The question before the national baseball house regarding the mid-1990s Mariners — the marketing slogan was, “You gotta love these guys,” and everyone happily obliged — was how could the Mariners afford to keep these guys?
The specific reference was to three guys who were among the best in baseball history — Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson. The specific answer was: The Mariners couldn’t.
The Mariners weren’t yet awash in revenues from a new stadium or a regional sports network, nor did any of the three non-amigos want to stay around each other or Seattle. So Johnson was traded in midseason 1998, Griffey after the 1999 season and Rodriguez was allowed to go into free agency after 2000.
In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, a season that broke the Old and New Testament’s combined record of miracles by one. I mean, Paul Abbott, 17-4? After that, he won eight games over his final five seasons in Major League Baseball. Loaves and fishes are tied for second place.
Longtime Mariners fans are well-versed in the saga, which grows more bewildering with each passing year’s absence from the playoffs. It also proves that karma is, in fact, a well, and for the Mariners, the 2001 season drained that sucker dry for the current millennium.
But we’re not talking Mariners today. We’re talking Seahawks, because the footballers find themselves in 2018 on a threshold roughly analogous to the one the baseballers faced 20 years earlier.
How do the Seahawks keep the Legion of Boom?
The answer is the same as in 1998: They can’t keep Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman, for somewhat similar reasons.
But regardless of how and why, the trick is for the Seahawks to emerge on the other side in 2018 with 116 wins. Or in football terms, 14-2.
How’s that, Pete Carroll, for a high local standard? You might need a whole new coaching … .
Maybe Carroll knows.
The Seahawks are in a bind. The three players upon whom the dreadnought-class defense was built to carry the franchise, are almost simultaneously coming to a contractual crossroads.
Chancellor, 30 in April, actually passed through the crossroads, signing Aug. 1 a three-year contract extension for $36 million, $25 million guaranteed. But he lasted nine steps down the road, then was lost for the season Nov. 8 to a neck injury against Arizona that threatens his career.
Although back to a normal life, he figuratively lies crumpled on the path in front of Thomas and Sherman, no one certain if he wants to play, or should play. And if he does play, will he ever again be The Enforcer, knowing his potential vulnerability to life-changing injury?
Whether sentiment played a role in extending Chancellor’s contract isn’t known. Nor has it been disclosed whether the extension’s guaranteed money was an informally agreed-upon compensation that drew Chancellor back empty-handed from his foolish 54-day holdout in 2015, which played a significant role in the Seahawks’ 0-2 start.
What is known is that Chancellor has a guaranteed $12 million this season if he remains on the roster past a Feb. 9 contract deadline for a decision. His salary cap charge is $9.6 million.
If he retires, he loses the $12 million and the Seahawks will still have a $7.5 million cap charge. Should the Seahawks cut him, they would still owe him $19.5 million through his contract’s expiration in 2020.
So the guarantees and Chancellor’s subsequent serious injury make the decision to extend him, at the moment, a bad deal for the Seahawks. It also makes a little more odious the idea of extending the deals of Thomas and Sherman. Both are in their final contract years.
Sherman, 30 in March, is in the last of a four-year, $56 million extension, $40 million guaranteed, and will get $11 million this season. He’s coming off surgery to repair an Achilles tendon torn in the same Arizona game when Chancellor went down.
Thomas, 29 in May, is in the last of a four-year, $40 million extension that made him the game’s highest-paid safety at the time. Of that, $25.7 million was guaranteed, and he’ll be paid $8.5 million this season.
He’s the only one of the three to finish the season healthy, and the one speaking out about his demands in order to keeping playing in Seattle, including threatening a Chancellor-style holdout this summer.
“I want to finish my career there,” Thomas told ESPN after Thursday’s Pro Bowl practice in Orlando. “I definitely don’t see myself going out there not signed.
“As far as my future in Seattle, I think if they want me, you know, money talks. We’ll get something accomplished. Other than that, I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
Thomas’s latest salvo in his public try at negotiations (his “come get me” remark to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett after a game in Dallas was a reckless insult to his teammates) could be another ill-advised blurt, or it could be taken at face value, since another 29-year-old safety was paid well a year ago.
The game’s highest-paid player at the position is Kansas City’s Eric Berry (six years, $78 million, $40 guaranteed), meaning the Seahawks are going to have to go long and go big to keep Thomas around.
As a stand-alone, he’s probably worth it, but the Seahawks already have committed a lot to Chancellor, and they likely won’t know Sherman’s value until after the regular season begins.
It’s possible that all three could open the season in Seattle, at a salary cost of more than $32 million for three positions. It’s also possible that Sherman is the only one left, and he might be limping.
The Legion’s expiration date was always there, but seemingly distant. Events have conspired to make it all of a sudden, instead of the way it played out with the Mariners.
The fact that the Seahawks traded away their 2018 second- and third-round draft picks to fill emergency vacancies in 2017 compounds the problem. Perhaps the quickest, yet most painful, way to improve the draft scenario is to trade Thomas now, when his value is highest. He likely could draw a second-round pick, although having only one contractual year remaining represents a risk for the buyer.
The Seahawks have few cards to play beyond Thomas. Unfortunately for them, they have no Legionnaires in waiting. CB Shaquill Griffin is a star in the making, but he’s already a starter. And the results from hiring veteran free agents to play in Seattle’s secondary have been spotty at best.
Out of stars by 2001, the Mariners pulled off a stunner by going to Japan for Ichiro, who became the Most Valuable Player in his rookie season. So the Mariners/Seahawks analogy ends there.
Although Carroll is in such a desperate mood for change, don’t be surprised to see tweeted photos of him ringside at a sumo doyho in Tokyo looking for D-linemen.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com