In what is undoubtedly the most important season in franchise history, the Seattle Mariners believe they can finally win something this year.
Like the American League West.
“I think we’ll win,” Jay Buhner said. “I don’t just think we have a chance. I think we’ll win.”
“I don’t think there are too many clubs in the league that can put a better lineup on the field than the one we’re going to put out there daily,” manager Lou Piniella said.
Added Ken Griffey Jr.: “I want to win and that’s the bottom line. I’m not going to be satisfied losing. That’s not me and it’ll never be me.”
A division championship is a must for the Mariners, who are trying to convince the Washington Legislature to build them a new, retractable-roof stadium that will cost an estimated $278 million.
Without a new stadium, the Mariners could become extinct after the 1996 season, their 20th - like the Seattle Pilots after their first in 1969.
The Mariners are losing millions of dollars and they can’t allow the trend to continue.
“We’re struggling,” John Ellis, the club chairman and chief executive officer, told lawmakers earlier this spring when he went to Olympia to lobby for a bill that would help fund a stadium with a sales-tax option.
Ellis and the team owners haven’t said they’re going to move the franchise if they don’t get their stadium.
What they’ve said is they’re not going to renew their Kingdome lease, which expires after the ‘96 season, because they can’t make baseball work in the Kingdome.
Hiroshi Yamauchi of Japan, who owns Nintendo as well as majority interest in the Mariners, then presumably would put the team up for sale.
And since no local folks came to the rescue 2 1/2 years ago - when Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., convinced Yamauchi to invest in the Mariners - the franchise could be headed out of the Northwest after two more seasons.
The 25-year-old Griffey, who will make $7 million this season, has said he doesn’t want to stay in Seattle if the club can’t find a way to win.
Baseball hasn’t been profitable in Seattle. The Mariners reportedly could lose $25 million this season after dropping $20 million in ‘93 and $16 million in ‘92.
After the baseball strike, the Mariners said they would have to trade a top salary, presumably star left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson, because they were $4 million over budget. But that decision was reversed and Johnson did not become trade bait.
So now the Mariners must do it on the field. Or else.
“Ownership has done its part,” Piniella said. “I think the decision this year will be made on the new stadium and the ultimate future of this club in Seattle. So if that’s important, I guess it is important.”
Piniella thinks this is the best of his three Mariners teams.
In Griffey, he has last season’s A.L. home-run champion, a five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder who has hit 85 homers in his last two seasons.
In Johnson, he has the league’s strikeout king for the past three seasons who won 19 games in ‘93 - the last full season.
“Even though we’re considered a small-market team, I think we can contend with anybody,” Johnson said.
Especially in a division where the Mariners don’t have to beat the Chicago White Sox or the New York Yankees or Baltimore or Cleveland.
All they have to do is finish ahead of California, Oakland and Texas.
Even Piniella admits the A.L. West was “weak” last season, when the Mariners were two games out of first place with a 49-63 record before the strike stopped everything.
If the Mariners are going to have a successful season, they’ll have to get another strong year from Johnson (13-6, 3.19 ERA, 204 strikeouts in ‘93), considerable improvement from Chris Bosio (4-10, 4.32) and lefthander Dave Fleming (7-11, 6.46), and contributions from new starters Tim Davis (No. 5, a left-hander who pitched 42 games with Seattle last season) and Bob Wells (No. 4, a right-hander who was claimed on waivers from Philadelphia last season).
“We need a couple of pitchers to step forward here and get the job done,” Piniella said.
With closer Bobby Ayala, setup man Bill Risley and the additions of left-handers Ron Villone and Lee Guetterman, the Mariners’ bullpen appears solid.
As spring training for the Mariners was winding down, Piniella had taken a good look at 19-year-old shortstop Alex Rodriguez and liked what he’d seen defensively. He’ll start the year with the triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, and Felix Fermin will open as the No.1 shortstop.
The Mariners have rookie Darren Bragg and converted infielder Rich Amaral to lead off and play left field, with Griffey in center and Buhner in right.
Tino Martinez, who hit a career-best 20 homers in 97 games last season, will be at first, Joey Cora at second. Edgar Martinez, 1992 A.L. batting champ, will be designated hitter, Mike Blowers will play third and Dan Wilson and newly acquired Chad Kreuter will catch.
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