Arrow-right Camera

Benes Could Be Winning Ticket

Andy Benes may well pitch the Seattle Mariners through the rear door and into the American League playoffs. Imagine that. Insert “jokers wild” gags here.

But that’s just maybe, as in possibly. As in a few miles north of Snowball’s Chance.

This much, however, is certain: Ron Villone will win the Cy Young Award sometime. And Marc Newfield is somebody’s next triple-crown winner.

Not that Villone’s stuff is so unhittable, nor Newfield’s bat the reincarnation of “Wonderboy.” Let’s see, we have their majorleague resumes here somewhere … Villone a 7.91 ERA, Newfield a .201 batting average. Of course, they were never in Seattle long enough for the hotel maid to change the sheets. Perpetual passengers on Lou Piniella’s Triple-A shuttle, as Mariners hirelings they were candidates for a reputable Dramamine dependency program and little more.

But the fact that they were the warm bodies bundled off to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Benes on Monday would seem to guarantee them greatness.

The Curse of the Bambino it isn’t, but it is the Whammy of the Woodman.

Woody Woodward toils earnestly as the M’s vice president, between tee times anyway. He bears an old rap of being on vacation as trading deadlines came and went - but most seasons, why not? As it happens, Seattle’s catcher and closer, second baseman, phenom shortstop, third baseman and franchise pitcher - indeed the entire starting rotation - were all acquired on Woody’s watch, while Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez were all re-upped at significant cost.

Woody has also approved the outlay of good money and manpower for Pete O’Brien, Bill Krueger (twice!), Dave Magadan, Tiny Felder, Eric Anthony and - this one goes on his headstone - Kevin Mitchell.

Andy Benes should soar above that scrapheap, but even if he doesn’t it seems appropriate to applaud Mariners management for trying in a way it never has before.

A month ago, Piniella insisted he’d been told the Mariners wouldn’t add salary. This week, they picked up about $1 million of Benes’ $3.4 million contract, in return for which they’ll get maybe a dozen starts.

The alternative being Krueger or the characters skulking in Triple-A, it looks like a bargain. Benes’ ERA has inched up over the years, but he still throws hard, he’s still durable (hasn’t missed a start since joining San Diego’s rotation in ‘89) and he did lead the National League in strikeouts last season. And he’s only 27.

Naturally, he may be only temporary. So what? In 1991, M’s manager Jim Lefebvre begged for a much-needed right-handed power hitter for a team that was casually involved in a pennant race. He was fired for his trouble.

Now - whatever you may think of baseball’s new playoff concoction - wild-card dreams allowed Woody the run of the checkbook.

Forgive us our cynicism here, but it’s amazing what a campaign for a new stadium can do. So be it.

The troublesome aspect, of course, is that Seattle has now traded away four former No. 1 draft choices this season - Roger Salkeld for Tim Belcher, Shawn Estes for Salomon Torres, Villone and Newfield for Benes. Of those, only Salkeld has used up a legitimate chance - though Estes’ climb through the organization had become sleep-inducing.

There is not a great deal left in the cupboard, at least on the shelves within easy reach. Piniella has exhausted his own patience and possibly the confidence of the organization’s young pitchers with his hair-trigger shuttle.

And it is borderline eerie how the Mariners’ discards seem to thrive elsewhere.

We won’t even talk about Erik Hanson and Bret Boone in Cincinnati, because their replacements - Bobby Ayala and Dan Wilson - are more than adequate. We won’t talk about Omar Vizquel because, well, that’s another one perfect for Woody’s headstone.

We’ll talk instead about Mike Hampton, who didn’t mature fast enough to suit Piniella in 1993. He’s 7-3 with a 2.69 ERA in Houston. We’ll talk about Bill Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba - the casualties in the Mitchell fiasco - who are a combined 14-4, though Swift is once again on the disabled list.

We’ll talk about Lee Tinsley, hitting .302 in Boston as Seattle auditions its 40th-odd left fielder during Junior’s stay in center. We’ll talk about Mike Kingrey - remember him? - still entrenched in the lineup for pennant-contending Colorado.

And how about the arms Woody and Lou flat gave up on? Steve Ontiveros - 8-4 and an AllStar in Oakland. Shawn Boskie - 6-2 for California. Rich DeLucia - 5-4 with a 3.12 ERA for St. Louis.

Never mind. We couldn’t take Rich DeLucia anymore, either.

The Dodgers raided Japan for Hideo Nomo; Woody gambled on Mac Suzuki. Texas has 20 home runs from Mickey Tettleton this season; the M’s just sent Chad Krueter to Tacoma.

But if Andy Benes pans out, if the Mariners somehow creep past the Orioles and Yankees and Brewers and the rest for that fourth spot in the A.L. playoffs, all will be forgotten.

And Woody Woodward will be living proof, for the moment anyway, that it’s better to be lucky than good.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos