The 2016 baseball season will mark the 20th anniversary of the year a “minor” spring-training injury turned out to be the difference between a playoff-bound powerhouse in Seattle and a second-place club with a fatal flaw.
No reunion of the ’96 Mariners is planned at Safeco Field. Bobbleheads won’t be given to fans, and commemorative patches won’t be stitched on the sleeves of players. In Mariners lore, 1996 was the forgettable, regrettable season that bridged the division titles clinched in the Kingdome the year before and the year after.
And yet few teams in the history of baseball were more interesting than the ’96 Mariners, whose too-little, too-late September surge provided a lesson in roster construction still relevant today.
I remember the precise moment fate intervened to doom that team. Around 4:30 p.m. on a pleasant Arizona weekday afternoon in March, I overheard a trainer’s garbled walkie-talkie message outside the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Arizona: Randy Johnson’s back was tight.
No concern, reporters were assured. Back issues are not uncommon during spring training, especially for pitchers as tall as the 6-foot-10 Johnson. He’d be monitored, but wasn’t expected to miss his next assignment.
My job that day included compiling some miscellaneous notes, along with a column. I devoted a few sentences in the notebook to Johnson’s back — nice work at identifying potentially breaking news, right? — and went out for a late dinner, convinced the league’s defending Cy Young Award winner would soon be cleared to resume his workout regimen.
Johnson’s back would continue to trouble him, on and off, for the rest of the season. Able to make only eight starts, the Hall-of-Fame bound lefty was shut down in August.
Meanwhile, the position players assembled to surround him went on to put up crazy offensive numbers. Rookie shortstop prospect Alex Rodriguez, given a 50-50 chance of sticking with the big-league club, stuck around to produce 36 homers, 123 RBIs, and a league-leading .358 batting average.
Not one to be outdone, Ken Griffey Jr. hit 49 homers with 140 RBIs. Jay Buhner checked in with 44 homers and 138 RBIs. Edgar Martinez contributed 26 homers, 103 RBIs and a .327 batting average.
Catcher Dan Wilson, whose bat was a bonus — his priority was using his Gold Glove defense to help sustain a symmetry with pitchers — chipped in by hitting .285, with 18 homers and 83 RBIs.
How potent was this offense? Its usual No. 6 hitter, first baseman Paul Sorrento, finished with 23 homers, 93 RBIs and a .289 batting average.
Combining contact hitting with power, the ’96 Mariners were baseball’s version of the Greatest Show on Turf, scoring 933 runs. Their downfall was allowing almost as many runs — 895 — because of a starting-pitching rotation absent an anchor as stable as Randy Johnson.
Sterling Hitchcock made 35 starts. Bob Wolcott made 28. Bob Wells made 16. Matt Wagner made 14. These were the go-to guys until the trade deadline, when general manager Woody Woodward acquired Jamie Moyer from the Red Sox and fellow journeyman Terry Mulholland from the Phillies.
Bolstered by veteran pitchers familiar with the concept of damage-control, the Mariners crept as close to one game of division-leading Texas on Sept. 22, only to lose six of their last eight.
If Johnson stays healthy in 1996 and answers the bell for 32 starts instead of eight, there’s little doubt the Mariners’ 85-76 record is transformed into 95-66. If Johnson stays healthy in 1996, it’s conceivable a World Series championship banner is hanging at Safeco Field.
Two decades later, new general manager Jerry Dipoto has used a roster-construction blueprint seemingly steeped in his knowledge of the ’96 Mariners. Felix Hernandez is the obvious ace, but if something goes awry with The King’s back at 4:30 p.m. on a sunny weekday in Arizona, five big-league arms figure to fill out a respectable rotation.
It’s all about depth, specifically starting-rotation depth.
Had the Mariners recognized that in 1996, there would be some ambitious plans to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the bashers whose ability to score runs was undone by their inability to prevent them.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org