The visiting manager's office at Fenway Park has the minimalist
decor of a prison cell. The pale blue walls, one of which is
inexplicably covered halfway up with bathroom tile of a matching
hue, are bare except for a single sheet of paper that lists
telephone extensions in the ballpark. A plain oak desk and two
worn sofas fill most of the floor space in the small, square
room. It's the perfect setting for an interrogation, be it
conducted by a film noir detective or the manager of a
first-place team trying to solve the mystery of why his club has
fallen into a 3-15 funk in which it has looked tighter than a
Jennifer Lopez gown on Oscar night.
"Let me ask you something," is how Seattle Mariners manager Lou
Piniella began an invitation-only meeting he called before
Seattle's game last Saturday against the Boston Red Sox. Across
the desk from him stood 10 veteran Mariners who somehow had
squeezed into the room, like college kids in a phone booth. "Do
any of you have contracts where you don't get paid if we don't
win the division?"
Nobody raised a hand or spoke a word.
"Neither do I," Piniella said after the requisite dramatic pause.
"So let's stop playing like it. You're playing like this is a
matter of life and death, like you have to win. This isn't life
and death. This isn't as important as your family and your kids.
All you can expect is that you give your best effort every night,
and if you win, great. But if it's not good enough, so what?
What's the worst thing that can happen? That you go home to your
family after the season? What's so bad about that?
"Listen, I want to win as much as you do. But you can't force it.
Just go out there, have fun and give your best effort. That's all
you can expect. And that's when winning starts to happen, not
when you feel you have to win. There's one month left. It makes
no sense that we have a 2 1/2-game lead. We should either be 10
games up [in the American League West without the 3-15 slide] or
five games back [with it]. So let's just have fun."
Somehow Piniella dismissed his audience without offering each a
spot of chamomile tea, the only ingredient that was missing from
his transformation from manager known for his Vesuvius-like
temper to New Age philosopher. Piniella is in his eighth season
in Seattle, a stewardship that coincides with the city's
remarkable rise as a baseball town. "That's a long time, a long
run, in any place," Piniella, who's in the final year of his
contract, said on Saturday. He would like to return to Seattle
next season, but his insouciance suggests that he is prepared for
a change of venue. That "What, me worry?" attitude seemed to be
exactly what the jittery Mariners needed last weekend.
"Fantastic," 37-year-old designated hitter Edgar Martinez said of
the session in Piniella's office. "Probably the best meeting I've
ever been at in my career."
Seattle immediately snapped out of its daze, winning back-to-back
games for the first time in 23 days. The Mariners did so in
precisely the same manner--with solid starting pitching, good
defense and a resourceful, if underwhelming, offense--that had
helped propel them to a seven-game division lead and a record
that was 22 games better than .500 (both franchise highs) before
the fall that began on Aug. 12 with a 5-4 loss to the Cleveland
Indians. Their 4-1 and 5-0 victories over Boston on Saturday and
Sunday looked familiar, except for the sight of Brian Lesher, a
29-year-old September call-up who had gone two years between big
league hits, coming off the bench Saturday to drive in three runs
with a triple and a double; and Paul Abbott, a 32-year-old
journeyman righthander with almost half as many stints on the
disabled list (10) as career wins (21), on Sunday coming within
five outs of not only his first complete game but also of the
first Fenway no-hitter in 35 years.
The Labor Day weekend series, which ended on Monday with Boston's
Pedro Martinez striking out 11 in eight innings while shutting
down Seattle 5-1, was full of statements, none more true than
this one from Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez before Saturday's
win: "Every morning when we get up, we should kiss the ground and
be thankful we're 2 1/2 games up."
Seattle and Boston are just two examples of how forgiving the
American League postseason race has been. Through Sunday the New
York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox were playing solid ball
and held comfortable leads in the East and Central, respectively,
but Cleveland led the wild-card race despite having used 31
pitchers this season. The unruly mob within five games of the
Indians included the Detroit Tigers, who didn't get back to .500
until Aug. 24; the Toronto Blue Jays, who had been outscored by
23 runs on the season; the Oakland A's, who led the league in
errors and striking out and had trouble capitalizing on Seattle's
3-15 flop because of an 8-17 tailspin of their own; the Anaheim
Angels, 68-68 but still not out of the race; and Boston, which
was 48-51 since May 14 and was the league's third-lowest-scoring
club (4.92 runs per game) despite the hyperactivity of Red Sox
general manager Dan Duquette.
There are bus depots in America that wish they had the foot
traffic of the Red Sox clubhouse. Duquette has suited up 51
players this season, importing designated hitter Dante Bichette
and outfielder Midre Cummings in trades last Thursday with,
respectively, the Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Twins. All
that activity, however, hasn't improved an offense that lacks
speed and power. Bichette met his wife at a gym behind Fenway's
leftfield wall and was a career .366 hitter in Boston at the time
of the trade, which is why he said upon arrival, "This is where I
always wanted to play. Hopefully I can get hot and give this team
a lift down the stretch."
Bichette got only three singles in his first 15 at bats with the
Red Sox. A slump by shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, usually Boston's
most prolific hitter, had exacerbated the Red Sox' scoring
troubles. In the four weekend games, the Mariners held him to
three hits in 17 at bats; with a third-inning single on Monday,
Garciaparra drove in his first run in 16 games. In a four-game
span beginning on Aug. 30, Boston lost on a four-hitter, a
three-hitter and a one-hitter.
Meanwhile, the Mariners had used a league-low 36 players, and
general manager Pat Gillick had suffered from his own poor
batting average. After promising to add a run producer this year
following the trade of Ken Griffey Jr. to the Reds, Gillick
whiffed on deals for Jim Edmonds, Travis Lee, David Segui, Dmitri
Young and, at the July 31 trading deadline, Juan Gonzalez. When
the Tigers backed out of a deal involving Gonzalez, Gillick made
a late grab for San Diego Padres leftfielder Al Martin, who
through Monday had been an unqualified bust (.228, seven RBIs in
25 games). "We're not going to outslug anybody," says Piniella.
"We don't play well from behind. We need to get walks, bunt, move
runners and get a couple of timely hits."
That approach worked well over the weekend, when Seattle's
offense wasn't quite as bad as Boston's. Righthander Freddy
Garcia (seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball on Saturday) and
Abbott dominated the Red Sox. On Sunday, Mariners first baseman
John Olerud, who had missed three games because of the birth of
his second child, returned with a two-run double (his first
multiple RBI game since Aug. 4) and a box of cigars, which he
doled out in the clubhouse after the win. Piniella had one
sitting on his desk as he observed, "You wouldn't think veterans
would get nervous, but they were. I had talked with some of them
individually, and they told me everything was fine. But that's
not how they played. So I called them into my office. I like just
having the veterans. It gets too crowded if you try to do it with
Abbott clutched his cigar in his right hand as he discussed the
game of his nomadic baseball life. "We look like we're back on
track now," he said. That's when a reporter asked him about the
power of Piniella's meeting.
"I wasn't in it," he said. "What'd he say, anyway?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WINSLOW TOWNSON HEADS UP Mark McLemore supported Abbott's gem with three hits and this stolen base past a lunging Mike Lansing.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WINSLOW TOWNSON
King of the Road
Even though the Mariners were playing only .500 ball away from
Safeco Field through Sunday, don't blame Seattle shortstop Alex
Rodriguez (left). He was at or near the top of the American
League in road performances in six key offensive categories.
Player, Team Average
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners .374
Shannon Stewart, Blue Jays .365
Mike Sweeney, Royals .363
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox .356
Player, Team HRs
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 22
Troy Glaus, Angels 18
Jermaine Dye, Royals 17
Edgar Martinez, Mariners 17
Player, Team RBIs
Edgar Martinez, Mariners 69
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 65
Mike Sweeney, Royals 63
Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays 58
Player, Team Runs
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 70
Ray Durham, White Sox 55
Johnny Damon, Royals 53
Shannon Stewart, Blue Jays 53
Player, Team Slugging Pct.
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners .715
Edgar Martinez, Mariners .634
Manny Ramirez, Indians .629
Carl Everett, Red Sox .624
Player, Team On-base Pct.
Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays .479
Jason Giambi, A's .457
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners .450
Manny Ramirez, Indians .441
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU