When the citizens of King County, Wash., voted in 1967 to build the Kingdome, they may have envisioned the future home of the Seattle Mariners as a sort of Xanadu, the stately pleasure dome in Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan. As it has turned out, the story of the franchise seems more a playing out of another Coleridge poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which an icebound ship is cursed with bad luck and an old sailor is doomed to wander from place to place, recounting the woeful tale of his voyage.
This is an article from the May 23, 1988 issue
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle on a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Heat lapped over the visitors' dugout at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium on the afternoon of May 12. Within, the Mariners looked inert and stolid, as if they were moored to the bench. They had loaded the bases with only one down in the eighth, but they trailed the Blue Jays 8-2. Nobody moved when Rey Quinones lined out to short. Or when Harold Reynolds struck out, taking what little wind was left out of Seattle's sails. The Mariners, who would be 10 games behind the first-place Oakland Athletics in the American League West at the conclusion of the day's action, were going nowhere slow.
"We've got a dull deal going now," acknowledges Dick Balderson, the Seattle general manager. This dull deal has been going now for 12 seasons. The Mariners started playing in 1977, the same year as the Blue Jays. Toronto is a perennial contender and won the American League East title in 1985; Seattle has never had a winning record or even a .500 one. Perhaps they should be called the subMariners.
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot's boat.
The Mariners' predecessors, the Seattle Pilots, set sail in 1969, but bankruptcy scuttled them after one season. When they broke camp in Arizona the next spring, nobody knew if they would be playing their home games in Seattle or in Milwaukee. Just before the season started, the team's front office told the guy who drove the equipment truck to start heading north.
"Where am I going?" he asked.
"Call when you get to Provo, Utah," he was instructed.
He did. Milwaukee was the answer he got, and lo, the Brewers were born.
Seattle still wanted a team, but the American League gave it a second chance only after the city, county and state filed a lawsuit against the league for breach of contract. The Mariners drew 1.3 million people their first season. But while the six original owners, whose number included the entertainer Danny Kaye, waited for the young team to develop, the fans lost interest. When George Argyros bought a controlling interest in the team before the 1981 season, attendance had fallen to 836,204.
Argyros, a real estate developer from Orange County, Calif., proclaimed, "Patience is for losers." So apparently is impatience. The Mariners have had six field managers and five general managers. In the shuffle, Seattle has lost or virtually given away such talented young players as Danny Tartabull, Ivan Calderon and Floyd Bannister.
"Getting traded to Seattle lets you put things in perspective," says Glenn Wilson, the Mariners' rightfielder, who came over from Philadelphia as part of a trade for Phil Bradley. "If you're successful here, you either wind up someplace else or as a free agent."
Argyros is notoriously chintzy. He won't give players multiyear contracts. And he rarely pursues big-name free agents. "He won't go out and get a Dave Righetti," complains designated hitter Ken Phelps. "Argyros says he wants to win, but who's he kidding? Ideally, he'd like to have a .500 club and also have the lowest payroll in baseball. If he got lucky and won the division, that would be icing on the cake."
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends.
You won't find God listed on the Mariners' roster, but he's always hanging around the clubhouse. According to Wilson, Seattle has more Christians than any other team in the majors. "It's truly refreshing," he says. "The Phillies had lots of heavy beer drinkers, lots of heavy coffee drinkers and lots of funny stories about what went on between the beer and the coffee drinking." Last month when the Mariners took a flight from Chicago to Seattle, the front office offered to pick up the bar tab. The bill came to $6.
Yet in 1986—after team chapel meetings had delayed a couple of pregame warmups—Balderson accused some of the more devout Mariners of sloughing off defeat as being God's will. "I thought we had a complacent bunch of people who were unwilling to accept their own failures," he says. Balderson even considered revoking the Lord's locker room pass.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat.
During a spring training workout, Seattle lefthander Steve Trout told pitching coach Billy Connors, "I feel so good I can throw a strike blindfolded." Trout closed his eyes and threw one over the plate. Then he did it again.
Last season Trout merely looked as if he were pitching blindfolded. The New York Yankees got him from the Chicago Cubs after he hurled back-to-back shutouts. But in 46.1 innings with New York, the fragile, ethereal Trout was 0-4 with 37 walks, 9 wild pitches and a 6.60 ERA. "Something in New York must have blown his mind," says Connors. "He just couldn't find the plate." (Memo to Trout: Look for a white, five-sided rubber slab between the mound and the backstop.)
The Mariners landed Trout during the off-season. His $990,000-a-year contract makes him the biggest fish ever in Seattle's pond. (The Yankees are paying about half of his salary.) "He's my No. 3 starter," skipper Dick Williams announced in March. "He's going to have to show me he can't do it."
Trout's demonstration began in his first game of the season, in Oakland. After retiring the first two Athletics batters, he walked five straight. Then he made a throwing error and uncorked two run-scoring wild pitches. "If Trout taps his potential," said third base coach Ozzie Virgil, "he'll win his share."
After seven starts, Trout's potential still was untapped: In 28 innings, he had 22 walks, six balks and four wild pitches. And it will stay that way for a while since Trout is now on the disabled list with a broken pinkie. "Once again," says one of the more ancient Mariners, "the 'ifs' we started the season with have quickly changed to 'if onlys.' "
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.
When Williams took over in May 1986, he had already managed three different teams to pennants and turned around a couple of franchises. At the time, Seattle was 9-20 and in total disarray. The Mariners had made 36 errors, were batting .207 and had been whiffed a record 20 times in one game by the Red Sox' Roger Clemens.
During his first six weeks, Williams unloaded five high-paid veterans and drilled fundamentals into whoever was left. Seattle began to show some signs of life: Batting averages rose, errors fell. In 1986 the Mariners finished 67-95 and last season were 78-84, the best record in their history. But now, during what Williams promises is his final campaign, they're adrift again.
On Friday the 13th, the Mariners were in Fenway Park for the opener of a three-game series against the Red Sox. It was Williams's 3,000th game as a manager. In the top of the second, Jim Presley singled and killed off a rally by overrunning first base and getting tagged out. In the next inning, Quinones tripled and got picked off third. Meanwhile, Seattle's pitchers were getting creamed. Through four innings Mike Campbell and Jerry Reed had surrendered 12 runs—three on a homer by Boston's designated hitter Sam Horn, who came to the plate batting .135 with no extra-base hits. The Mariners lost 14-8, and Saturday wasn't any better: They fell 3-0.
Going into Sunday's game, which the Mariners won 11-7, they were hitting a collective .266 to their opponents' .278. They were tied for last in the league in fielding and were next-to-last in ERA and tops in giving up gopher balls. Still, when asked about his team's continuing mediocrity, Williams bristles: "Look at the Cubs. They haven't won a pennant in 43 years. They're the ones you should be talking to."
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
The dark, gloomy Kingdome is as inviting as a mausoleum. "It's especially tough on nice days," says Reed. "When there's a small crowd it's very depressing. When there's a small crowd and you're getting beat, it's doubly depressing." That's what it's like for the Mariners most of the time.
"Nobody enjoys playing there," says Phelps. "It's just a big warehouse." Pitchers loathe the short fences. "You can't keep a pitching staff together in the Kingdome," says one scout. "Just look at all the promising young arms who never developed there." Onetime Mariner phenom Mike Moore is the most obvious casualty. Moore, who won 17 games in 1985 and lost 19 last season, pitches as if anticipating disaster. "After a seven- or eight-game home stand," says Wilson, "you're ready to get outside and play some baseball."
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.
Blame it on the weather or the absence of Latin culture, but few Hispanic players have thrived in Seattle. Quinones, the sensational shortstop Balderson swiped from the Red Sox, periodically flees to his native land, Puerto Rico. Last season he returned home to mourn his father's death. He said he would be gone four days. He took 10. This year his wife's grandfather died, but Balderson refused to grant Quinones permission to go home for the funeral. "I don't care," said Quinones, "I'm going." This time he returned to the team four days later.
The Mariners' other prominent Latin, centerfielder Henry Cotto, says he likes Seattle, mainly because "I play there." He didn't play much in Chicago or New York, where he was a backup with the Cubs and Yankees. Given a chance to perform every day, Cotto was batting .350 through Sunday. He wields a bat better than he does a Q-tip: Cotto is perhaps the only player ever to go on the disabled list for puncturing his eardrum with a cotton swab.
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
Thirteen, 14, 15.... Mark Langston fanned 16 Blue Jays on May 10. He has led the league in strikeouts for three of the past four years. He was the 1984 American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. Toronto slugger George Bell has called him one of the three best pitchers in baseball. Television star Joan Van Ark of Knots Landing has called him one of the 10 sexiest athletes in the country.
Despite all this, Langston is about as likely to be recognized in Seattle as he would be in Montevideo. "You can go anywhere you want in Seattle, and nobody will ever know who you are," says leftfielder Mickey Brantley. Langston showed up at a local restaurant last season to celebrate one of his victories. "Hi, I'm Mark Langston of the Mariners," he told the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'. "I'm here to meet three of my teammates."
The ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' didn't bother to look up. "So what?" he snapped. "The line's at the back, pal."
Baffled by his inability to land even a single endorsement offer in Seattle, Langston recently enlisted the services of the Los Angeles public relations firm that handles Sylvester Stallone. Though he still hasn't had any bites in Seattle, at least Langston will get to be a guest vee-jay on MTV.
"Seattle is not a marketable market," says Reynolds, who wasn't able to persuade any of the shoe companies to give him an endorsement contract last year, even though he won the American League stolen-base crown with 60 swipes.
"You only won the title because Rickey Henderson had an off year," one shoe company representative candidly informed him.
But anonymity has a positive side. "If you play bad," Reynolds says, "who will know?"
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.
After the Mariners lost to the Red Sox on Saturday, picking up only three hits against Clemens, they milled around the visitors' clubhouse, glum and subdued and looking slightly embarrassed.
"Losing is easy," said Phelps, who at 33 is the oldest member of the team. "Winning is tough. You get used to losing. I guess you never get used to it completely, but you learn to accept defeat because you've never tasted winning. It frustrates me all the time."
"I don't know if 'frustrate' is a strong enough word," said first baseman Alvin Davis, a team leader who was batting .347 and had 27 RBIs through Sunday. "The atmosphere around here has gone from optimism to panic. I have a definite feeling of urgency."
Davis, who is now in his fifth year as a Mariner, anticipates wholesale changes. "We've cleaned house before," he said with a weary fatalism. "It was a mistake then, and it would be a mistake now. We're only a couple of players away from being a contender." Unfortunately those two players are Christy Mathewson and Babe Ruth.
Only Wilson seemed even faintly cheery about the future. "We'll get this Mariner machine going," he said hopefully. "Maybe all those big guys on Oakland will get in a barroom brawl and beat each other up."
He chuckled softly to himself and stared into his locker.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!