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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

Different, Yet Alike—A Tale Of Two Cities - 9/28/2000

As we go into the last few games of the regular season, the Seattle Mariners are the only roadblock between the red-hot A’s and their first division title since 1992. With the endless and bizarre playoff possibilities, the two teams could even meet in the post-season, although that scenario is unlikely. Much has been written about how different these two clubs are. After all, the Mariners are older, have a brand new park and are more recent guests to the October dance. But upon further examination they are not unlike the Athletics. In fact, they are surprisingly similar.

Let’s start with the cities themselves. Both are near the ocean and have cool summer weather. Bursting with high-tech growth and awash in afflunce, it’s fair to say that folks probably drink way too much coffee and spend far too much time on cell phones in both places. Neither can be called a baseball town—football sadly dominates. Both are progressive cities surrounded by more conservative suburbs. And both have a great music tradition.

But this is supposed to be a column about baseball—so let’s look at the teams. The media loves to hammer us with stereotypes, contrasting the laid-back Art Howe with the incendiary, chain-smoking Lou Piniella. But the two skippers are more alike than they’d have you believe. They both come from blue-collar backgrounds, (Howe from Pittsburgh and Piniella Tampa) came of age as players in the 70’s—"back in the day"--and played an aggressive brand of baseball. Solid hitters, but not all-stars, both were destined to manage. In the past few years Piniella has mellowed significantly, although he occasionally displays the fire that helped an overmatched Reds club sweep the favored A’s in the 1990 series. Howe, on the other hand, has been much more animated as of late—it’s either the teams’ success that has him fired up or the fact that he can see things more clearly since his laser surgery. Both manage by the numbers, listen to their pitching coaches, have a relatively quick hook and look to veteran players for leadership in the clubhouse.

In the field, there are striking similarities. Each team has a strong-hitting first baseman, (Giambi/Olerud), an experienced journeyman second baseman/leader (Velarde/McLemore) and a current or future superstar shortstop (Tejada/Rodriguez). Both have veteran power hitters in right field that possess great arms (Stairs/Buhner). Both squads feature young, fast center fielders with bright futures (Long/Cameron). Neither team has a great catcher, although Ramon Hernandez and Dan Wilson can both do the job.

An intriguing connection between the A’s and the Mariners is the recent departure of first ballot Hall-of-Famers; Mark McGuire’s defection to Tony LaRussa in 1997 and Ken Griffey Jr. going home to Cincinatti last year. It is probably not a coincidence that both teams are vastly improved since unloading those superstars. Big Mac was certainly not the "cancer" that some Seattle scribes have labeled Junior, but when someone of that stature departs, others inevitably blossom. Alex Rodriguez has said publicly that when Griffey was here, "he did everything, and we watched. Now that he’s gone we all share the load. It’s better that way." When McGuire left, he told Jason Giambi, prophetically, "you’re the one to lead—go out and be the man."

The most striking likeness, however, is in the bullpen. It was not long ago that Seattle’s relief corps was a bad joke, a horrible unit that could not hold a lead. What a difference a year makes. Anchored by 32-year-old rookie Kazuhiro Sasaki, the Mariners pen is enjoying a solid year. Flamethrowers Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua have flourished and former Red Brett Tomko has come back from a near career-ending injury. Big lefty newcomer Robert Ramsey leads the team in ERA. Former Indian closer Jose Mesa is used frequently, but it is Sasaki, a threat to steal rookie-of-the-year honors from Terence Long, who shuts the door.

The Athletics bullpen has also turned things around, in a big way. When Brian Daubach hit a huge game-winning double off the Green Monster last year—a 12-pitch at-bat off of Tim Worrell-- the bullpen, impotent since ’92, seemed like it had hit rock bottom. How quickly fortunes change. Billy Beane, showing why he is the top G.M in the AL, has, in the course of one year, completely overhauled the relief corps. Jeff Tam, Mike Magnante, Jim Mecir, Jason Isringhausen, Scott Service and even the ancient Doug Jones are, dare I say it—reliable.

The starting staffs have a lot in common. The experience of Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier (30 wins) balance the outstanding young trio of Hudson, Zito and Mulder, much in the same way that veterans Aaron Sele and Jamie Moyer (29 wins) set the tone for John Halama and Freddy Garcia. The A’s pitchers, however, have shut down opposing teams all month and that has made the difference in making up eight games in the standings.

The common thread, of course, is 41 year-old Rickey Henderson, now a Mariner. As much as he’d like to stick it to the A’s, Henderson’s heart will always belong to his hometown. His dogged pursuit of some pretty big records—Babe Ruth’s walk mark will fall soon—keeps him in great shape. The one he really wants badly is Ty Cobb’s run record, and he’ll have to play another full year to reach that. Many people have written Rickey’s baseball obituary—last year it was the infamous pinochle game with Bobby Bonilla inside the Mets’ clubhouse (while one of the most thrilling playoff games of all time was raging on the field) that sealed his fate in New York. Don’t put it past #24 to do something dramatic. Even carrying a poor average and platooning with another former Athletic, Stan Javier, he can wreak havoc. As much aggravation that he has caused all of us, he is still the greatest leadoff hitter ever, and he will be wearing an Athletics uniform when he enters Cooperstown.

So, are these former expansion clubs headed for the post-season? Probably at least one of them will be playing in October. And when they look in the mirror, they might just see…each other.

by Peter Elman