For the Seattle Mariners, it doesn’t get much better than this. This past week alone, the M’s have:
Put together a five-game winning streak;
Climbed to two games above .500 in the standings;
Savaged opposition pitching for 11 runs a game;
Learned that Randy Johnson’s arm hasn’t fallen off, and
Been able to count on two hands the number of days until Ken Griffey Jr. can return to the lineup.
All this in addition to the ongoing giddiness that general manager Woody Woodward has yet to make a truly awful player acquisition - well, OK, Steve Frey, but everybody’s entitled to a mulligan - and may well have pulled off the “get” of the year.
Exactly two-thirds of the way through this Reader’s Digest condensed baseball season, second baseman Joey Cora has lifted his batting average to a career-high .297 and become the best little $350,000 bargain in baseball.
Consider it Spokane’s ante into the wild-card game.
It’s been 10 summers since Joey Cora broke into professional baseball on our turf. Single-A ball hardly lends itself to long-term attachments, but Cora was an exception - partly because he was the first first-round draft pick San Diego sent our way and partly because he was in the Padres’ opening-day lineup two years later. Unlike Sandy Alomar the year before, Cora was a sensation here. His game had big-league charisma, and when an injury sidelined him for 31 games, the Indians swooned. The better-stocked championship teams of 1987-90 had no such singular attractions.
But the star quality has never been realized. Cora couldn’t beat out Roberto Alomar in San Diego and only landed a regular job after being traded to the White Sox in 1991. This spring, the Sox figured it was time for rookie Ray Durham, which is how Cora became available to the M’s - at about half the salary he’d been paid in Chicago.
“Business,” Cora shrugged. “You play where you’re wanted, and I came here because I thought this team had a chance to win. I still feel like that, too.”
Well, the odds of the M’s catching California in the American League West are probably longer than those of King County voting to tax itself to build a new baseball stadium.
Nonetheless, there is this new wild-card contrivance - and Seattle’s surge into that picture is due as much to Cora’s contributions as to the higher-decibel bashings of Mike Blowers, Jay Buhner and the two Martinez launchers, Edgar and Tino.
“My job is to get on base,” Cora said, “to set up the middle of the order. Getting a bat on the ball, moving runners over, not hitting into double plays. That’s what I have to do. I don’t care about numbers - I never have and never will.”
He has had his shaky moments afield - a team-high 15 errors - but a year ago, Rich Amaral was juggling hand grenades at second.
In Seattle, such small victories are worth celebrating. The M’s have never been the smartest shoppers, whether they’re browsing baseball’s thrift stores, taking a chance on an antique or buying name brands.
Big-ticket free agents? Pete O’Brien was a bust. Chris Bosio has been better, but brittle. Greg Hibbard is broken and may never be fixed. Jeff Leonard had one decent year for a miserable team.
And who can ever forget the contributions of Tom Niedenfuer, Juan Agosto, Tiny Felder, Mackey Sasser, Wally Backman and Bobby Thigpen?
Just about all of you, presumably.
Now the M’s are trying to do the unforgettable with a roster patched together with calculated gambles (the trading of four former No. 1 draft picks), waiver-wire rejects and modest investments.
Maybe Joey Cora won’t win them a pennant. But this year, he doesn’t have to.
Contact John Blanchette at 459-5577, ext. 5509.