SEATTLE – Back in 2001, the Mariners didn’t feel like a World Series contender when the season started.
Sure, the M’s were coming off a season where they were a few wins away from the game’s ultimate stage, falling to the Yankees in six games in the American League Championship Series. But, Alex Rodriguez took the money and ran to Texas as a free agent, so the franchise was down a superstar. To replace him, Seattle brought in Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki and added the then-unremarkable Bret Boone.
Before Ichiro became a household name and a legend in Seattle, he was a player who many pundits didn’t feel was capable of making the jump to the big leagues. He was known as a great fielder with a rocket arm, but his offensive game had its skeptics.
The pundits were wrong, and the Mariners started the season by winning series after series. They took two of three from Oakland to start the year. Then won a series in Texas in a matchup with A-Rod, who fans loved to hate each time he came to Seattle for the remainder of his career.
Then Seattle swept Oakland. The M’s won a series at Anaheim. They took two out of three against the Rangers at home with fans bringing fishing poles with money dangling at the end of their hooks, which were waved with vitriol at A-Rod during each of his at-bats.
All season long, the M’s found ways to win. They just kept winning series after series.
During that 2001 season, I was an usher at Safeco Field, working the Terrace Club level. Every day at the ballpark that season felt special. Wins seemed like foregone conclusions. It’s the only time in my life where I can remember going to watch my favorite team and just assuming they were going to win.
Ichiro quickly established himself as a superstar. Bret Boone emerged as a star as well - hitting 37 home runs, driving in 141 runs, and batting .331. The M’s finished the year with four players hitting over .300 – Ichiro, Boone, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez. On the mound, Jamie Moyer won 20 games. Freddy Garcia won 18. Paul Abbott won 17. And Aaron Sele had 15 wins.
Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki finished the season with 45 saves.
By the time the All-Star Game rolled around (it was in Seattle that year), the team was rolling, people couldn’t get enough of the team that year. Eight Mariners made the All-Star game.
The All-Star Game itself was also something to remember. A-Rod switched positions with Cal Ripken Jr, allowing the Hall of Famer to play shortstop. That move allowed Ripken to set a record for MLB All-Star appearances at shortstop. And, Ripken would hit a home run and claim the MVP award. Ichiro singled off former Mariner ace Randy Johnson in the game and Sasaki recorded the save. It was one of the season’s many unforgettable moments.
However, while the team went on to win 116 games and tie the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the all-time MLB wins record, the M’s would lose to the Yankees in five games in the ALCS. After such an epic regular-season run, failing to reach the World Series left a bitter taste, one Seattle fans have been stuck with ever since.
The 2001 season continues to be the last time the franchise went to the postseason, and is the longest active postseason drought among the four major sports in North America.
However, with Kyle Lewis emerging as a star last season and Jarred Kelenic fueling excitement for the future. And with guys like Marco Gonzalez, Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford forming an exciting core to build around, well, this team might just be knocking on the door of the postseason.
It would be fitting if 2021 was the season that gets Seattle back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. If they don’t, at least we can still hold onto the memories of that 2001 season. It’s not the best consolation prize, but it’s all we’ve got.