Friday, February 20, 2009

Seattle's Hall of Fame Trio

With the news yesterday of Ken Griffey, Jr. reuniting with the Seattle Mariners, and with that small press conference that Alex Rodriguez called earlier in the week, it seems that the late-90s Seattle Mariners have been given an inordinate amount of press recently. Throw in Randy Johnson's debut in the Giants' spring training this week, and it seems like the perfect time to take a look back at that fantastic group of players.

Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that I'm not the first person to revisit that triumvirate of all-time greats, and I don't want to leave that impression. Still, I do find it fascinating that one franchise could have so many no-doubt Hall of Famers playing together at such a young age, especially in this era.

In 1998, the last year that these three played together, this is what Seattle had: a 23-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who had made the All-Star team in each of his first 2 full seasons and who had a Silver Slugger award and a top-10 MVP finish (finishing 2nd in 1996); the reigning AL MVP in 28-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr, who had also won 8 consecutive Gold Glove awards; and a 34-year-old Randy Johnson, who had finished in the top-3 in Cy Young voting in 4 of the last 5 years (he was injured for most of 1996). It's a fantastic core of players to have, and may in fact be the best trio of talent in 40 or 50 years, especially when you consider their all-around talent and their respective places in history at their positions (I suppose the Orioles and Reds of the 1970s might have a case). And then when you think of what they've accomplished since then - Johnson's 5 total Cy Young awards, 295 career wins and 4,789(!) career strikeouts, Griffey's 611 career home runs and career 138 OPS+, and A-Rod's 3 MVPs, 553 career home runs, career .306 batting average, and 147 OPS+, all at the age of 32 - it becomes almost unfathomable. Not to tease Mariners fans, but: if the team could have afforded to give $45 million dollars to those three guys each year... well, it's hard to imagine.

But I'm not here to look at what-ifs. Fans of Seattle were treated to one of the greatest collections of talent ever in the mid- to late-90s, and they should feel pretty grateful for that. Plus, they did end up acquiring one of the most exciting players ever just a couple of years later with Ichiro!, and that 116-win season wasn't too shabby either. I'm not grieving for the what-could've-been-Mariners. Instead, I thought it'd be fun to take a look back at that team and see what people were saying about it at the time. This, of course, means that we'll be looking at preview guides from 1998. I also want to see what had been said about each of these guys when they first joined the club, so I'll take a look at a couple of preview guides from the early '90s.

Ken Griffey, Jr.
Anyone aware of baseball back in 1989 remembers the excitement of the Kid joining the Mariners. From his Upper Deck #1 card to his big-kid smile, he was a big deal. And now that he's back with the club, people seem to welcome the nostalgia it brings, even while acknowledging his diminished skills. He was far from "diminished" as a 19-year-old, though:
"A star was born in Seattle last spring [in 1989] and there's no telling how bright it will get.
Griffey was having a Rookie of the Year season (.287, 13 home runs, 45 runs batted in) before breaking a bone in his right hand in a freak injury at a Chicago hotel July 24. He batted only .214 with three homers and 16 RBIs after retuning to the lineup, but his defense in center field didn't suffer. Griffey wound up with 12 assists, fifth best among AL outfielders, and finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting."
And, by the time 1998 rolled around, Griffey was a reigning MVP and widely considered the best player in baseball.
"The Mariners will be strong up the middle again, especially in center field, where the premier player in the game roams. An injury-free season helped Griffey reach MVP status, and he should continue to get better."

Randy Johnson
Acquired from the Expos in 1989 as part of the Mark Langston trade, it took a few years for the 6'10" lefty to grow into his body. But when he finally did, and he started throwing that slider to offset his 99 MPH fastball, it was all over for Major League Baseball. The Big Unit was the first of the trio to leave, in a trade to the Astros at the 1998 trade deadline (due to his impending free agency). When healthy, he has been utterly fantastic since then. His Cy Young awards and World Series ring will attest to that. He'll likely finish his career in San Francisco this year, pitching by the Bay and waiting for his 300th career win. It may not be the nostalgia trip that Kid Griffey in Seattle is, but it'll still be a sight to see. As a newly arrived 26-year-old prospect from the Langston trade, though, it was hard to know if he would ever live up to that potential.
"The trade of Langston to the Expos netted the Mariners two of their projected starters in the '90s - lefthander Randy Johnson and righthander Brian Holman.

Johnson, 26, is the tallest pitcher (6-foot-10) in major league history and throws the fastest fastball on the staff. However, he showed flashes of wildness with 70 walks in 131 innings with the Mariners. To be a big winner, he must cut down on the free passes."
Johnson did learn to control his wildness, and it led to a dominance that no one could hope to predict. When his free agent year rolled around in 1998, Johnson had already established himself as one of the top pitchers of his generation and Seattle was placed in the unenviable position of having to decide how best to capitalize on it.
"The Mariners probably made a huge mistake during the offseason by not at least offering Johnson a contract extension beyond the '98 season. The snub not only angered Johnson and made him feel unappreciated, it also caused an uproar among many of the fans who turned out in record numbers (3.2 million) last season. Fortunately, [GM Woody] Woodward rejected trade offers that didn't include a No. 1 starter in return, and Johnson should begin the season anchoring a strong rotation that includes fellow lefties Jamie Moyer and Jeff Fassero and promising righthander Ken Cloude.

Even at 34 and coming off career-threatening back surgery, Johnson proved that 'The Big Unit' was back and possibly better than ever. He won 20 games for the first time and twice struck out 19 batters in a game. And he underscored his value with a 12-1 record and four no-decisions in starts following a Mariners loss. Although Johnson insists his determination and work ethic won't change, the front office's snub could become a distraction during the regular season, especially if Johnson still is with the Mariners near the July 31 trading deadline."

Alex Rodriguez
The top pick in the 1993 draft, A-Rod was a scout's fantasy, with his ability to hit, field, and run. He was so good, in fact, that he was able to break the big league roster at age 19 at the toughest defensive position on the field. It was shades of Griffey, and he didn't disappoint.
"The much-anticipated Rodriguez era at shortstop finally begins. Rodriguez, 20, the first player selected in the 1993 draft, has shuffled between the majors and minors the past two seasons. The regular job is his to lose, and there is no question the interior defense will be stronger with Rodriguez at short. His range is good, and his arm is powerful and accurate."
The youngest of these three players, Rodriguez had only two full seasons with the club by the time Johnson's free agent year arrived. Still, his 1996 campaign, his first full season, proved to most people that the Mariners had something special.
"For most players, a .300 average, 23 homers, and 84 RBIs is more than acceptable. But for shortstop Alex Rodriguez, it was a significant decline in all three offensive categories from 1996. Rodriguez is liable to throw another eye-popping season together in '98 and a 30/30 season is within reach."

Johnson was traded to the Astros at the 1998 trade deadline for Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen, and nearly led the Astros to the World Series all by himself. Griffey was traded to the Reds a few months after the 1999 season, also in anticipation of free agency. After forcing the M's to work a deal with the Reds (and Reds alone), the club did the best it could, receiving Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, and a couple of minor leaguers in return. And, finally, Rodriguez left after the 2000 season, signing the largest contract in history with the Texas Rangers (and then we all know what happened after that). It was a sad string of seasons for the Mariners and their fans, but it does not undermine the fact that, for a few years at least, every Mariners fan got to enjoy one of the best sets of teammates in history. It's hard to complain about that.


The Common Man said...

I remember watching Johnson in that '93 All Star Game, when he terrified the National League and (purposely?) threw his first pitch behind John Kruk. He was still pretty wild then, and because there was no interleague play (and he didn't play in the '90 game), very few NLers had ever hit against him. It was amazing to watch professional ballplayers hit with one foot constantly bailing out because they were so scared.

One fact-check issue: Griffey was traded between '99 and '00. He demanded a trade, and would only go to a select group of teams. The Mariners, from what I understand, had a deal set with the Braves when Griffey backed out and said he would only go to Cincinnati. In return, the Mariners got Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko (who then looked like an average starter), and two bit parts. At the time, given the constraints they were operating under, it was thought that the deal was about as good as the M's could get (or better).

lar said...

Wow, TCM. Thanks for pointing that out. I definitely knew those facts. I must not have been thinking when I wrote it. Stupid me.

Luckily, I can just edit the post and no one will ever know. Except for your comment. And now my comment. D'oh!

Hmm... good question about that pitch to Kruk. Looking at the game recap (see the third inning), I doubt it was on purpose. Still, I kind of like the idea of Pudge Rodriguez channeling his inner Crash Davis and walking up to the tall, lanky, hurler and telling him "hit the bull!" That would raise Pudge up about 3 notches on my ladder...

The Common Man said...

It was a real "hit the bull" moment. And it was so out of context with the rest of his pitches that it really seemed designed a) to intimidate everyone and b) to simultaneously loosen everyone up (I think Kruk hit for the rest of the AB with his helmet on backwards). I don't know if you've seen the pitch though, you may have a different take on it.

lar said...

It's been a while, but I've definitely seen the at-bat. And I'm fairly confident I watched it live, but I could be wrong about that. The pitch was totally wild, and Kruk hopped into the other batter's box and flipped his helmet around. If I remember right, he only actually took one pitch that way (and I only say that because I remember believing he had spent the whole at-bat like that but then later learning otherwise; of course, I could always be incredibly wrong). It was one of the funnest moments of the 90s, baseball-wise at least. It never occurred to me that it was on purpose, though, but that doesn't mean anything. The only reason I said the game recap made me think it wasn't on purpose was because Kruk was the third and final batter of the inning, and not the first.

Now that you mention it, I really want to believe that it was on purpose. That'd make me like Johnson even more. I'll have to find the video on youtube or something over lunch...

David said...

After that first pitch, Kruk took three weak swings and happily sat down. It was Larry Walker who turned his helmet around and batted from the other side. Walker's at bat may have happened in a later ASG, I don't recall that detail.

lar said...

Great call, David. it's funny how we all seemed to have conflated Walker and Kruk into one at-bat. Is it because they look alike? or, more likely, because it's hard to believe the Johnson did that *twice* in All-Star games.

Some video:
Kruk vs Johnson, 1993 AS - You've gotta love strikes 2 and 3

Walker vs Johnson, 1997 AS - I couldn't find any video (MLB really needs to figure this stuff out better), but I did find this picture. There's got to be something better than that, right?