Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Tatonka List: 1996

Back, back, back, back, back...back in time we go.

I've already mentioned two of the three main candidates to be the 1996 Tatonka. Let us put them in context, and add the third.

Does anyone remember 1995? I was in Nirvana that fall. To be sure, most baseball fans, no matter how devoted, were disgusted at the outcome of the 1994 strike. I was included in that number, and it would be August before I could bring myself to return to the Kingdome. But like many other Seattleites, I just couldn't stay away. Not when the "refuse to lose" Mariners just kept winning games. Not when the Anaheim (yes, Virginia, they USED to name teams after the cities that they played in) Angels followed former Mariner icon Mark Langston straight into the toilet to cough up a 13-game lead down the stretch. The one-game playoff was magic.

In fact, I'm one of those saps who bought the commemorative CD, inscribed with so many gems of Dave Niehaus screaming in delight at yet another Mariner accomplishment. "Get out the rye bread..." sorry, can't finish it, or I'll drown my keyboard.

Anyway, the 1995-96 offseason seemed like THE time to turn the corner from mere division winner to dynasty. The problem was, Woody Woodward hadn't the faintest idea how to make that happen.

Well, the real problem was that Woody Woodward was the GM in the first place. But that's another story.

In any case, there was about as much need for player-acquisition-inspired-hope in the offseason after the magical 1995 as there was for the Mariners owners to offer to pay for Safeco Field's construction. Nevertheless, we fans (both "old" and "new") wanted more. Greed is an ugly thing.

Two-thirds of "more" would arrive in the shape of a young left-handed starting pitcher to pair with the Big Unit, along with a solution to the third base problem. Those two players came to the Mariners in the aforementioned deal that sent Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson to the Evil Empire in exchange for Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis. Believe it or not, Russ Davis inspired a certain amount of optimism at the time, as if he were a prospect.

The other possible Tatonka looked the part the best, although he could have stood to gain a few pounds to really make the comparison work. Paul Sorrento had blossomed into a decent first baseman in Cleveland over the last few years, and Woodward inked him as a free agent on 3 January 1996, to a perfectly reasonable deal paying barely over a million dollars a year for two years. Sorrento was needed due to the aforementioned trade, in which home-grown and kind-of beloved Tino Martinez was the price for bringing in Hitchcock and Davis.

Honestly, it is difficult to pick between the three players to crown the Tatonka of 1996. Davis had finally gotten a cup of coffee with the Yanks in 1995 after years of being blocked by that marginal major leaguer, Wade Boggs, and had hit 276/349/429 in 108 trips to the plate as a 25-year old. He was talked about as a prospect, and for most fans (then as now), one simple anointing with the title prospect is sufficient to inspire hope. Who knew the man would be physically unable to field adequately at third base? Or that his best season in a Mariners uniform would come in 1997, when he hit 271/317/488 (a far cry from what a decent "prospect" should have mustered by age 27)?

I'm actually going off the board here to say that it was this collection of moves (Hitchcock, Davis, AND Sorrento) that collectively counts as Tatonka. It seemed at the time like the whole might add up to more than the sum of the parts. Unless new evidence comes to light in a book by San Francisco journalists, I don't THINK that any of this triumvirate had anything to do with Randy Johnson's injury troubles in 1996, nor with allowing Hitchcock to take the mound every five days despite his season-long suckfest, nor with the unwise choices of alternate starters (Bob Wolcott, 28 starts, 5.73 ERA; Matt Wagner, 14 starts, 6.86 ERA; etc. Heck, 15 players started games for the 1996 Mariners, including five by Rusty Meacham and one by Tim Harikkala!)

It took all three together, though, to inspire Kevin Mitchell-sized hopes. (Or to counterbalance Mitchell on a scale, but that is yet another tangent I'll sidestep.)

One-third of CerberusTatonka did in fact perform adequately, as Paul Sorrento put up the best year of his career in 1996: 289/370/507, astonishingly solid numbers. This complemented Griffey, Bone, EdGRR, and ARod quite nicely, so the 1996 Ms scored almost 1000 runs. Of course, the pitching staff surrendered nearly 900, and the team ended up 85-73, a measly 4.5 games behind the Texas Rangers for the AL West crown.

Still, the magic of 1995 would never go away.

This raises an important point. If you have been even mildly horrified by any of the Tatonkas so far, then I implore you (both of you) to stop reading now. After we cross the time threshold marked "1995," we go straight into a REAL horror film.

You've been warned.

Tatonka List
2006 Kenji Johjima
2005 Adrian Beltre
2004 Eddie Guardado
2003 Randy Winn
2002 Jeff Cirillo
2001 Ichiro!
2000 John Olerud
1999 Jose Mesa
1998 Glenallen Hill
1997 Jeff Fassero
1996 Cerberus, er, Sterling Hitchock+Russ Davis+Paul Sorrento
1995 up next


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