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A Cleared Path To the Top

For all those not quite sleepless in Seattle, the Mariners will rebroadcast their Opening Day game in Cleveland later that same night. With every pitch included, but all the stalling and scratching zapped out, what's left is just 60 minutes of programming called Mariners last Forward—which is not a bad working title for the rest of Seattle's season as well.

On the first day that all the Mariners had reported to their new Peoria, Ariz., camp, manager Lou Piniella called his players together to talk about winning a title. "It's our time," Piniella says he told them. "That was the message."

Wake up and smell the espresso. Seattle is a contender for the first time in its inglorious 17-year history and not afraid to announce it. The franchise that has finished with a winning record only twice will benefit from the serendipitous arrival of realignment just as its key young players are reaching their prime. Two of the three teams that finished ahead of the Mariners last year, Chicago and Kansas City, were relocated to the AL Central. The third, Texas, is the only franchise in the league other than Seattle never to have played a postseason game.

"It's a division we feel is very winnable for us," says Piniella, who managed the Yankees and the Reds to 90-win seasons, including Cincinnati's 1990 world championship. "There's no reason to assume this team can't get into postseason. I told them this team has as much talent as any club I've managed."

Why the optimism, especially after a winter in which general manager Woody Woodward's No. 1 priority was to cut the payroll? Sure enough, the Mariners did slice (heir payroll by 12%, to $29 million; they traded a Gold Glove shortstop, Omar Vizquel; and they lost their catcher, Dave Valle, to free agency. Remarkably, though, they also improved their team.

Baseball's busiest team in the winter traded for yet more young players on the verge of breakthrough seasons, such as pitcher Bobby Ayala, 24, and catcher Dan Wilson, 25, from Cincinnati, and outfielder Eric Anthony, 26, from Houston.

Even after those deals. Piniella says, "we had a $29.5 million payroll and no fourth starter. That's crazy." So, in a money-saving trade, they sent Vizquel to Cleveland for shortstop Felix Fermin, designated hitter Reggie Jefferson and cash, then invested some of their savings in free agent Greg Hibbard, a 15-game winner last year with the Cubs.

The shuffle leaves Seattle with the division's best rotation (Randy Johnson, Chris Bosio, Dave Fleming and Hibbard); the only set of outfielders in the majors who, combined, hit 87 home runs last year (Anthony, Jay Buhner and Ken Griffey Jr.); and the league's best player (Griffey) and most dominating starter (Johnson). "That's enough of a foundation to win. even with a bullpen that posted the league's worst ERA last year and even with the depressing reality of a franchise portfolio that includes no cable-TV package, four ownership groups since 1980 and only two seasons in which attendance topped 1.7 million.

Just the same, Piniella offers his scenario for the perfect season: "We win the pennant, draw 2.5 million people," he says, "and get the team a cable deal."

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PHOTO

V.J. LOVERO

After paring the payroll, Seattle made a successful pitch to Hibbard.