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September 28, 2008 at 5:38 PM

Oakland Athletics at Mariners: 09/28 final game thread

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Thanks again for all of the kind words everyone has thrown out here. To answer a question, no, I do not return to Toronto in the winter. Seattle is my home now. Has been for the past two years. If I was to return anywhere in Canada for a visit, it would be Montreal, where most of my family is, or Vancouver, where my brother is and where I spent Saturday night before returning for the final game. As for the question about my earlier phrase “That’s why they play the games” from spring training. Yes, that’s why they play them. We now see what happened to the 2008 blueprint. It’s up in smoke. And when that happens, you look for reasons, move on and build the next blueprint. They played ’em and it was a disaster. My pick, the team’s blueprint, all of it. That’s why they play the games. To put theory into practice.
The Mariners win, 4-3, over the Oakland A’s to cap their first home series sweep all year. Yes, you heard that right. They could have used this one quite some time ago.
A look below at Raul Ibanez as he struck out in the seventh inning in what may have been his final at-bat for the Mariners.
“I love this franchise, I love the fans here, I love the city,” Ibanez said. “We’ll see what the future holds. Sure, I’d love to be here, but I’d love to be in a competitive environment.”
A class act. He’ll be taking Yuniesky Betancourt with him to a training facility outside of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. this winter to partake in the grueling training regimen he puts himself through each winter. Betancourt could use the discipline — both physical and especially mental — and the added strength and endurance. Jose Lopez had it this year. Betancourt did not. Whether or not Betancourt and Ibanez are training as teammates remains to be seen.
Ichiro scored two more runs, finishing with 103. He spoke of what Ibanez meant to him personally. Of all the people in Seattle’s clubhouse, Ibanez may have been Ichiro’s closest friend.
“He’s not just a friend to me,” Ichiro said. “Ever since I’ve come over here, the last five years, he’s been of huge support to me. Whether it be emotionally, the approach to baseball, the way he absorbs things. In all these ways, he’s been of huge support. He’s more than a friend to me.”
More of a friend than some in that clubhouse, to be sure. But no two players in that clubhouse work harder at pre-game preparation.
I’m well past caring who actually won this game today. It’s been a tough year to cover baseball. Nobody ever wants to cover a 100-loss team, especially one picked to do a whole lot better. Especially when you’re the one doing that picking. It makes for a very long year after those first two months. By June, you run out of words to describe what you’re seeing on the field. But I’ve long believed that it’s not enough to say that a team “stinks” or “sucks”. It’s about figuring out why.
I buy the notion that this team couldn’t hit or pitch enough. Clearly it could not. That it lacked talent in some key spots. Clearly it did. That alone was enough to ensure the team would not contend for a playoff spot. But I don’t think the analysis can stop there when a team loses 100 or more. If this was an 80-win team, you could chalk it up to a lack of talent, a regression to the mean, then go out and fetch some talent next year and take another run at things.
But today, we have a situation where the front office is clearly looking at blowing this team up and starting over to the best it can (with all the big contracts floating around). You’ve seen wholesale changes to the starting nine and more are sure to come. You’ve seen firings of a GM and manager. Clearly, this is more than a case of a handful of missing talent pieces fixing the whole mess. I think that injuries did play a key role in what happened to this team early on. That injury to J.J. Putz threw the entire team off. There were some games that the 2007 Putz would have nailed down early in April that might have changed the outlook of this club from the start. Would it have made the difference? For a while, it might have. Had Erik Bedard been healthy a full season, I don’t think the season would have ended in May, or in 100 losses.
And I also think, judging by what’s been presented in the five-part series just completed, that issues of character, or a lack of it, also helped torpedo this season before it ever got off the ground. As Jim Riggleman keeps saying, it’s when times are tough that you find out what players are really made of. Well, we sure found that out in April and May, didn’t we?
As Ryan Rowland-Smith said last week, once the M’s lost that series in Baltimore, everybody panicked. The finger-pointing began. Yes, a poor clubhouse is almost always a symptom of losing. But good clubs find a way not to lose their minds over a bad start in April. They learn to overcome their personal differences and win. The Mariners never did. They let a bad start “snowball” as Rowland-Smith put it. I had a nice chat with Rowland-Smith today. He’s his own man and stands behind his words. He wasn’t thrilled with his outing yesterday, but is looking forward to getting the chance to start for a whole season next year. He’s a mentally strong kid. This team needs a little more mental strength. It can’t panic and bail the minute something goes wrong. And that will matter down the road, once this team compiles the needed talent to contend.
There’s no point having talent on a team that loses its composure at the first sign of trouble. This team has to learn how to win when it matters, and when the pressure to win is there. It wasn’t there in 2004-2007. It was there this past April and this team fell apart.
The Mariners also have to learn how to lose. No jokes, please. They have to learn how to lose, when something’s at-stake, without growing despondant.
Everyone talks about those great Oakland A’s teams and Yankees squads of the 1970s that did not always get along but still managed to win. It’s worth remembering that those clubs existed 30 and nearly 40 years ago. Since then, baseball history has been littered with talented teams that came apart amidst personality conflicts when it mattered. Think about last year’s Los Angeles Dodgers, for one.
The one thing those Yankees and A’s of the 1970s had, which can’t be overlooked, was an ability to win when it mattered. To step up to the plate, Reggie Jackson style. Hardly a coincidence he played for both teams. Yes, they had talent. But that talent could win with something on the line. And it could lose without going to pieces. Jackson’s Yankees were up against it against the Kansas City Royals in a best-of-five ALCS in 1977, trailing 2-1 and facing elimination at Kauffman Stadium. But amidst clubhouse turmoil well-documented in The Bronx is Burning book and movie, they still found a way to put that aside, focus on the game, and win two in a row when it mattered. That’s why Reggie even had the chance to step up and hit three home runs in the decisive game of the World Series that year. Those Yankees could overcome their personal squabbles, their panic. The 2008 Mariners let both things eat them up and throw them off.
It takes all kinds of factors going right to win at baseball. These Mariners have to import more talent before they can win anything, that’s for sure. And this organization has to create a winning culture, where players expect to win when they take the field. Where panicking at the first sign of trouble is not an option. Where players speak their minds and get in each other’s faces early on in a season when the game is not being played the right way.
These Mariners came up short in all aspects of the game.
Before they ever win anything meaningful again, they will have to improve in those aspects. Not just one. And not one at the exclusion of another — by importing otherwise useless “character” guys. They need to look for the whole package in their players. Talent, yes. But the character to go with that talent.
This city, with all the hard times we’ve been through lately, with the sale of Safeco Insurance, the takeover of WaMu, the departure of the Sonics and the abysmal decline of our remaining sports teams, has remained highly supportive of its sports representatives. Seattle fans deserve better than what was put on the field by the M’s this season.
Here’s to hoping for something better in 2009.

1:30 p.m.: Travis Buck just hit the fourth pitch of the game off the right field foul pole to give Oakland a 1-0 lead over the Mariners. Oakland scored two more to take a 3-0 lead off R.A. Dickey after a half-inning. But it really doesn’t matter. The Mariners have lost their shot at the No. 1 overall draft pick, with the Washington Nationals getting hammered by the Phillies today. The Nats will get the top pick.
Miguel Cairo was a late scratch today. He walked into Jim Riggleman’s office shortly before the game, pulled up his shirt and showed Riggleman the size of the bruise on his ribs. Riggleman scratched Cairo, who walked out of the office and gave a “high five” to trainer Rick Griffin. Guess he was in too much pain to play. No one really wants to play on the final day if they’re hurt. He did get nailed by that pickoff throw yesterday. By the way, this is meant only as an anecdote for you to enjoy, not as a shot at Cairo. If anyone has played through hurts and pains without complaining this year, it’s been him. If he can’t go, he can’t go.
Hope you caught Part V of our Rebuilding the Mariners series this morning, much of it talking about the no-win situation Riggleman found himself in.
Riggleman was asked all about the team’s clubhouse pre-game and of dealing with some of the brush fires he’s had to put out. He said an old baseball man he respected, Bob Skinner, once told him: “Put out small fires before they become big fires.”
“And again, that’s going to ruffle some feathers,” he said. “But I still can’t ignore when they do stuff I feel is disrespectful to the game.”
Riggleman talked of once having looked down at his dugout during a game and seeing little more than coaches there. He said he hoped at the timne that his team didn’t get into an on-field brawl because his coaches would probably get their butts kicked.
“Just little things, nitpicking stuff,” he said. “But when there’s enough of it, it starts to build. Being in the training room and clubhouse when you’re not supposed to be there. Not being in the dugout during games.”
And Riggleman knows he didn’t please everyone in the clubhouse when he tried to clamp down.
“I wasn’t here to make friends,” he said. “It’s just p[art of the process. When you lose ballgames, it’s part of the process.”
He said the problem wasn’t with the younger players.
“Young players, it’s like managing in the minor leagues,” he said. “They’ll run through walls for you. It’s that 7-to-10-year player that kind of feels like they have a little status and can be a part of setting what the standards are.
“They may not want to hear it,” he said. “But they have to hear it.”



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