Since everyone is mentioning Bill Plummer this week . . .
The circumstances around the 14 games in a row lost by the Mariners in 1992 under Plummer were far different than the record 15 consecutive spit up by the Mariners as of Sunday. The coincidental streak lengths are not reflections on either manager at the time, nor of the condition of the franchise.
The current streak is far more embarrassing and rare — in fact, according to Elias Sports, no team at or above .500 (43-43 when it began) has lost this many in a row since the 1985 Chicago Cubs.
The over-matched Plummer was hired as a one-year caretaker for a franchise that was, upon his employment, not-so-secretly planning to move from Seattle to Tampa.
A year earlier, Plummer’s predecessor, Jim Lefebvre, brought in the club’s first winning record, 83-79, but found himself fired because then-owner Jeff Smulyan couldn’t trust him to keep his mouth shut about the franchise’s happy-feet agenda.
That off-season, to the surprise of exactly everyone on the planet who cared, Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi, who owed then-Sen. Slade Gorton a political favor, paid him back by buying the the Mariners from Smulyan for $100 million in order to keep the franchise in Seattle.
But the purchase by a non-American caused such a controversy within MLB that approval of the deal was held up six months before the owners were bullied and shamed into doing the only right thing.
The ‘92 Mariners actually had a lot going for them — the opening night lineup included Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson, Harold Reynolds and Omar Vizquel, just to name a few All-Stars. Not to mention a rookie named Bret Boone.
But injuries and franchise inertia crushed that ’92 team. The Mariners used a record 48 players and put 15 on the disabled list 19 times, losing a total of 747 man-games. The team ERA was 4.55, second worst in the American League. The 14-game losing streak that fell Sunday happened from Sept. 2-19, long after contention faded and youngsters were called up to finish off what became a 98-loss, seventh-place season, 32 games behind the Oakland A’s.
The club drew 1.65 million customers to the Kingdome, 12th among the 14 AL franchises. Payroll, less than $30 million, was led by the corpulent Kevin Mitchell, best known for throwing up so violently after a pre-game pig-out that he missed several games with pulled rib muscles.
Still, the ’92 team had a lot of youthful potential that, besides injuries, was compromised by an underfunded, deliberately neglectful ownership and management stuck in a mediocre stadium with low gate and media revenues.
In contrast, the 2011 Mariners have been relatively healthy, but with only modest potential compromised by a wealthy but benignly neglectful ownership and management that has failed to exploit good media revenues and five-state monopoly in a beautiful, taxpayer-funded stadium and a four-team division.
Now at 43-58 heading into three games in New York against the Yankees, the Mariners are more or less where they were forecasted to be after spring training, when the failure to improve the AL’s worst offense from 2010 was apparent to many, if not most, observant schoolchildren.
The pleasant surprise was a starting rotation so potent, thanks largely to the addition of rookie Michael Pineda and a renaissance from Erik Bedard, that it kept the Mariners close enough to pull off a half-dozen wins that were less about baseball and more about Hogwarts.
But Bedard is hurt, Felix Hernandez is losing concentration and the scouting reports have caught up to two-pitch Pineda. The burden of needing to pitch nearly perfect was too much for the rotation to bear, crumbling just as the offense picked up a bit lately ( 29 runs in the last six games).
To lose 15 in a row at mid-season without injuries as a primary cause is an epic jaw-dropper, so weird that the probability tables groan under the weight. But since the streak broke the record set in 1992, the look back at player personnel provokes an intriguing question:
Would a Mariners fan prefer the team of 19 years ago, or the one now?
With so many positions unsettled, and with so much payroll tied up in unproductive or fired veterans, it is hard to imagine a vote for the Naught Elevens. Easy to say, of course, because we know how the careers turned out for many in the the ’92 group. But aside from Pineda, second baseman Dustin Ackley and perhaps outfielder Greg Halman, the other youngsters haven’t gained enough traction to suggest 2012 holds much, never mind 2011. And the rising stars in the system remain in the system, where they should stay for a while, unless anyone thought the recent Kyle Seager experience at third base was a good idea.
That’s why it was suggested here recently that, aside from Ackley and Pineda, the Mariners need to put in play everyone on the roster at this trade deadline, including Hernandez.
It’s a dreadful suggestion for Mariners fans who agonize over lost stars, and scary for those increasingly mistrustful of the judgment of GM Jack Zduriencik. But the biggest problem remains with an ownership that won’t begin a dialogue to move Ichiro and his salary, which was a burden even when he was at the top of his game.
A team can pay a singles hitter $18 million when it has a payroll of $120-$130 million, but not when it’s $90 million, especially with another $21 million dedicated to Milton Bradley and Chone Figgins.
Thanks to a wildly imbalanced roster, the losing streak was was a baseball disaster waiting to happen.
The time for a painful fix is upon the Mariners. Unless, of course, there’s a worse option — it’s unfixable.