Safeco's boys of September

September 8, 2010 

In 2045, when Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak return to Seattle for the silver-anniversary celebration of the Mariners 2020 world championship , their conversation will take them back to Sept. 10, 2010 - the first time they played in Safeco Field as teammates … on the Tacoma Rainiers.

That’s the day dream, anyway.

If all goes according to the building-for-the-future blueprint, the Mariners will evolve into the Dustin and Justin Show, with Ackley serving the role of setup man for the power-hitting Smoak. That the Carolinians cut their teeth with the Rainiers figures to be regarded as a footnote by the rest of the world, but in Tacoma, home of the original collaboration of Dustin and Justin, it’ll be an essential piece of sports lore.

Of course, there’s always the chance Ackley won’t develop into anything more than a serviceable utility player, and that Smoak’s alarming strikeout rate during his brief tour with the big club – after arriving in Seattle as the prize acquisition in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas, the switch-hitting first baseman whiffed 23 times in 63 at-bats – was a prescient indicator of a career-defining struggle.

But after a summer that found the Mariners eliminated from contention midway through spring, I’ve got no tolerance for any scenario in which the glass is half-empty.

The glass is half-full, thank you very much. Actually, it is quite full as the Rainiers begin a best-of-five playoff series tonight against the Sacramento River Cats. They’ll return to Raley Field in West Sacramento for Game 2 on Thursday night before the series moves to Safeco Field on Friday, the Rainiers’ temporary home away from home. (Their real home, Cheney Stadium, is in the wrecking-ball phase of a $30 million renovation.)

Some Mariners fans – specifically, those without an interest in the Pacific Coast League – are frustrated with general manager Jack Zduriencik’s decision to keep the core of the Rainiers together for the playoffs.

The Mariners already have borrowed liberally from Tacoma, the thinking goes, so why not just clear the Triple-A deck and give former Rainiers manager Daren Brown a lineup with which he’s familiar?

But there’s something to be said for the experience gained in games of genuine consequence, even if they’re minor-league games, instead of participating in (or, worse, looking on from a standing-room only position in the dugout) the glorified big-league exhibitions that distinguish the September Call-Up season.

And make no mistake: The Oakland organization, which controls the River Cats, is so convinced of the legitimacy of the PCL playoffs that it recently demoted A’s starting pitcher Vin Mazzaro to Sacramento.

Granted, Mazzaro was 0-6 with an ERA of 8.60 in his past eight starts with Oakland.

But the first week of September is not a typical time for major leaguers to be called back to the minors. The curious move seems to have had less to do with Mazzaro’s stalled progress than an organization whose micro-management of the River Cats suggests the franchise ought to change its nickname from the A’s to the Triple-A’s.

Sacramento, in any case, is a PCL powerhouse, winners of nine division titles since 2000.

No other pro team in North America has won nine titles since 2000. (The Yankees and hockey’s Detroit Red Wings are close, with eight apiece.)

A decade of such sustained success can create a climate of indifference, which might explain why the River Cats fell as many as 12ß games out of first place this season before they rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

As for the Rainiers, they’re not foreign to the postseason, either.

They won the PCL’s Pacific North Division in 2009, with the help of four position players (Mike Carp, Brad Nelson, Chris Woodward and Mike Wilson) who returned this season.

During the last hurrah of Cheney Stadium last week, it was easy to overlook the fact Tacoma was competing for its first back-to-back division titles since 1981-82, when the team was affiliated with – here’s a news flash – the Oakland A’s.

I’d be happy to establish a correlation between winning at the Triple-A level and winning, a few years later, at the major-league level with seasoned , polished prospects. And it can’t be denied: Oakland became a dominant team in the late 1980s. What also can’t be denied is that Tacoma’s back-to-back division title teams of 1981-82 had scant representation on Tony La Russa’s A’s.

But those Tacoma Tigers had some characters. There was Mike Davis, who represented the tying run when the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson hit his legendary homer that ended Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Against the A’s, it should be noted.)

There was Danny Good-win, the only player to be the first overall selection of two different amateur drafts. There was Mike Gallego, a second baseman who won a World Series ring with the 1989 A’s, and ’89 Oakland teammate Tony Phillips, who retired with 2,030 career hits and almost as many enemies.

And there was Rick Bosetti, who went on to leave his mark – sort of the way a dog does upon a fire hydrant – on the warning track of every major-league park.

Despite the presence of such an extraordinary reliever, the Tigers lost to Spokane in the 1982 playoffs – a year after they were beaten by Albuquerque in the 1981 finals. But enough about yesteryear.

The 2010 Tacoma Rainiers not only are alive and kicking, they’re the embodiment of the impossible.

They’re bringing playoff baseball to Safeco Field.

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