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The Seattle Mariners were created grudgingly by Major League Baseball as the result of a lawsuit. They played their first games in 1977, then took 14 years to have a winning season. Their first three decades were mostly a struggle, an uneven melodrama marked by unhappy owners, ineffective managers, bad moves, and fan frustration. But amid the angst, they boasted four of the sport’s brightest stars: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Ichiro Suzuki. They also managed to produce a pair of seasons so extraordinary that they turned Seattle, which traditionally had favored football among its sports, into a baseball town -- at least temporarily. From those bursts of excitement came an open-air stadium and a rise in the value of the franchise from baseball’s lowest to one of its highest.
"Go, Go, You Pilots!"
Seattle’s first major league team was the Seattle Pilots. They lost 98 games in 1968, a foible-filled season immortalized in the book Ball Four by Jim Bouton, one of their pitchers. Their official team song was "Go, Go, You Pilots!" Ironically, they did, after that lone season. Owners Dewey and Max Soriano quickly realized they could not afford the team. They took an offer of $10.8 million from Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig (b. 1934) -- later commissioner of Major League Baseball -- who planned to move the Pilots to his hometown.
Slade Gorton (b. 1928), the state’s attorney general, filed suit against the American League for breaking a lease and failing to field a team in Seattle as promised. The trial started in January 1976 in Everett with Seattle attorney William Dwyer (1929-2002) grilling other team’s owners and executives. After 18 days of testimony, American League lawyers proposed a deal: In exchange for dropping the suit, Seattle would get another team for the 1977 season. Seattle accepted. The name would be the Mariners, or M’s as they became known from the trident-shaped letter on their caps. The owners were Seattle broadcast and recording executive Lester Smith (1919-2012), entertainer Danny Kaye (1913-1987), and four Seattle businessmen. They were naive about baseball economics and started mostly with players left unprotected by established teams.
Major League Baseball Returns
On April 6, 1977, major league baseball returned to Seattle. A crowd of 57,762 came to the nearly new Kingdome to see the Mariners’ debut against the California Angels. It was the largest opening night gathering in baseball history. Darrell Johnson (1929-2004) was the manager. Pitching was Diego Segui (b. 1937), a 39-year-old carry-over from the Pilots dubbed "The Ancient Mariner." The M’s lost 7-0. They finished the season in sixth place in the American League West with a record of 64 victories and 98 defeats.
The fledgling team did worse the next year, losing 103 games. Attendance dropped from 1.4 million to below 888,000. With major league player salaries escalating, Seattle’s owners already were feeling a money pinch.
In 1979, King County billed the team for $110,000 in overdue rent. The team answered with a $6 million suit, charging that the Kingdome field was too small, the lighting too dark and the ushers poorly trained. A bright spot that year was Seattle’s hosting of the Major League All-Star Game, which drew a crowd of nearly 59,000. But the Mariners continued to lose. On August 4, 1980, Johnson, the manager, was fired. He was replaced by Maury Wills (b. 1932), who lasted only 82 games. Lou Gorman (b. 1929), the team’s original general manager, accepted an offer from the New York Mets. The 1980 season produced another 103 losses and another drop in attendance.
Cash-strapped and weary, the Smith-Kaye group sold control of the team in January 1981 to California developer George Argyros (b. 1937), beginning an 11-year period of out-of-town owners complaining persistently about the Kingdome, their lease, and lack of revenue sources to help them field competitive teams. Threats to move the franchise were implied, if not made outright.
Argyros’ first season was shortened by a strike. His second, with new manager Rene Lachmann (b. 1945) in charge, had an early highlight -- Gaylord Perry (b. 1938) pitched his 300th career victory -- but ended with a losing record. In 1983, the team made its third midseason manager change and suffered its third 100-loss season. The next year, first baseman Alvin Davis (b. 1960) won the team’s first major award, American League Rookie of the Year, but the losing continued and the managerial churn reached a peak in 1986, when the team had three by May.
In 1987, Argyros shocked baseball and enraged Seattle fans by attempting to buy the San Diego Padres of the National League, a prelude to selling the Mariners. His relations with the city, county, and fan base deteriorated from there. In 1988, the Mariners made their sixth midseason manager change in nine years, dumping Dick Williams (1929-2011), who had been a winner elsewhere but not in Seattle.
Argyros sold the team after the 1989 season to Jeff Smulyan (b. 1947), head of an Indianapolis-based radio, TV, and magazine publishing company. The price was $76 million -- nearly six times what Argyros had paid in 1981. Smulyan was more amiable and public relations conscious than his predecessor, but he had shallow pockets compared to rival owners and soon was looking for a way out.
More Talent, More Threats
Meanwhile, the team was adding some players who would make a difference. In 1988 the Mariners acquired slugging outfielder Jay Buhner (b. 1964) from the Yankees. In 1989, Ken Griffey Jr. (b. 1969) made the team in spring training as a teenager and started the season in center field. He doubled in his first major-league at bat, in Oakland, and hit a home run on the first pitch he saw in the Kingdome. That same season, the Mariners traded their best pitcher, Mark Langston (b. 1960), to get three pitchers from Montreal. One was Randy Johnson (b. 1963), a 6-foot-10 left-hander with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. The next season he pitched the team’s first no-hitter, and within a few years was the most dominating and intimidating pitcher in baseball.
Finally, in their 15th year, the Mariners had their first winning season. Jim Lefebvre (b. 1936), the franchise’s eighth manager, led his team to a modest 83-79 record. Griffey was an All-Star for the second time, and attendance topped two million.
Even so, Seattle’s revenue lagged well behind the league average of $58 million. The Seattle Times reported in August 1992 that Smulyan owed his investment bank, Morgan Stanley, $39.5 million; and an internal document at Security Pacific Bank said he had agreed to refinance or put the team up for sale in November and move it in time for the 1993 season. "I will dispute to the death that that is our strategy. ... I’ll tell you this, there are people in that bank who say baseball doesn’t work in Seattle," Smulyan said (Mcdermott, The Seattle Times, 1991).
On December 10, 1991, Smulyan announced that the team was for sale. If a buyer was not found within 120 days, he would move it to Tampa. The call went out for local investors.
An Unlikely Benefactor
Gorton, who had become a U.S. Senator since helping to bring about creation of the Mariners, took the search to Nintendo of North America, located in the Seattle suburb of Redmond. He spoke with Minoru Arakawa (b. 1946), the company’s president, about the need for a buyer to keep the team in Seattle. Arakawa mentioned that to his billionaire father-in-law, Hiroshi Yamauchi (1927-2013), president of Nintendo in Japan. Yamauchi said he would pay the $100 million, not because he cared about baseball, but in gratitude to a community that had helped his company become the world’s leading producer of video games.
The stunning development presented a challenge: Any buyer would have to be approved by baseball’s other owners, and they were wary of foreign investors. Anticipating resistance to Yamauchi, Gorton set out to recruit local people as minority owners. Joining Arakawa and chairman Howard Lincoln (b. 1940) from Nintendo was a group of young Microsoft millionaires led by Chris Larson (b. ca. 1959), and a smaller contingent from McCaw Cellular Communications headed by John E. McCaw Jr. (b. ca. 1951). Adding longer community ties were John Ellis (b. 1928), CEO of Puget Power and Light Co., and Frank Shrontz (b. ca. 1931), chairman and CEO of Boeing.
The group took the name Baseball Club of Seattle. Its members decided they would pay the $100 million plus $25 million in operating expenses. Yamauchi was willing to pay that entire amount, but was persuaded to reduce his investment to $75 million, so the Seattle area investors would have a bigger piece of the team.
‘Safe At Home’
On January 23, 1992, the Baseball Club of Seattle introduced itself at a press conference and announced it was willing to pay Smulyan’s price. Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement that same day citing "a strong policy against approving investors from outside the U.S. and Canada," and adding: "It is unlikely foreign investors would receive the requisite baseball approvals" (Egan, New York Times, 1992). To many, the resistance smacked of racism, generating public support for the bid. Finally, in mid-June, after the Baseball Club of Seattle agreed to some changes in its investment mix and installed Ellis as managing general partner, baseball’s ownership committee recommended approval.
The deal was celebrated in the Kingdome July 16, 1992, as a second opening night. Gorton and prominent local politicians hosted a sign shaped like home plate. Printed over a baseball with "M’s" written on it was a triumphant slogan, "Safe at Home."
While the sale was pending, the M’s slipped back to their losing ways. For Seattle fans, it was galling that the Toronto Blue Jays, a team formed the same year as the Mariners, won the World Series in 1992 and would win it again in 1993. But the Mariners were making strides. Griffey was named Most Valuable Player of the 1992 All-Star Game and Edgar Martinez (b. 1963) won the team’s first batting championship with a .343 average. After the season, general manager Woody Woodward (b. 1942) announced a big-time hiring. The new manager was fiery Lou Piniella (b. 1943), a former Yankees player and manager who had led the Cincinnati Reds to victory in the World Series in 1990.
Trouble in the Dome
Piniella was demanding. The team responded with a record of 82-80, an improvement of 28 wins over the previous year. Griffey tied a major league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games, and Johnson had 19 wins and 300 strikeouts. The following spring Piniella said he expected the Mariners to finish first in their division, the new four-team AL West. They foundered instead. They were in last place on July 19, 1993, warming up for a game with the Baltimore Orioles, when four 26-pound tiles broke loose from the ceiling. Falling nearly 200 feet, they crashed into the empty stands, breaking the backs of seats they hit. The accident apparently was caused by water from a power-washing crew seeping through the concrete roof. It called into question the condition of thousands of tiles. King County closed the dome until all tiles could be fixed if needed. The ceiling repairs cost $56 million, part of a $70 million renovation project that lasted four months and exceeded the building’s original cost.
Temporarily without a home, the M’s embarked on the longest road trip in their history, 20 games. It would have been longer but on August 12 the player’s union went on strike, ending a snake-bitten season seven weeks early and wiping out the playoffs. For the first time in 90 years there was no World Series.
The strike continued through spring training, ending just three days before replacement players dubbed "the sub-Mariners" were to open the season against Toronto. The regular players had a shortened training period and the season schedule was cut from 162 games to 144. When the Mariners opened on April 26, it was the first baseball game in the Kingdome since the ceiling tiles had fallen more than eight months earlier.
Battling for a Stadium
In January 1995 a Stadium Alternatives Task Force appointed by King County Executive Gary Locke (b. 1950) recommended that a new stadium would be better for baseball than a repaired Kingdome In response, the state legislature worked up a plan to finance construction of a $240 million ballpark with a retractable roof. The plan, which would raise sales tax in King County from 8.2 to 8.3 percent, was approved by county officials in late July but required a public vote in September. Polls showed little enthusiasm for it, and the Mariners were not doing much to help.
Griffey, their best player, had broken his right wrist crashing into the Kingdome’s centerfield fence while making a spectacular catch in May and would be out of the lineup for nearly three months. Meanwhile, the team was trudging along, drawing small crowds and winning barely half the time. By mid-August, Griffey was back but Seattle trailed the division-leading California Angels by a daunting amount, 13 games.
One out away from another loss on August 24, Griffey hit a game-winning home run against the Yankees. Suddenly energized, the Mariners proceeded to win six of their next eight games and finished August with 16 victories and 182 runs scored, both team records. And they were just getting started. "We had a good lineup in its prime," Edgar Martinez said. "The right guys at the right time, ready to take off" (Thiel, 108).
While the M’s stalked the Angels, public support for the stadium-financing plan began to grow. On election night, September 19, the Mariners pulled to within one game of the division lead and the stadium plan seemed headed for approval. The next night the Mariners moved into a tie for the division lead. For the first time, the city’s and region’s fans were in a baseball frenzy. More than 150,000 attended the next three games, all Seattle victories over Oakland, putting the Mariners alone atop the division standings.
Champs at Last
When the absentee ballots were counted, the stadium-financing plan was defeated by less than 1 percent of the vote. The Mariners owners had said they would sell the team if the ballot measure lost. They delayed announcing a decision until October 31, allowing the late-season drama on the field to play out. The M’s and Angels ended the season in a tie, forcing a one-game playoff in the Kingdome to determine the division champion.
The pitchers were Johnson, who had an 18-2 record, and Langston, the former Mariner ace whose trade to Montreal in 1989 had brought Johnson to Seattle. A crowd of more than 52,000 showed up to watch the duel. The game was tense for six innings, but the Mariners scored four runs in the seventh, helped by a Langston throwing error, and cruised to an 8-0 victory. For the first time, they were in the playoffs.
The division series between Seattle and the American League East champion New York Yankees was a best-of-five-games affair starting in New York. It did not start well for the Mariners. Despite two home runs by Griffey, they lost the series opener 9-6. Then they lost a 15-inning, five-hour heartbreaker 7-5, putting them on the brink of elimination as they headed back to Seattle.
The change of setting worked wonders. In front of capacity crowds, the Mariners won the next two games, setting up a decisive Game Five. The Yankees had a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, but Griffey made it 4-3 with his fifth home run of the series, and a bases-loaded walk tied the score, 4-4. It stayed that way until the 11th, when the Yankees scored a run. In their half of the inning, the Mariners had Joey Cora (b. 1965) on third base and Griffey on first when Edgar Martinez came to the plate. He hit a line drive into leftfield, easily scoring Cora and putting all eyes on Griffey, who sprinted around third base and headed home. He beat the throw, giving Seattle a 6-5 victory, and was buried in a pile of happy teammates as the Kingdome rocked with cheers and fireworks. The Mariners were going to the American League Championship Series (ALCS).
Battling Over a Ballpark
The ALCS was a relative letdown for Seattle fans, with the Mariners losing to the Cleveland Indians four games to two. The final contest was in the Kingdome, where disappointment was quickly replaced by recognition of what the home team had accomplished in two improbable months. Thousands stayed after the final out and kept cheering, eventually coaxing a teary Piniella and his players back onto the field for a curtain call.
The playoff excitement created the political will to find a way to finance a new stadium. While the epic Mariners-Yankees series was underway, Governor Mike Lowry called a special session of the state Legislature to deal with the stadium issue. After angry debate and without a public vote, the Legislature approved a tax package to fund a $320 million ballpark with a retractable roof. There were howls of protest from people who had voted down the earlier stadium-financing plan.
A Public Facilities District (PFD) was created to own and operate the baseball stadium and to oversee its construction. Starting in the fall of 1995 and for more than a year, the Mariners and the seven-person PFD wrangled continually over design details and the breakneck construction schedule insisted on by the Mariners. The conflict reached a boiling point on December 14, 1996, when Mariners CEO John Ellis announced that the team was withdrawing from the deal, citing "insufficient political leadership to complete the ballpark project in 1999" (Thiel, 156).
Faced once again with the prospect of losing the Mariners, and feeling political pressure, the county and PFD agreed within a week to the team’s terms on a 20-year-lease. Two members of the PFD quit in protest. The Mariners agreed to move back the opening date of the stadium from April 1999 to July of that year, and to pay for all cost overruns.
Meanwhile, the team looked strong. The Mariners finished the 1996 season with their highest victory total, 85 games. Shortstop Alex Rodriguez (b. 1975), at the tender age of 21, won the American League batting championship with a .358 average and finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting. In 1997, Johnson became the team’s first 20-game winner, and Griffey, with 56 home runs and 147 runs batted in, was a unanimous choice as the league’s most valuable player. Attendance went from 1.6 million in 1995 to 3.2 million in 1997, another playoff year. Although Johnson was traded and the team had a losing season in 1998, attendance topped 2.9 million.
A Half-Billion Dollar Home
After 22-1/2 years of playing home games on artificial turf under a gray concrete ceiling, the Mariners left the Kingdome on June 27, 1999, and moved just a few blocks south to their new open-air ballpark. Mistakes, changes ordered by the Mariners, and overruns raised the final tab to $517.6 million, a record for a U.S. stadium.
Safeco Field opened on July 15, 1999, named after the Seattle-based insurance company paying $40 million over 20 years for the privilege. Especially with the roof retracted, it was a smash hit, offering views of downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay, and the Olympic Mountains. Nearly every seat on its three levels had a good view of the field. It also had unprecedented amenities for fans, such as sit-down restaurants and an ample number of rest rooms. Tickets ranged from $5 for outfield bleacher seats to $195 for the Diamond Club, a section behind home plate that came with parking and a pregame buffet. The stadium also housed 69 luxury suites, state of the art revenue-producers priced from $94,000 to $164,000 a season.
The attractive new ballpark, coupled with 91 wins in its first full season, helped change the Mariners from a struggling franchise to a pacesetter. They led the major leagues in attendance in 2001 and 2002. Boosted by baseball’s largest regional cable-TV audience and highest-paying radio contract, their estimated worth grew from the lowest in the major leagues ($71 million in 1991) to sixth highest ($373 million in 2001).
A Once-in-a-Century Season
By 2001, most of the 1995 playoff heroes were gone. Griffey, after leading the American League in home runs for the third straight year, decided he needed to be closer to his family in Florida and forced the team to trade him to Cincinnati after the 1999 season. Rodriguez, a four-time All-Star coming off his best season, left after the 2000 playoffs for Texas and a 10-year deal worth $252 million, by far baseball’s biggest contract at the time.
But the team still had Edgar Martinez and it added a dazzling newcomer -- right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (b. 1973), the first non-pitcher from Japan to make the American major leagues. With Ichiro -- he went by his given name -- the Mariners became the first team ever to win 20 games in April. By the end of June they had a 20-game lead in their division. At the All-Star break they had a hard-to-believe record of 63 wins and only 24 losses. It was a perfect time for them to be dominant; that season’s All-Star Game was at Safeco Field. Eight Mariners were selected to play, including Ichiro, who led the fan balloting with 3.4 million votes.
It was a season for the ages. The Mariners won 116 games, the most in baseball’s long history. Their total broke the American League record and tied the best all-time mark set 95 years earlier by the National League’s Chicago Cubs. The M’s finished as the first team in more than 50 years to lead the major leagues in batting, fielding and pitching. "Who would have dreamed at the beginning of the season that this team -- or any team -- would win 116 ballgames?" Piniella asked. "It’s almost incomprehensible" (Andriessen, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2001).
When the playoffs arrived, the Seattle juggernaut slowed down. The M’s barely beat Cleveland in a tight opening season. Then they faced their post-season nemesis, the Yankees, who had won the previous three World Series and were carrying the hopes of the city that had borne the brunt of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Yankees won that league championship series four games, but the M’s were the talk of the season. Ichiro won the American League batting championship and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. Piniella was named Manager of the Year.
Back to Mediocrity
The 2002 Mariners won 93 games, second most in team history, but dropped to third place and missed the playoffs. Injuries took a toll. Players who enjoyed career-best years in 2001 reverted to form. Piniella butted heads with team CEO Howard Lincoln during the season and left after it was over. He was the only Mariners manager ever to have a winning record and the only one to reach the playoffs, which he did four times in his 10 seasons.
The Mariners won 93 games again in 2003 under new manager Bob Melvin, but began his second season with the oldest roster in franchise history and regressed to 63 wins, their lowest total in 10 years. Lowlights outnumbered highlights the rest of the decade. The worst was in 2008 when the Mariners made the worst kind of baseball history, becoming the first team with a $100 million player payroll to lose 100 games.
Ichiro continued to shine and pitcher Felix Hernandez (b. 1986) emerged as a major talent, but they had little help. By August 2010, under their sixth manager in the eight years since Piniella left, the Mariners were on track to score the fewest runs of any of their 34 seasons. And they still were one of only three major league teams never to have won a league championship and reach the World Series.
Mike Fuller, "Seattle Pilots Baseball Team History" Seattlepilots.com website accessed August 28, 2010 (http://seattlepilots.com/histindx.html); Art Thiel, Out of Left Field: How the Mariners Made Baseball Fly in Seattle (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2003); Bill Knight, "History of Seattle Mariners Reads Like a Saga," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 1995, p. A-8; Associated Press, "California Developer Set To Purchase the Mariners," The New York Times, January 15, 1981, p. D-22; Bob Sherwin, "Value of M’s Soars to $76.1 Million," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1989, p. B-1; Terry Mcdermott, "Smulyan Told Bankers He’d Sell M’s -- New Financing or Sale Are Conditions of Loan," Ibid., August 23, 1991; Timothy Egan, "Japanese Bid For Seattle Team Gets Baseball’s Cold Shoulder," The New York Times, January 24, 1992, p. A-1; Neil Modie, "Dome Ceiling Won’t Drop Any More Material, Engineers Say," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 22, 1999, p. C-1; John McGrath, "M’s Magic Has Disappeared," Tacoma News-Tribune, July 3, 2005, p. C-1; Jim Street, "Safeco Field to Open July 15," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 11, 1998, p. E-1; Staff of Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Mariners 2001: A Joy Ride Into the Record Books" (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2001); David Andriessen, "M’s Leave Their Mark," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 8, 2001 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com); Geoff Baker, "M’s Struggle While Trying to Contend and Rebuild," The Seattle Times, August 23, 2010, p. C-1; Larry Stone, "Mariners Need to Rebuild, and to Stay On That Course," Ibid., August 23, 2010, p. C-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ellis, John W. (b. 1928)" (by Cassandra Tate), and "Ken Griffey Jr. Retires From Baseball on June 2, 2010, Ending the Most Accomplished and Celebrated Career in Seattle Mariners History" (by Glenn Drosendahl), http://www.historylink.org (accessed September 3, 2010).
Note: This essay was corrected on July 23, 2012, to state that the team won 63 games in 2004, and was updated on October 29, 2012, and on September 24, 2013.
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Left field entrance with banners of Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki, Safeco Field, Seattle, September 9, 2010
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long
Seattle Pilots, 1969
A young Lou Piniella, spring training, Tempe, Arizona, 1969
Courtesy David Eskenazi
Slade Gorton (b. 1928)
Commemorative pin, Seattle Mariners, 1992
HistoryLink.org Photo by Glenn Drosendahl
View of the Kingdome from Safeco Field on opening day, July 15, 1999
Photo by David Messerschmidt
Safeco Field, Seattle, October 2001
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long
Dave Niehaus (1935-2010) with trophy given to him during Dave Niehaus Day, Safeco Field, Seattle, August 3, 2008
Courtesy Marilyn Niehaus
Ken Griffey Jr. (b. 1969), Seattle, 2010
Photo by Ben VanHouten, Courtesy Seattle Mariners
Banner of Ichiro, left field entrance, Safeco Stadium, Seattle, September 9, 2010
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long
Felix Hernandez on banner, left field entrance, Safeco Field, Seattle, September 9, 2010
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long