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In 1979 my father and I went to a game at old Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota, and, in the late innings, Jim (Kitty) Kaat came in to relieve for the visiting New York Yankees. Kaat was 40 at the time and his best days were past him — although a career as an excellent broadcaster awaited — but a few fans weren’t exactly Minnesota nice to their former star pitcher. Amid polite applause, I heard scattered boos and insults. I remember one comment in particular, from a heavyset leatherlung sitting in front of me. “Hey Kaat!” he yelled. “Get young!”
It’s a comment that could be shouted every time the Seattle Mariners take the field this season.
Want to hear the Rime of the Ancient Mariners? Behind the plate we have Dan Wilson (35) and Pat Borders (41). Around the horn (slowly) it’s John Olerud (35), Bret Boone (35), Rich Aurilia (33 in September), and Scott Spezio (32 in September). The outfield, in comparison, is full of piss and vinegar: Raul Ibanez (32), Randy Winn (30) and Ichiro Suzuki (30). At DH, barely standing, is Edgar Martinez (41).
One would hope our bench would be cracklin’ with youth but it too is groaning with age. Jolbert Cabrera is 31, Dave Hansen 35, and Quinton McCracken is about to turn 34.
Age, by itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing (look at Rene Russo), but older players tend to have a smaller upside than younger players. To put it another way: too much of a bad thing is a bad thing, and the Mariners have a really bad thing going.
Besides “Cocoon,” what does this situation remind us of? The 1998 Orioles, who were one of the last teams to start nine guys in their thirties on Opening Day. And what do the two teams have in common? Pat Gillick. He was GM for the ’98 O’s but stepped down in November. A year later the M’s hired him to much fanfare.
Here’s a little history. Pat Gillick signed with the Orioles — after leading the Blue Jays to consecutive World Championships — in November 1995. In his three years there, before the ’98 debacle, he, and manager Davey Johnson, helped build the O’s into one of the most fierce teams in the American League, who, sans a Jeffrey Maier fan-interference catch or an Armando Benitez fastball, might have been A.L. pennant winners.
You can’t argue with a lot of his decisions. Who wouldn’t want a young Roberto Alomar? For the ’96 season he also signed, Randy Myers (33), B.J. Surhoff (31), and traded for David Wells (33) and Kent Mercker (28).
Then, mid-season, Gillick traded Mercker for Eddie Murray (40), and, like an anti-hippie, he rarely trusted anyone under 30 again. For the ’97 season he signed Jimmy Key (35), Mike Bordick (31) and Eric Davis (34). For ’98, already fielding an old team, he went after, and easily caught, Doug Drabek (35), Norm Charlton (35) and Joe Carter (38).
That’s a lot of veteran leadership. Key and Drabek and Carter would all retire after the ’98 season, and the O’s would finish in fourth place, below .500. They’d reached their tipping point, and haven’t righted themselves since. Want a bad omen? Every year since — every single freakin’ year — the Orioles have finished in fourth place, below .500.
Gillick, in other words, was good for a short-term high and a long-term headache. Helping him in the headache department was owner Peter Angelos, but the fact remains that in Baltimore, like in Seattle, Gillick left behind an aging team that didn’t have much talent coming up through the minor league system. Here’s a comment from an Orioles fan site, Orioles Warehouse, in spring 1998: “And according to John Sickels' minor-league report, it doesn't look like much help is on the way. Of course, since the Orioles refuse to give any young players a chance in favor of aging veterans, it doesn't really matter.”
I don’t know if M’s fans quite get it yet. It’s not just this season that’s over. Unless the front office makes the proper moves, and sacrifices contention in ’05 and maybe ‘06, the M’s may be finished for the decade.
Unfortunately, in place of Pat Gillick, we have GM Billy Bavasi, whose signature off-season move was to sign Rich Aurilia (32) and then trade Carlos Guillen (28) for nothing. As of mid-June, Guillen has the best OPS among regular AL shortstops. Aurilia? The worst.
So what to do before the July 31st trade deadline? Get young fast. I’d trade anyone over 30 with any value whatsoever — and I mean anyone, Hiroshi — for prospects. Unload salary. Replenish our minor leagues. Maybe by 2006 we’ll be contending again.
—originally published in The Grand Salami