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December 21, 2010 at 10:42 AM

Mariners highlights of 2010? Midnight on this coming Dec. 31

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UPDATE 1:25 P.M.: Rob Johnson has been traded to the San Diego Padres for future or cash considerations after being DFA last week. Miguel Olivo will take his roster spot, though I’m told that won’t happen today. “I feel extrememly excited,” Johnson told me by phone. “I’m excited to be starting this new chapter in my baseball life.”
Johnson said he understands that baseball is a performance-based game and he didn’t perform. He holds no grudges and is anxious to prove himself with the Padres, saying he’s “stronger than I’ve felt in four years” as well as the most flexible he’s been and feeling tons of energy thanks to a new low-carb diet.
He’d been nervous about his fate, since he’d have been outrighted to Class AAA if not traded or picked up on waivers as of today. Instead, he should get another MLB shot with the Padres.

Somebody asked me in an interview the other day for my least favorite Mariners moment of the 2010 season. I think I gave an answer that went something like: “Every single day.”
That’s about as honest as it gets, folks.
The Times is running a vote on the city’s top sports moments of 2010 and there are a handful of Mariners options in there. For me, it would go something like this:
1. Ken Griffey Jr. retires, coaching staff crumbles in wake
2. Felix Hernandez overcomes 2010 Mariners to win Cy Young Award
3. Cliff Lee pitches for Mariners, gets traded
4. Dave Niehaus passes away
5. Mariners cut payroll, lose 101 games for second time in three seasons
Yeah, I know. Some of the stuff higher up contributed to No. 5. But I can’t put all of the blame on the players and coaches. The front office had something to do with the 101-loss season, starting with a string of questionable personnel moves. And ownership deserves some of the blame, too, following up a third-place finish in 2009 with a decision to cut payroll by roughly $6 million while telling fans at the same time to “Believe Big.”
Believe big? Not anymore. The team’s top dogs — Hiroshi Yamauchi, Chris Larson, lesser known minority partners, Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong — violated a trust between fans and the franchise. Ok, those fans said, en masse, when news of the payroll cut first became apparent. We’ll trust that you know what you’re doing. We’ll “believe” in the product you’re putting out.
Not anymore. That trust was shattered with each historically bad outing by the club’s offense. And the impact is now being felt. Season ticket renewals are down. While Armstrong said recently that the dip in sales is not horrendous, we won’t know the full extent until next season. If the team starts setting new attendance lows every night in April at Safeco Field, you’ll have a pretty good idea of why. Not a day goes by when my email inbox isn’t containing some type of message from a former season ticket holder ranting about why he or she won’t renew.
This is a problem for the team and has the potential to become a much bigger one. That’s why I believe it belongs on the list. It’s one of those sleeper issues that’s lingering just below the surface. Lose your fanbase, you may never get a portion of it back. Ask the Cleveland Indians. They didn’t even have Ken Griffey Jr. walk out on them.
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And for me, Griffey belongs right at the top of the list of major sports stories, not only involving the Mariners, but all of Seattle. Yes, I know the Huskies reached a bowl game and I’ll be cheering for them. But it’s not exactly the Rose Bowl, is it? A stepping stone to something better, but let’s face it…they were 6-6 and blew a two TD lead to Washington State in the final quarter. They ain’t No. 1.
The Seattle Storm brought the city its only championship and that counts. I’ll be interested to see what readers think. I still don’t think it’s the No. 1 story in Seattle interest-wise.
The Seahwaks? Paper tigers. When fans think Charlie Whitehurst is a No. 1 quarterback, that tells you all you need to know about your team. I was out there on Sunday and thought the Hawks looked good for 1 1/2 quarters. Sort of like their season: they looked good for the first third of it. Until they started playing teams outside the NFC West. Not the No. 1 story.
Heck, the Auburn Little League squad was almost as successful as any local sports team. But come on, it’s Little League. The interest-level among fans between pro and amateur sports is night and day. If you can grab 10 fans off the street and get any of them to name even one of the Auburn Little Leaguers, I’ll buy you a…a Mariners bleacher ticket. No, I won’t. But you get the point. This isn’t a knock on the Little Leaguers, who were great. But it’s tough for them to compete in a popularity contest with athletes who are on the daily consciousness of fans. It’s the same with Olympic athletes. You can’t find most of them with radar equipment outside of every fourth year, so for them to make the list, they’d better have done something historic that will transcend time. I think Apolo Ohno deserves consideration based on that criteria.
But it still doesn’t come close to Griffey retiring.
Flash Griffey’s photo around Seattle and just about everybody — sports fan or not — will have an inkling about who he is. They will know what he meant to the city. And the fact that he left under the circumstances he did was just terrible.
Most fans are aware of the whole clubhouse sleeping story by Larry LaRue.
We tried to follow up on that in the weeks that followed, telling you the backstory of what was going on behind the scenes. How this was about so much more than Griffey wanting to walk away without fanfare — that there was serious anger involved.
As it turned out, Griffey erroneously believed — it was confirmed to us by several sources — that Don Wakamatsu was behind leaking the clubhouse sleeping story. Griffey shared those suspicions with other members of the team. Fueling the suspicion was the fact that Wakamatsu had mentioned the word “retire” in a conversation with Griffey right after the Sleep Gate story appeared.
Turns out, it was just bad timing on Wakamatsu’s part to have that conversation. Turns out, Griffey was wrong and now knows it. Turns out, LaRue really did have two player sources in the clubhouse that gave him the story.
Problem is, everyone, including Griffey, realized it too late. In the weeks that followed the sleep story and Griffey’s retirement, the coaching staff and Wakamatsu lost the clubhouse. Yeah, it wasn’t over strictly this one issue, but let’s be real. When Griffey bailed on the team, the coaching staff had no chance.
Several good men lost their jobs. And that’s something that can’t be overlooked in all of this. Yes, I wrote as recently as last month, after Niehaus passed away, that it was time for the team and Griffey to reconcile. For Griffey to come back into the “family” fold. And I still believe that. I’m told Griffey will be back with the Mariners in some limited capacity at some point in 2011. But we can’t whitewash history. Griffey’s actions helped lead to the end of several jobs in Seattle. Whether or not the coaching staff would have been fired anyway is something we’ll never know. But their fates were sealed when Griffey left. And a Hall of Fame legacy was tarnished. Can that legacy be repaired? Yes, it can. Will the way Griffey’s career ended be relegated to the dustbin of history? Perhaps. But so far, this episode has had a longer shelf life than I first imagined it would. It’s grown some legs because of the length of time this terrible situation has been allowed to play itself out. Griffey chose to remain silent throughout and I don’t think it’s helped his cause. There are still plenty of angry fans out there who write in any time his name is mentioned in a blog post or story.
That’s an unusual thing for any sports city. This is a unique situation in which dominoes kept on falling as the season wore on. Barring a major sports championship this year — which, sorry Hawks fans, isn’t coming — this was always going to be the top story in Seattle, both now and when fans look back on this moment years later.
Felix Hernandez? A great story, one of the few involving the Mariners.

Believe me, as one of the people who voted for Zack Greinke last year, I was more than happy to see the same standards applied by voters this year. They looked at the individual data, not at the team-driven stats.
And Hernandez, as he should have been, was the runaway winner.
He brought honor to the Mariners when there was little to be found anyplace else. For positive stories, this one was right up there for the team. And it will be remembered for years to come. He’s only the second Cy Young Award winner in franchise history and did it with an historically bad offense all around him.
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The Cliff Lee presence and trade was also a huge Mariners story. For two months, Mariners fans got to have one of baseball’s biggest newsmakers pitching right in their own backyard. For two months, Lee outpitched even Cy Young winner Hernandez. Lee was the dream of what could be. But in the end, his trade symbolized the reality of what the Mariners are.
And now, it’s still playing out.
There was the Josh Lueke acquisition scandal and all that entailed, leading to questions about how the front office operates and screeens prospects. About how clued-in team president Armstrong truly was to his team’s biggest trade of the year. The debate about where the team goes from here.
And then, there was the pure talent question and whether the Mariners got enough of it by picking Justin Smoak over Jesus Montero of the Yankees. We’ve yet to arrive at the answer to that question but a lot of the team’s future rebuilding — and the future of Jack Zduriencik as well — may be riding on it.
Smoak needs to become a key middle-of-the-order bat for this rebuilding plan to work. The team needs more of what Smoak showed the final eight days of the season for that to happen. He’s young, yes. But the pressure is mounting on Zduriencik to get this rebuilding plan to start taking shape. Another half year of what Smoak did when he first came to Seattle and that pressure will be ratcheted up tenfold, regardless of his age.
For those reasons, the entire Lee story is obviously one of the biggest for the Mariners in 2010. And like the other candidates, it has a shelf life extending beyond this one year.
In terms of Niehaus, he belongs right up there with the biggest stories. Years from now, fans will tell loving stories about some of his more colorful on-air expressions. They will wax wistfully about his delivery, about how no current broadcaster can measure up. And much of that will be true.
Niehaus was Mariners baseball for all of their 34 seasons. And quite frankly, with no championship rings during that time, Griffey may have been right when he said the broadcaster was bigger than the players.
As a story involving somebody off the field, there was no other Mariners tale this year that carried as much impact. His passing, in many ways, put the final, terrible exclamation point on a year in baseball that will be best forgotten altogether once the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31.
But the Niehaus story, hard as it was to accept, also became a moment of refelction. It gave fans the chance to celebrate his life and remember moments in Mariners history when things were good.
And I suppose, that’s the lesson to learn from all of these stories. As much as we’ll want them to go away, they won’t. They all generate memories. All will carry forward with us in the months and years ahead.
So, when we look to Niehaus to remind of of the standard in excellence in baseball broadcasting, or Hernandez, for making history on the mound, we should also keep in mind what happened with Griffey, the fallout from the Lee trade and the disaster that was another 101-loss season.
You only get better by learning from mistakes. Most would agree that the single biggest Mariners highlight of 2010 will be on New Year’s Day when this terrible year in Seattle baseball is finally over and done with. But forget about it at your peril. Forget history too fast, you’ll be doomed to repeat it.
Here’s to remembering for all the right reasons.

Comments | Topics: Jesus Montero


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