Baseball in Seattle had been mostly moribund, from the birth of the Mariners in 1977 up until the arrival of Lou Piniella in 1993. Piniella inherited a team that had just one winning season in its history and immediately finished over .500. Two years later, in 1995, they won the AL West. In 1997, they won it again. After a two years of slipping back to losing records, Seattle seemed to be losing ground. But a series of offseason moves—including the trading of a franchise icon—got the 2000 Seattle Mariners back on track and they began what remains the best four-year stretch of baseball in the team’s history. .
Prior to the 2000 season, Seattle went on the free agent market and acquired first baseman John Olerud, who went on to drive in 103 runs. They brought in a closer from Japan, Kazuhiro Sasaki, who saved 37 games and set the stage for an even bigger acquisition from across the Pacific a year later.
Aaron Sele was brought in to anchor the rotation and Sele won 17 games as the staff’s most reliable starter. Stan Javier was a valuable veteran addition in the outfield and posted a .351 on-base percentage. Veterans Mark McLemore and Arthur Rhodes filled in gaps at second base and in the bullpen.
In May, Seattle signed 41-year-old Rickey Henderson, a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest leadoff hitters of all-time. Henderson posted a .362 OBP for the balance of the ’00 season.
But that was just the warmup. On February 10, just prior to spring training, the Mariners pulled the trigger on the biggest deal yet. Ken Griffey Jr., a future Hall of Famer, an MVP and the greatest player in club history, was dealt to Cincinnati.
As it turned out, Seattle’s timing was pretty good. While Griffey had a big year in 2000, hitting 40 home runs, injuries were starting to take their toll and missed games would add up. Griffey was certainly a good player over his nine years in Cincinnati, but his acquisition didn’t have the impact the Reds were hoping for.
And the Mariners, in addition to clearing payroll for a lot of the other acquisitions noted above, got a good player back in return. Mike Cameron stepped into the centerfield role, and finished with a stat line of .365 OBP/.438 slugging percentage. It wasn’t Griffey, but it certainly wasn’t bad.
The everyday lineup already included a 23-year-old shortstop named Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod had the first monster season of his career, with a stat line of .420/606, 41 home runs, 132 ribbies and a third-place finish in the final MVP voting. He was one of two big stars already on hand in Seattle. Edgar Martinez, the designated hitter, racked up a .423/.579 stat line, slugged 37 homers and drove in 145 runs. Martinez placed sixth in the final MVP vote.
All of it added up to an offense that finished fourth in the American League for runs scored. And the pitching was even better.
Paul Abbott filled in the rotation behind Sele and went 9-7 with a 4.22 ERA. John Halama and Jamie Moyer had ERAs over 5, but they combined to win 27 games. Freddy Garcia made twenty starts and went 9-5 with a 3.91 ERA. And Seattle got valuable work from 21-year-old Gil Meche, who posted a 3.78 ERA in his 15 starts.
The ERAs don’t jump off the page, but keep in mind that this was an era of big offensive production in baseball—which is the nice way of saying that PEDs were generally running rampant. So those ERAs were part of a staff that was actually second-best in the American League.
Seattle opened the season at home against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who had met in the ALCS the year before. The Mariners won four of six. A ten-game stretch against their AL West rivals resulted in a 4-6 record. But Seattle got sweeps of Minnesota, Toronto and Kansas City in an early season that saw them roll into Memorial Day with a record of 25-22. The Mariners had a half-game lead in which all four AL West teams (the division’s current alignment, sans Houston, who was still in the National League) were within 1 ½ games.
The schedule softened in June and Seattle sizzled, going 19-8. A return to playing their divisional rivals saw the Mariners come back to the middle, going 8-7 over a fifteen-game stretch. But they were cleaning up on everyone else. By the end of July, Seattle was soaring at 61-41. They had a four-game lead on the Oakland A’s and were plus-6 on the Anaheim Angels.
Furthermore, the AL West was in good position to get what was then a single wild-card berth and had belonged exclusively to the AL East in its first five years of existence.
August opened with a series loss to Boston, who was still in the wild-card hunt. Then Seattle went to the Bronx for a four-game weekend series. Friday night went poorly. After jumping to a 3-0 lead off of Yankee lefty Andy Pettitte, Moyer was hit hard and the Mariners lost 13-6. Saturday afternoon’s game was better—tied 3-3 in the ninth, Javier singled, was bunted up and then took third on a base hit by Rickey Henderson. Henderson stole second.
The great Mariano Rivera came out of the Yankee bullpen to try and keep the score tied. Al Martin greeted him with a base hit to get the lead. A-Rod’s sac fly added to it. Edgar Martinez picked up Martin with another base hit. Seattle had a 6-3 lead, and even though Sasaki gave up a two-run blast in the bottom of the frame, the Mariners won 6-5.
That momentum rolled right into Sunday, with Javier ripping off a five-hit afternoon. Martinez hit a three-run blast in the first inning. Abbot went eight strong innings and Seattle won 11-1. On Monday, the bats erupted again. This time it was Jay Buhner slashing four hits and backup infielder Carlos Guillen hit a grand slam. An 8-5 win capped off a triumphant long weekend.
It was a weekend the Mariners needed, because August otherwise saw the lose 5 of 6 to the Cleveland Indians, another team looking to stay in the wild-card race. Seattle lost 5 of 6 to mediocre Detroit and they dropped a series to the Chicago White Sox, who had the AL’s best record.
By Labor Day, the Mariners were still in first place at 74-62. But the lead was down to 2 ½ games over Oakland. Just as important, the wild-card picture had tightened back up, with Cleveland a ½ game better than Seattle and Boston only two off the pace.
One thing these 2000 Seattle Mariners did consistently though, was take advantage of soft schedule spots. Another one in early September resulted in a 10-2 stretch that pushed the AL West lead back out to three games. But they gave some of that back in losing three of four at home to Oakland.
By the time the final week arrived, the Mariners were 87-69 and one game ahead of the A’s for the AL West and plus-two on the Indians for the wild-card. The Red Sox had fallen off the pace, so these two races were all that mattered.
Seattle opened the final week by taking two of three from Texas. But Oakland was still able to knock the AL West margin down to a ½ game. Furthermore, the A’s controlled the half-game. Oakland would only make up the game if it mattered for making the playoffs, and Seattle held their two-game cushion on Cleveland.
The Mariners were in Anaheim for the final three games. They grabbed two early runs in Friday night’s opener, but Abbott struggled and Seattle lost 9-3. Oakland moved past them for first place in the division. Cleveland closed to within one game of the wild-card.
Pressure was on for Saturday. Over the course of his long career, Alex Rodriguez would get a reputation as a player who shrunk in clutch moments. That didn’t apply today. A-Rod unloaded—four hits, two of them home runs and seven RBIs. Martinez and Buhner also homered. McLemore and Javier had three hits apiece. A complete offensive assault ended with a 21-9 rout.
There must have been something in the air out west, because the A’s dropped 23 runs and kept the AL West lead. The Indians kept the pressure on. Everything would come down to the final day of the season. And by the time the Mariners took the field for the finale, they knew Cleveland had held serve earlier in the day.
Sele had the ball and even though he fell behind 2-0 early, he was able to get settled down. A-Rod homered in the fourth, Cameron had an RBI double in the fifth and the game was tied 2-2 by the time we reached the seventh.
Third baseman David Bell wasn’t one of the lineup’s big stars, but he had the regular season’s biggest hit—a solo blast in the top of the seventh to give the Mariners a 3-2 lead. They added two more insurance runs that same inning. Arthur Rhodes and Sasaki made the 5-2 score stand up. The Mariners had held off the Indians and were going to the playoffs.
At 91-71, they would be the wild-card. The A’s won their finale 3-0 and took the division title at 91-70. But it’s hardly hindsight to say that the wild-card was the preferable spot to be in for the Division Series. It meant avoiding the Yankees, who had might have had a pedestrian 87 wins, but were also the battle-tested champions. Being the wild-card meant getting a shot at the untested White Sox.
Seattle took full advantage. The games against Chicago were good, but it was the Mariners getting the most important hits. They swept out the White Sox in three games. Meanwhile, the A’s dropped a hard-fought series to the Yanks that went the full five games.
The Mariners went out to New York to open the American League Championship Series and immediately grabbed Game 1. But this series would be reminiscent of their previous ALCS appearance, back in 1995, when they put a favored Cleveland team on the ropes early in the series before letting it get away. The Yankees won the next three games, and ultimately closed out the pennant in six.
It was still an excellent year in the Pacific Northwest—a comeback year, and one that set the table for an even bigger season ahead. Seattle signed another top player from Japan—outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who immediately became one of the game’s top stars. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2024 and will likely be a first-ballot inductee.
In the short-term, he led the Mariners to a stunning 116-win regular season in 2001. The Yankees were again the postseason hurdle that Seattle couldn’t quite clear, although that’s something they shared in common with almost everyone in baseball at this time. The Mariners followed up ’01 with a couple more seasons of 90-plus wins, although they fell short of the playoffs.
Baseball in Seattle has gone through some hard times and a lot of frustration. But the stretch of four seasons that began in 2000 remains its biggest bright spot.