Star-Laden Mariners Are on Top - for Now

Seattle aims to win its first pennant this year

Seattle has it all these days: Bill Gates and mighty Microsoft, Boeing, an enviable spot on the Pacific Rim, and a baseball team that probably has as many megawatt stars as any in the majors.

Headliners like centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., pitcher Randy Johnson, and shortstop Alex Rodriguez, however, do not necessarily translate into pennants, and for the talented but unfulfilled Mariners, that might be the rub.

During their 20-year existence, the M's have made it to the playoffs just once, in 1995, when they lost the American League championship Series to Cleveland. And they are no cinch to make it to the postseason this year. The Anaheim Angels are battling them neck-and-neck in the American League West. (They meet one final time this season on Sept. 23 and 24 in Seattle.)

The Angels squandered an 11-game division lead to the Mariners two years ago, then lost a one-game playoff to Seattle the day after the regular season ended. The Mariners went on to beat the Yankees in a dramatic, come-from-behind, first-round series, a triumph that helped establish them as winners, despite a long history of losing.

"We're at that age and maturity level that clubs need to win," says manager Lou Piniella, who guided Cincinnati to a stunning sweep of Oakland in the 1990 World Series. "Now we have to take it to the next step."

That should be a championship, something only one of Seattle's major professional teams - basketball's SuperSonics in 1979 - has ever produced.

To get there first means reaching the playoffs, then winning the League Championship Series and the World Series. Those goals might have seemed realistic after the best June in franchise history, but the club has cooled off considerably since then.

In one move made to acquire much-needed bullpen help, the Mariners traded Jose Cruz, who was fast becoming a fixture in left field, where 48 players have been tried since 1989.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of great expectations, Griffey spoke out angrily after a mid-season exhibition against a Double A minor-league all-star squad in Zebulon, N.C. The game, arranged long ago as a favor to a farm club, was ill-timed, coming at the beginning of Seattle's longest road trip of the year - and this for baseball's most heavily traveled team.

"I'm tired of people trying to take advantage or our organization," he said, asserting his leadership position. Griffey is a nine-year veteran who has led fan balloting for the All-Star Game each of the last three years.

When he arrived in 1989, the Mariners were a last-place team with small crowds. The team created a further hook for fan interest by acquiring Ken Griffey Sr. from Cincinnati, briefly giving Seattle the first father and son to play in the same major-league lineup.

Last year, home attendance soared to a record 2.7 million Kingdome customers by feeding off the enthusiasm generated by that memorable playoff series against the Yankees.

Before that, says club executive Randy Adamack, "We had never given the city the team it needed to find out what would happen in a good year."

The success in '95 led to public approval of a new retractable-domed stadium that should keep the Mariners in Seattle for years to come.

The right-field dimensions in the new stadium, which opens across the street from the present ballpark in 1999, will be slightly deeper, not that Griffey needs an easier target. He leads the majors with 46 home runs through Tuesday.

"If I don't hit another home run and we win the World Series, I'll be happy," he says. "My dad has three [World Series] rings [with Cincinnati]. I want my first."

The biggest question mark coming into this season was whether the fireballing Johnson, the tallest player in baseball at 6 ft., 10 in., would fully recover from back problems. His 17-4 record and league-leading 264 strikeouts indicate that the "Big Unit" has rebounded, but now a bothersome finger has temporarily kept him out of action.

Better starting pitching was identified as a key to 1997 success. Until now Johnson has provided that, with help from Jamie Moyer (14-4) and Jeff Fassero (14-8). Can Johnson return to full power again and can the bullpen do its job? Also, will second baseman Joey Cora and designated hitter Edgar Martinez continue to swing hot bats?

If so, the club could win its first pennant - and perhaps even a World Series crown. Not a bad way to end a 20th anniversary celebration.

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