SEATTLE – Ten years later, Lou Piniella does second-guess himself, if only a little.
“What could I have done differently?” he said. “I could have brought Jamie Moyer back on really short rest.”
It was in the 2001 American League Championship Series that Piniella and the Seattle Mariners – winners of 116 games in the regular season – found themselves trailing the New York Yankees 3-1, needing a victory to get the series back to Seattle.
Moyer had beaten the Yankees in Game 3 – just two days before – and Cleveland twice in the A.L. Division Series. And his collection of off-speed bafflers seemed especially suited to deal with New York’s lineup.
“But I took a chance that if Aaron Sele pitched a good game, we’d have Jamie and Freddy Garcia for the last two games here,” Piniella said. “In retrospect, I might have made the wrong decision. Whether we win the series or not, who the heck knows? But Jamie had a nice touch with that team. With the Yankees, you either had to throw it really hard or really soft – the in-between stuff they hit pretty good.”
And the Yankees hit Sele hard in a 12-3 drubbing that put a bitter cap on what was otherwise the sweetest season in baseball history.
Only the 1906 Chicago Cubs had won 116 games before – and Piniella noted that maybe that should come with an asterisk.
“One of them was a forfeit,” Piniella said, relaying information from M’s president Chuck Armstrong. “The other team’s manager took his team off the field before a game and the ump forfeited the game.”
On Saturday, 18 players from the 2001 team, three coaches, Piniella and general manager Pat Gillick – bound for the Hall of Fame in a week – gathered to reminisce and joke (and rue just a little) before a pregame ceremony marking their achievement.
If the number 116 is boggling in the big-picture rearview, it was no less so to the Mariners at the time.
First baseman John Olerud recalled how the season evolved from a “fast start” – 20-4 out of the gate – to “something that was amazing, then a little ridiculous.
“It wasn’t that we couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was just that we just kept telling ourselves to ride it until we hit the tough streak that all teams do. But we didn’t ever hit – until the postseason, I guess, when it always gets tough.”
The 2001 M’s attributes were obvious. Second baseman Bret Boone and others pointed to chemistry (“I could go to dinner with any of the 24 guys, and you can’t say that on all teams,”) Gillick stressed the team’s often flawless execution and Piniella called it “the best disciplined team at home plate I’ve ever managed.”
But the drive for 116 may also have taken its toll.
“It was almost like toward the end of the season that it was automatic we were going to run the table and win the whole thing,” Boone said. “How did we not finish the deal?
“Not an excuse, but when we got somewhat close to 116 wins, the press started getting a little bigger and it seemed like we had a postseason atmosphere in the clubhouse every day. Finally the day we won 116, everybody kind of went, ‘Whew, it’s over.’ Well, wait a minute – now we’ve got to go play for what really matters.”
But to the crowd of 30,806 that showed up at Safeco and indulged themselves in loud, appreciative ovations for all the returnees, 2001 mattered.
“With the parity I see in baseball today,” said Piniella, “I don’t see it happening again in the near future.”