Hard work in spring training pays off for Mariners

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Friday, October 6, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

Larry Henry

Sports Columnist

SEATTLE — You remember the sight.

And you remember the thought that passed through your mind.

"What’s this? Jay Buhner laying down bunts? Edgar Martinez laying down bunts? Alex Rodriguez laying down bunts?"

The bunt was something they’d all heard about, but seldom seen.

Asking the Mariners to bunt was like asking Mark McGwire to steal bases.

It was spring training, 2000. And the Mariners were practicing a lost art.

The Mariners bash baseballs, they don’t coddle them.

But here it was being played out before your very eyes. Muscle boys Buhner, Martinez and Rodriguez rolling up their sleeves, flexing their muscles and … poofing the ball gently in the morning grass.

They’d step behind the batting cage where a pitching machine was set up and they’d go tap, tap, tap. Then they’d step into the cage and go boom, boom, boom.

What was the world coming to? Next thing you knew, Lou Piniella would claim he wanted to be a pitcher in his next life.

What he wanted was for the Mariners to adopt a different style of baseball. Some called it "little ball."

That’s a buzzword. What it was was simply real baseball. Walks. Singles. Doubles in the alley. Hit and run. Sacrifices. Sacrifice flies.

The bomb wasn’t out. But the bunt was definitely in.

"Let me tell you, we worked on our bunting more than any team I’ve ever been associated with," Piniella said Friday afternoon. "And you know what? Earlier in the year we weren’t bunting the ball well. And all of a sudden, we got ourselves in a groove, and we laid the ball down well all year."

They laid it down so well that they led the American League in sacrifice bunts with 63. "That’s the hard work we put in all spring," Piniella said.

The boys of summer have come to fall. And on the sixth day of October, all that work they put in last spring carried the Mariners one step closer to the ultimate prize: a World Series championship.

Bald is beautiful. So is bunting.

It was a bunt by Carlos Guillen past a diving Frank Thomas between first and second that brought home Rickey Henderson from third with the winning run in the ninth inning in a tense 2-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox, giving the Mariners a 3-0 sweep in the American League Division Series and a ticket into the AL Championship Series next week.

It was a bunt by Stan Javier that had moved Henderson, running for John Olerud, to third.

It was a bunt by Rodriguez — his first since June of 1999 — that put Raul Ibanez in scoring position in the fourth, then a groundout by Martinez that moved him to third and an infield hit by Javier that produced the Mariners’ first run.

Real baseball.

And after Guillen’s bunt, a real celebration.

Rodriguez was the first Mariner out of the dugout. Piniella bounded up the steps, ran toward the mass of Mariners congregating on the infield and did something you don’t often see out-of-shape, 57-year-old men do. He jumped in the air, tried to spin around and lived to tell about it.

And Tom Lampkin tried to hold onto the magic moment. "Moments like this seem to be so fleeting," said the Mariner catcher, who could only sit on the bench and watch his team during the last half of the season because of a torn ligament in his right elbow that required surgery. "The game can take 2 1/2 to 3 hours, but the actual moment itself takes seconds. You try to hold on and think about it as long as you can."

He remembered the last time he had felt such exultation. "It was when Mark (McGwire) hit his 62nd home run," said Lampkin, who had been a teammate of the St. Louis Cardinal slugger the year he broke Roger Maris’ record. "The building up to it was so long."

Like this year. The building up to this moment took so grindingly long. "Then when it happens, it’s so quick," Lampkin said. "The bunt goes down, it gets by him (Thomas), you run out on the field and the next thing you know … it’s over. That’s one good thing about the 21st Century, I guess, is you have television and replays and tapes."

Another good thing about the 21st Century is we still have heroes, just as we did in the 20th, and the baseball gods were kind enough to let a young man who has known more than his share of adversity stand in the spotlight on a perfect fall afternoon.

Carlos Guillen deserved this. Oft-injured during his budding career, how many times must he have wondered if he would ever stay healthy long enough to have a moment like this, to become a part of Mariner lore?

And to think, two years ago all you heard people say of Guillen was "Who’s he?" He was, of course, part of the three-never-heard-of-them-player package the Mariners got in the trade for Randy Johnson with Houston. And you wonder how Johnson, now an Arizona Diamondback, spent Friday afternoon? Not in the playoffs, that’s for certain.

Guillen grabbed a bat and with Henderson on third, stepped in to face Keith Foulke with one out in the ninth.

In the dugout, Lampkin got up and walked over to Rodriguez. "I just said, ‘I like our chances right here.’ "

Piniella, also liking the chances, had some words for Guillen, who was about to make his first appearance in this series. "Lou told me before I got up to try to hit a ground ball to Thomas because he don’t play much first base," Guillen said.

He swung away on the first pitch. Foul ball.

"The next pitch, I wanted to make sure to follow what Lou told me," he said. "And I did."

At the start of the week, the Mariners were 11 victories away from a World Series championship. Now they are eight away.

Lampkin smiled when asked if he thought the Mariners would ever get this far.

"At the beginning of spring training," he said, "I honestly thought we were going to win the World Series."

Back in spring training, when the bashers of years past became the bunters of a year to come.

And a young Venezuelan dreamed of glory on an October afternoon.

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