From the Heathcliff Slocumb catastrophe to the regrettable departure of Ken Griffey Jr., the Mariners have made some monumentally awful trades over the years. But the worst move, according to Jon Wells, author of a new book about how the team's front office values "profits over pennants," was sending first baseman Tino Martinez to the Yankees after the magical 1995 season.
The book has drawn comparisons to Michael Lewis' Moneyball, but it is far less narrative-driven and more of a history lesson, albeit an admittedly slanted version. Explaining in detail why the team has sucked so bad for so long -- or, optimistically, why they weren't able to sustain the successes of 1995 and 2001 -- might sound like an exercise in masochism, but Wells does an admirable job rehashing the futility without getting too bitter. There is, however, palpable frustration in his writing. The cover image of Griffey sliding painfully across home plate is telling: this is not a warm and fuzzy recounting of the glory days that ends with Junior grinning below a jubilant dogpile of teammates.
As the cover image suggests, Wells' book describes why it can be painful to root for the M's.
In Wells' estimation, the trouble with the Mariners is that the management -- namely team president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln -- is too risk averse, and too stingy to spend the extra $10-20 million in player salary necessary to keep the M's competitive with the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and other high rollers.
Seated in F.X. McRory's with a pair of Oakley sunglasses resting atop his balding head, Wells doesn't pull any punches when criticizing Lincoln and Armstrong, both of whom declined to be interviewed for his book. The author calls the franchise honchos, "very shortsighted and greedy," and argues that the Tino Martinez trade is the most egregious example of those character traits.
The Mariners' number one draft pick in 1988, Martinez hit .293 with 31 home runs and 111 RBI in 1995. A free agent to be making just $1 million, Martinez was due for a raise and the Mariners were reluctant to pony up the dough. Instead, they dealt him to the Yankees along with reliable lefty set-up man Jeff Nelson and reliever Jim Mecir. In return, the Mariner got third baseman Russ Davis and starting pitcher Sterling Hitchcock.
At first blush, that may not seem like fleecing on par with Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Slocumb in 1997, or Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin, Reggie Jefferson, and cash in 1993, but the timing, impact, and symbolism of the swap make it especially galling for Wells. He points out the M's had just secured public financing to build a new stadium, and raised ticket prices by nearly 25 percent. Martinez was a key role player who had said publicly that he only wanted a small raise to stay in Seattle, and he took a modest (by baseball and Yankee standards) five-year, $20 million deal to don pinstripes.
"It's saying 'Now we've got our stadium, screw you,'" Wells says. "Their priorities are making profits, not putting a good team on the field."
Manager Lou Piniella had also been vocal about the need to re-sign that other lefty slugger in their lineup. Martinez had terrorized the hated Yankees, batting .322 with 13 homers against them. But, after the incredible defeat of the Yankees in the 1995 Division Series, with Martinez and Nelson the evil empire won four of the next five World Series. Not only did Martinez succeed, ably replacing retiring legend Don Mattingly, Nelson also had several quality seasons thanks to his wicked slider (not to mention his amazing mustache.) Mecir, the other guy in the trade, went on to have a solid 11-year career in the big leagues.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock posted an ERA of 5.65 in his only season with the Mariners, while Davis, as Wells notes in his book, had more errors (71) than homers (66) during his four-year stint in Seattle. With those numbers, Wells has a fairly legit case for ranking the Martinez trade as the biggest blunder in their blunder-filled history.
As for their more recent blockbuster swap with the Yanks -- Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda -- Wells has a hunch the Mariners made off like bandits. He glowingly compares Montero's bat to Alex Rodriguez's.
"But," he adds cautiously, "only time will tell."
Wells is currently in Japan covering the Mariners tour and season opener, but you can hear him discuss his book at the University Book Store Tuesday, April 3, at 7 p.m.