Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 2, 2022

As One Drought Ends, Somewhere Another Begins

The date is September 3, 2001.  It is Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer and the spot on the calendar when the thoughts of baseball fans traditionally turn to the mad sprint for playoff spots over the longest season’s final weeks.  In this year though, the faithful of one big league franchise have already moved past such concerns.  With an 11-inning, 3-2 walkoff victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Seattle Mariners clinch a postseason berth.  Seattle hasn’t won the AL West crown just yet, though with a massive 18 game lead on second place Oakland that milestone will be achieved shortly.  But with its 99th win the club is assured of ending the regular season as no worse than the American League Wild Card team.   

The 2001 campaign has not just been the best since the franchise’s founding in 1977, but also one of the most outstanding seasons in the long history of the Great Game.  After beating the A’s on Opening Day back in early April, the Mariners fell to Oakland the following day, leveling the team’s record at 1-1.  It was the only time all season Seattle was not above .500.  By the end of that month the club was already 15 games above break even.  In mid-July, a victory in the first game after the All-Star break pushed the team’s record 40 games over .500 at 64-24.  That much in the plus column translates to 101 wins over a full season, a mark that virtually any roster would gladly take if offered it during Spring Training.

But the 2001 Mariners rolled right past the threshold of triple-digit wins, eventually finishing with a record of 116-46, matching the 1906 Cubs for the most regular season victories, though Chicago of course reached its total over a slightly shorter schedule.  Still, it was clear to fans and certainly to opposing teams that Seattle was special.  The franchise led the majors in runs scored by its offense, and fewest tallies allowed by its defense.  The Mariners set a big league record with 59 victories by a margin of 4 or more runs.  Not surprisingly, Seattle finished the year with a winning record against every opponent.

The team was led by 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, playing his first MLB season after transferring from the Orix BlueWave of Japan’s NPB.  Ichiro led the league in batting average and stolen bases while claiming both the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards.  But he also had help.  Second baseman Bret Boone knocked in 141 runs, tops in the American League, and right-hander Freddy Garcia posted the lowest ERA among AL starting pitchers. 

Yet in the end, when the final out of the 2001 World Series had been recorded, the team celebrating was the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the place where disappointment was keenest was the Bronx, not the Pacific Northwest.  As has happened both before and since, and by no means just in baseball, regular season dominance did not translate into postseason success.  Seattle needed all five games to get by Cleveland in the ALDS, a gauntlet that required back-to-back wins in elimination contests.  Then the Yankees won both Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS in Seattle, leaving the Mariners reeling.  New York wrapped it up in the Bronx, four games to one.

Despite the shock ending, Mariners fans surely believed the future was bright.  After all, 2001 marked Seattle’s fourth playoff appearance in seven seasons, and second straight trip to the ALCS.  Surely the franchise would soon punch its first ticket to the World Series.

The world has changed in so many ways since that Labor Day.  The team’s celebration was barely a week old when hijacked planes ended the decades old illusion that two oceans protected the Unites States from attacks on home soil.  About the time New York ended Seattle’s playoff hopes, Apple introduced a compact mp3 player called the iPod.  Six years later, Steve Jobs dramatically expanded upon that device’s capabilities when he unveiled the first iPhone.  In between those two milestones, a social network called FaceMash debuted late in 2003.  A few months later, the second part of the name was dropped in favor of “book.”  The list goes on, but through all that has been visited upon humankind over the past 21 years, for good or ill, one thing stayed constant.  September 3, 2001, remained the last time the Seattle Mariners clinched a spot in the postseason.  By this week, the yawning gap had become the longest playoff drought for any franchise in North America’s major team sports.

Initially, it was just fate.  The Mariners won 93 games each of the next two seasons after 2001.  But in a time when only the three division winners and a single Wild Card advanced to the postseason, other franchises did better.  The 2002 Mariners played in a powerhouse division ultimately topped by the 103 wins of Oakland and the 99 of Anaheim.  The following year Seattle finished just three games back of the A’s, but also two behind the Red Sox for the best record among second place teams.  In time, of course, the cycle that virtually every franchise goes through set in.  Players left, signings or trades disappointed, rebuilding years set in.  The Mariners sometimes got close, but most of the past two decades has been a tale of losing seasons.  Then, last year, came 90 wins, well short of AL West powerhouse Houston, but just behind the Wild Card winners in Boston and New York.  Hope flickered, but the drought continued.  Until Friday night. 

The date is September 30, 2022.  The last day of the month, with less than a week of games remaining in the longest season.  The Mariners have spent much of the season’s second half on the edge of this year’s expanded playoffs, some days in the bracket, other days out.  But while Baltimore will forever be the biggest surprise of the season, turning a 110-loss 2021 campaign into a winning record this year, the Orioles have faded a bit.  That has allowed Seattle to move to the brink of postseason qualification.  All it takes is one more win.

Bottom of the 9th, a 1-1 game against old friend Oakland, with nearly 45,000 packed into T-Mobile Park.  There are two outs, extra innings beckon, and Mariners manager Scott Servais sends Cal Raleigh up as a pinch hitter.  The burly catcher, who has plenty of power with 25 home runs this year, looks at three balls around one swinging strike, before ceding his advantage in the count with another swing and miss.  Raleigh fouls off the first full count offering from Domingo Acevedo, an 85 mph slider.  The A’s hurler sends another off-speed offering to the plate, and Raleigh is ready.  The drive soars down the right field line, a 406-foot game-winning home run by a player who was a 4-year-old toddling about in the mountains of western North Carolina on Labor Day, 2001.  The 2-1 walkoff victory ends the Mariners drought.  There is joy in Seattle, as there should be, but the Mariners story has lessons for fans everywhere. 

By this time next week, the Wild Card round will be wrapping up.  Four clubs, one-third of the initial twelve-team field, will have been or about to be sent home.  As the postseason progresses, odds are at least one regular season powerhouse will disappoint.  For all but one team, the playoffs always end in sadness.  But no fan who gets to cheer into October should complain.  The future is always uncertain, so enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.  There are many others who wish they had the chance to do so.  Besides, who knows when you’ll be the lucky one again?

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