's mastery of Johnson, or Chris Hoiles' bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam off Norm Charlton? Throw in the Mariners' knack for humiliating the Yankees and you've got a lovable club indeed.

The box score of the last M's-Yanks game alone was enough to make the black-and-orange blood thrum in the veins: Moyer (W, 4-0) . . . Rhodes (S, 1) . . . Mussina (L, 1-3). (If you're counting, Jamie Moyer is 76-35 since the O's let the plucky lefty slip away in 1995; he now ranks somewhere between Steve Finley and Jon Miller on the all-time we-shoulda-kept-him list.) Then there's Mark McLemore, still doing the infield-outfield utility switch as needed, and Aaron Sele, who's won 21 games since Peter Angelos, following his own expert orthopedic intuition, rescinded the O's contract offer to him.

The Mariners' success, though, gives the O's more than a pleasing sense of comeuppance--it offers valuable lessons in the art of rebuilding. Logically and sabermetrically, it should be impossible for a team to improve after subtracting Rodriguez, Griffey, and Johnson. But the Mariners have been shrewd about cutting their losses. When they gave up Johnson, they picked up two good starters in return, adding depth to their rotation in exchange for dominance. They swapped Griffey to the Reds for Mike Cameron--no Hall of Famer, certainly, but a young, good-hitting player who could match Griffey's defense in center field. And then, after losing their last superstar to the Rangers' quarter-billion-dollar offer, they paid the Orix Blue Wave $13 million for the rights to Japanese batting champ and defensive whiz Ichiro Suzuki.

Yet the key to the Mariners' resilience is a player they've had all along, Edgar Martinez. What the veteran designated hitter does for the offense is reasonably well known, though underappreciated: His career on-base percentage is a whopping .426, to go with a .529 slugging percentage. The more important thing is what he does for the roster. With Martinez in the lineup, the DH slot is unavailable. There is no room for the Mariners to stockpile positionless sluggers or gimpy veterans. If you want to play for the M's, you had better be able to play--in the field, with a glove on.

Seattle's rebuilding blueprint, then, is simple: There are eight fielding positions; hire someone to play each one. You could dwell at length on the differences between this and the Syd Thrift Plan, which seems to involve putting first basemen in as many slots as possible. Or you could just have a look at the standings.

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