Weekend Warrior With a playoff berth on the line, the Mariners needed a resolute Alex Rodriguez to snap out of a 3-for-29 swoon and lead them

October 08, 2000

PACK FOR 7 DAYS. That is the message written in red ink on the
wipeboard in the Seattle Mariners' clubhouse after their 6-4 win
over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, Sept. 27. Seattle is to play
its final home game the next afternoon before departing for a
season-ending, three-game weekend series with the Anaheim Angels.
From there the Mariners go to...who knows? They could go to New
York to start an American League Division Series against the
Yankees or to Chicago to start one against the White Sox. They
could go home to play the Cleveland Indians on Monday in a
wild-card tiebreaker or to await a Monday makeup game between the
Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that could necessitate a
divisional tiebreaker in Seattle on Tuesday. Or they could begin
the hunting and fishing season.

With four days to go in the regular season and three teams
(Cleveland, Oakland and Seattle) vying for two playoff spots, the
Mariners understand the math. They also understand that they'll
be baiting their hooks soon if their 25-year-old shortstop and
MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez--"Let's be honest, he's the heart and
soul of this team," manager Lou Piniella says--doesn't snap out of
a slump. He has had two hits in his last 23 at bats, including a
1-for-16 disappearing act while Seattle dropped three out of four
the previous weekend to white-hot Oakland. So lost is Rodriguez
that in the half inning after one of his three strikeouts on
Wednesday against the Rangers, he forgot to cover second base on
a steal attempt. "I was thinking about my last at bat, I guess.
That just can't happen," Rodriguez says after the game in the
darkness of the players' parking lot at Safeco Field. "The whole
season comes down to the next few days. I have to be ready."

Ken Griffey Jr. is gone, having forced a trade from Seattle to
the Cincinnati Reds last winter. Piniella typically starts six
hitters batting less than .270. "Nothing," he says, "comes easy
for this team." The Mariners might make it to the postseason
without Griffey. They won't make it without Rodriguez.

Thursday, Sept. 28: Seattle

Four adjacent lockers on the far wall of the Seattle clubhouse
belong--two apiece--to Rodriguez and DH Edgar Martinez. The
previous evening Martinez had received a standing ovation for
becoming the Mariners' career leader in games played, supplanting
Griffey Jr. Rodriguez, who can be a free agent at season's end,
might be playing his last game in Seattle home whites. He and a
clubhouse attendant are cleaning out his lockers. A season's
accumulation of magazines, videos, mail, awards, photos, extra
equipment, clothes and assorted knickknacks are stashed into
boxes.

"All of it?" the attendant asks.

"All of it," Rodriguez says.

When asked about the possibility of this being his final home
game in Seattle, he says, "You know, so much is at stake it
really hasn't entered my mind that much."

A fan at Safeco carries a sign that reads: A-ROD'S LAST (HOME)
STAND. In the fourth inning, with the Mariners leading the
Rangers 5-4, the crowd erupts with a roar. It is 5 p.m. and the
leftfield out-of-town scoreboard shows the Angels have taken a
lead on the A's in the 14th inning in Oakland. Nineteen minutes
later, a bigger cheer goes up. The A's have lost 6-3. Seattle's
bullpen, though, coughs up the game to Texas, 13-6, and the
Mariners' lead in the West remains at a half game.

"We're still driving the bus," says Rodriguez, who had a two-run
double in three at bats. His gaze is fixed on a clubhouse
television showing a game between the Indians and the Minnesota
Twins that's tied in the 10th inning. "We have to drive it to the
finish line. We have to take that rearview mirror and throw it
away."

Then he rushes into the players' lounge, where most of his
teammates are watching the Indians-Twins game, whooping and
hollering with nearly every pitch, especially when Minnesota
squeezes out a run and then hangs on for a 4-3 win. Seattle's
margin over Cleveland remains two games. "So, y'all Twins and
Indians fans, huh?" shouts a scowling Arthur Rhodes. The Seattle
reliever hasn't watched any of the game. "That don't matter--don't
matter at all."

Friday, Sept. 29: Anaheim

Under a warm midday sun on a pleasant Southern California day,
Rodriguez works on his stroke. The water temperature is perfect.
This is how Rodriguez deals with the pressure of a 3-for-26 slump
that has come at the worst possible time: by swimming and sunning
by the pool at his hotel. He goes unrecognized--or at least
unbothered.

Later, in the visiting clubhouse at Edison International Field,
Piniella, Seattle general manager Pat Gillick and about 10
Mariners watch the Indians play the Toronto Blue Jays on TV. The
Jays take an early 4-0 lead, but no one is cheering. "That's not
enough for Trachsel," one player mumbles, referring to Steve
Trachsel, the Toronto righthander. Sure enough, Cleveland has a
5-4 lead by the time the Mariners leave to take batting practice.
The Indians win 8-4.

Seattle looks tight against Anaheim. Pitcher Paul Abbott, who
grew up and lives in Fullerton, Calif., about 10 minutes from the
ballpark, surrenders eight runs in five innings. The Mariners
produce only five hits--none by Rodriguez--in a 9-3 defeat. In
Oakland, the A's rally to beat Texas 7-5 to take over first
place. Seattle is only a game ahead of Cleveland in the wild-card
race. "We need Alex to get hot," Piniella says. "It's down to a
two-game season. He's been chasing some bad pitches. Maybe he's
been trying to do too much."

Rodriguez, his slump having deepened to 3 for 29, watches
videotape after the game of his four plate appearances: a walk, a
groundout, a pop fly and a strikeout. He hasn't hit a home run in
42 at bats, but he finds the tape reassuring. The position of his
front foot, which he keeps in the air while recognizing pitches,
indicates his timing is better than it was earlier in the week.
He's also taking more pitches. He's encouraged when he leaves the
clubhouse to go to dinner with his agent, Scott Boras. The two of
them will talk about his impending free agency, but they also
talk about hitting and how former Seattle batting instructor Lee
Elia taught A-Rod to keep his hands "behind his legs," that is,
not to be too quick with his hands and lunge at the ball.

As for Abbott, he'll miss a birthday party tomorrow for his
three-year-old daughter. Seattle's game was moved from a 7:05
p.m. start to 1:05 p.m. to accommodate the Fox network. The party
can't be rescheduled as easily. "Cinderella is going to be
there," Abbott says. "Cinderella doesn't wait."

Saturday, Sept. 30: Anaheim

"It seems Alex is trying to hit his 40 home runs," one Seattle
coach tells Piniella during batting practice. Rodriguez has been
stuck on 38 for 11 games.

"He can fix that with two swings of the bat," Piniella says,
laughing.

Rodriguez belts number 39 in the first inning, a two-run shot off
righty Tim Belcher that puts the Mariners at ease. Not only do
they have a lead--they are 64-27 when they score first, 25-44 when
they don't--but they have Rodriguez's bat back. His drought ends
with a cloudburst: four hits, a sacrifice fly and seven RBIs in a
21-9 shellacking of the Angels. The deluge includes another
homer, a three-run blast to rightfield in the sixth to break open
a 6-2 game. This is the third straight season Rodriguez has hit
40 or more home runs. As he sees the ball go out, he raises both
arms in the air in triumph, his fists clenched. It is a rare show
of emotion by him. "A very significant home run," he says. "It
was my 40th, and it kind of broke the game open, so it was very
good timing."

The A's and the Indians also win, Oakland mauling Texas 23-2 and
Cleveland beating Toronto 6-5. One day is left in the season--or
not. The Mariners aren't sure. "Oakland may have to take a long
ride to Tampa Bay...maybe not, I don't know...I don't think
so...who cares?" Piniella says. "I don't want to hear any
scenarios. All I know is I packed for seven days, and I want to
use all my clothes."

"Let me get this straight," Abbott asks another group of
reporters. "Oakland has to play that game Monday if we win [on
Sunday]?"

Well, no. The A's would have to fly to Tampa only if they lose
and the Mariners win and the Indians....

"It comes down to this," Piniella finally says. "We need to win
one game, and we have our hottest pitcher in September going.
I'll take that."

Sunday, Oct. 1: Anaheim

Seventy bottles of champagne, purchased after the previous day's
win, are put on ice in the Seattle clubhouse. Forty-five minutes
before the first pitch, the Mariners are quiet, "a little
nervous," Rodriguez says, while an NFL game plays on the
clubhouse television. No watching the Indians today. "Because we
knew they'd win," Rodriguez says later. "And we knew Oakland
would win. We had to treat our game like it was the seventh game
of the World Series. We didn't want to see the Indians on Monday.
They might be the hottest team right now."

As Seattle begins its game, Cleveland is on the verge of an 11-4
victory. Righthander Aaron Sele, the 17-game winner whom the
Mariners signed last winter only after the Baltimore Orioles
voided his free-agent deal because of medical concerns, coughs up
two runs in the first inning. Seattle is in trouble. It has to
play from behind. It's staring straight at a one-game playoff
with the Indians for the wild card.

In the fourth, though, Rodriguez comes to the rescue again. He
gives the Mariners a jolt: a leadoff home run off righty Mark
Petkovsek. Seattle rallies. Mike Cameron, Griffey's replacement
in centerfield, ties the game in the fifth with a double. Third
baseman David Bell puts Seattle ahead 3-2 with a leadoff homer in
the seventh. Four batters later, with two runners on, leftfielder
Raul Ibanez, a defensive replacement half an inning earlier,
steps out of the batter's box to think about his mother. Moraima
Ibanez underwent quintuple bypass surgery three days earlier. He
says a prayer for her, steps in and lashes a double to left
centerfield. Two runs score on the game-breaking hit. "I'm not
sure if she was watching," Ibanez says, "but I hope she wasn't.
She gets too nervous watching."

Relievers Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki take care of the last 10
outs. The final one, a pop-up, lands with poetic precision in the
glove of Rodriguez. Though Oakland has beaten Texas 3-0, Seattle
has won the wild card. In the last two games of the season
Rodriguez has whacked five hits, including three home runs, in 10
at bats. "I'm proud of this team," he says in the delirious
Seattle locker room. "We showed guts, knowing we had to win two
games on the road after that ugly game Friday night. It was like
Games 6 and 7 of a World Series, and that's why you see everyone
like this."

He gestures around the clubhouse, where his teammates engage in
such a wild, wet celebration that even the 63-year-old Gillick,
who presumably has seen it all, is impressed. "That's because
you're seeing an outpouring of emotions after what this team has
gone through," Gillick says.

Rodriguez suddenly finds himself too weak to stand. In the middle
of an interview, he plops himself down on a folding chair. "I
feel this was the first year I had to lead," he says, "and it's
emotionally draining. I sucked in the three losses against
Oakland because I tried to do too much. That was a learning
experience. But in these last couple of days, with our backs
against the wall, I felt everyone on this team was looking to me.
I feel proud that I somewhat answered the call."

Rodriguez may be as gone as Griffey very soon. Though these may
be his last days with the Mariners, he has given them direction.
It is written right there in red ink on the wipeboard across the
room from him: CHICAGO HERE WE COME.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO FALLEN ANGEL During Saturday's laugher, Rodriguez put the finishing touch on a failed sixth-inning steal attempt by Troy Glaus. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO PERFECT TIMING Having put his front foot correctly forward, Rodriguez belted his 39th and 40th (below) homers last Saturday. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO A SWING AND A PRAYER After thinking of his ailing mom, Ibanez stroked Sunday's crucial double.

"I feel this was the first year I had to lead," says Rodriguez,
"and it's emotionally draining."

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)