Remember this? I don’t need a reminder because it is something I see every day at Safeco Field. This relic remembering the 2001 team sits poster-sized at the bottom of the stairs that lead from the Dave Niehaus Broadcast Center to the press box. I run up and down those steps countless times during each home stand, and this always catches my eye and gives me pause – wistful at that.
Some use the word magical to describe the 2001 season. They were good. Very good. And it was fun. Very fun.
Ballplayers talk about the experience of going to the park every day knowing they were going to win that night. The fans knew it too. As improbable as it seemed after losing two of their biggest super stars in the previous two seasons – Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez – these guys got it done night after night.
I love this picture. Gar smiling as he should be. Baseball was fun for him that year. Cammy, still with the slightest wide-eyed look he had in his first year stepping in for Ken Griffey Jr. No one could fill The Kid’s shoes, but Cammy did. Ichiro laughing, probably at all of us at that time. Yes Ichiro, your game did translate over here. Then, The Boone. Confident. But wait, I see something else in that picture. He was up to something. The others are smiling and laughing. Yep. I can only imagine what Boonie said before the shot was taken.
Of course these four weren’t the only significant parts of that team. They were all significant. If 1995 was the year when it was a different guy coming through every night, than 2001 was the year of the team. Every player understood their role, and was utilized to their best capacity by skipper Lou Piniella.
We weren’t sure what this team would be as the season opened, but talking to the guys now, they had an idea they would be good. Why? Because of the guys around them. They knew the team was put together well. This was a veteran team that knew how to play baseball. If guys hit their numbers…
Well some guys obliterated their numbers. The pitching was there, the offense was there and something that doesn’t get talked about much was the defense.
Tony Blengino, special assistant to GM Jack Zduriencik, told us on the Hot Stove League Show that by his calculations that 2001 team had one of the best, if not the best, defense in the history of the game. With so much pitching and offense (remember that?) going on, the defense was overlooked. But with John Olerud at first, Boone at second, David Bell at third, Cameron in center and Ichiro in right? That team could catch the baseball.
Some have wondered why we’re celebrating a team that didn’t win a World Series. They didn’t even make it to the World Series, true. But for a regular season, 162 games, March through September, they played some of the best baseball anyone will ever see in their lifetime. It didn’t seem like the good would ever end for this team, but it did.
What happened on Sept. 11 had an effect on the team, and everyone in the country. On the field it put a stop to their momentum. The team was in Anaheim on that fateful day of 9/11. It would be three days before they were able to fly home, and eight days until they took the field again.
I will never forget that night. The week before had been horrific. Every time you turned on the television or picked up a newspaper the violence and loss, and the threat of more violence and more loss was right there. There was also talk of how getting baseball and the other sports going again would, in many ways, symbolize a return to normalcy in this country. At the very least it would be a distraction for a couple of hours.
I remember being afraid to walk back into the ballpark that day. There had been talk that stadiums could be targets. Mike Blowers, who sat next to me in the pressbox back then, told me afterward that my hands were shaking before first pitch. Before we got to that first pitch there were ceremonies. The video board, Amazing Grace, God Bless America, the bagpipes. The “USA! USA!” chant going through a ghostly quiet stadium.
Then Freddy Garcia took the hill, fired the first pitch and I think many like me exhaled for the first time in over a week. Baseball was back. The Mariners were back. Everything was going to be okay.
The next night the team went out and clinched the division. There had been talk well before that day of how they would celebrate, and all eyes were on them as others looked for the Mariners to set the example of what to do when they clinched.
If you didn’t see it then, you surely have seen it by now. What happened on the field that night is one of the most touching, if not the most touching moment, I have seen on a baseball field in my entire career. The players and coaches gathered on the mound for a prayer. There was a flag held by Mark McLemore and Mike Cameron. Then a march around the stadium waving to cheering fans, letting them in.
In the clubhouse there was a quiet champagne toast and then almost a release with several players. More than one cried when talking about the season and what had happened the previous week. There were hugs, and guys leaned on teammates as the emotion came out. As close as we knew this group to be, they became even closer in the previous week. There was more work to be done, but one obstacle had been put behind them.
We all know what happened next. They took 3-of-5 from the Indians to win the Division Series, and then faced the Yankees. They lost their first two games at home and headed to New York. When they got to New York the majority of the team went to Ground Zero and then to the fire station that was closest to Ground Zero. I have heard stories that firemen were in tears when they met Lou Piniella, and I can only imagine how emotional Lou was. Several players and coaches have told me since they think the visit took the wind out of their sails. They didn’t take into consideration the emotional toll seeing Ground Zero would have on them. It wasn’t an excuse, just an observation. And the right thing to do according to those I spoke to.
The 116-win season ended in New York, short of the World Series, but significant and worthy of remembrance for many reasons. This was a special team which thrilled fans for a summer at Safeco Field, and gave them the feeling that you can win them all. This very well may have been a once in a lifetime team, World Series or not.