Seattle Mariners NOW OR NEVER

March 23, 1998

TANNED, FOCUSED AND LOADED/AL WEST

As if we needed further evidence that there is no place in
modern baseball for sentimentality, consider the case of
Mariners v. Randy Johnson. Over the past three seasons, the
Mariners ace went 43-6; won the '95 Cy Young; won the deciding
game of the 1995 Division Series against the Yankees--surely the
most significant moment in the club's history--pitching in
relief on one day's rest; and last year he won 20 games with a
club record 2.28 ERA, twice notching 19 strikeouts in a game. So
how did the Mariners show their appreciation? General manager
Woody Woodward spent much of his off-season trying to trade his
34-year-old pitching star for younger, less-fragile talent.
Nothing personal, mind you. Just business.

Johnson, after all, has a history of back trouble, including
surgery to repair a herniated disk in 1996, which limited him to
only eight starts. That would make anybody think twice about
signing him to a long-term deal, as would Johnson's asking
price, which is in the $10-million-a-year range. Since Johnson
is in the final year of his contract, the Mariners felt their
only option was to explore a trade before they lost him to free
agency.

A disgruntled Johnson arrived at spring training insisting he
would not talk about his contract situation, then he promptly
began answering questions about it. "What's funny is that I know
how important I am to this team, so I thought I would get an
extension and finish my career here," Johnson said. "But now
they've asked me to get them to the postseason again and then
see myself out."

Woodward admits that the primary reason that Johnson is still
with Seattle is that he could mean the difference between the
club winning and not winning the World Series--if they should
get that far. "We would only have made a trade if it didn't hurt
our chances to win a title," Woodward says. "When we couldn't
get a top starter in return, we decided to stick with the best
pitcher in the game and try to win with him. That puts a lot of
pressure on us to reach our goal this year."

Are these the inevitable growing pains for a franchise that
manager Lou Piniella likes to call "the new kids on the block"?
Having failed to make the playoffs in their first 18 years of
existence, the Mariners won the American League West two of the
last three seasons. But they have yet to win an American League
pennant, thwarted last year in the Division Series by the
Orioles, who beat Johnson twice during the regular season and
twice in the postseason. "We worked so hard last season to get
on the big stage, and then we got humiliated in front of the
whole country," shortstop Alex Rodriguez says. "We owe it to
ourselves to earn another chance. Who knows? This could be a
do-or-die season for us. This group might not stay together much
longer."

Indeed, for new kids on the block, these are some ancient
Mariners. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez and lefthanded
starters Jeff Fassero and Jaime Moyer are 35. The team's
heart--centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., Johnson, Rodriguez,
rightfielder Jay Buhner, Martinez and catcher Dan
Wilson--accounts for $28 million of this year's $52 million
payroll, and leftfielder Glenallen Hill is the only player in
the lineup not making at least $1 million this season. How long
will the Mariners choose to keep the team intact at those prices?

Unfortunately, the franchise has mortgaged much of its future by
trading young prospects. During three straight seasons of mostly
fruitless deals at the trading deadline, Seattle has disposed of
promising young players such as outfielder Jose Cruz Jr.,
pitcher Derek Lowe and shortstop Desi Relaford, leaving the
system so barren that the Mariners were believed to be the only
team to protect just one minor leaguer in the expansion
draft--and they still had nobody selected from the farm system.
Every Seattle first-round draft pick between 1988 and '95 has
reached the majors, but only one of those players, Rodriguez, is
still in the organization. This is the first spring during
Piniella's six-year tenure that no rookies will make the roster.

In his opening spring training speech, Piniella spoke about
"unfinished business." He didn't need to mention the tight
deadline. "I'm 35, and with each passing year, that's one less
chance to get to the World Series," Martinez says. "Still, I
think it's too dramatic to say now or never."

Maybe. But this distinguished generation of Mariners is running
out of now and sliding inexorably toward never.

--Tim Crothers

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT JORDAN LEVY RARE AIR It isn't often that perennial Gold Glove winner and MVP candidate Griffey doesn't run down a fly ball hit to center. [Ken Griffey Jr.] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Heathcliff Slocumb]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)